Optics and photonics conference proves illuminating

Last month I was among more than 230 educators from the world of optics and photonics to descend upon Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, China, for the 14th International Conference on Education and Training in Optics and Photonics – or ETOP for short.

Though this is the first time the conference was ever held in China, ETOP has a rich history. To date, 866 papers have been published in its proceedings to record developments on novel teaching methods for students from primary schools to senior postgraduate levels.

This year’s was certainly busy: it featured one plenary, two workshops, 32 keynotes and invited talks, eight parallel oral sessions and more than 100 posters. The meeting’s location and topic offered a natural insight into the growth of the Chinese higher education system in optical sciences and photonic technologies – the resources, both human and infrastructural, and investment into this area of education and research are simply mindblowing.

As a humble science communicator and disciple of public engagement with research, the meeting offered me a unique and encouraging perspective into how my experience of local community and institutional education work ties into the bigger picture. I was presenting work that my student-peers and I had led into taking physics outreach into cathedrals. My objectives were to offer other educators the lessons learned for curriculum adaptation to work in non-traditional environments and methods of evaluation for class-based outreach. All of this will eventually be available as part of the open-access online proceedings, and I look forward to reading more from others on the matter.

The conference gave me a new insight into pedagogies and tools for the delivery and evaluation of educational and engagement activities. The presentation that struck me the most was the plenary session. It was really more of a performance, given by Harvard University’s Eric Mazur, who explored the meaning of teaching, which I now understand as the construction of knowledge. Teaching must be an emotional process if it is to be efficient. The student goes through the steps of reflection, opinion-forming and discussion to become better informed. The teacher has a role to facilitate the transfer of information. The class becomes a safe communal space for peer-learning. Teachers are mentors, and students build knowledge through connecting the information with their personal experiences.

I had never thought much about my teaching. I have put myself in positions where I could do it, and I developed my teaching platform through experienced mentors, peer-collaboration and practice. I have genuinely enjoyed the process of finding what works, and much more the activity itself – so much so that during the conference I jumped at the opportunity to do some more optics outreach with 40 Chinese primary pupils! The engagement and teaching has been a driver of my enthusiasm throughout my research career so far, and long may it continue.

Overall, I’ve been struck by the overwhelming desire of the community to better the global education system and prepare the skilled workforce needed for the next photonics technology revolution.

  • For further information on travel grants available to IOP members, and details of how to apply, check out the Support and Grants pages of the main IOP website
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Matthew Posner

Matthew Posner

Matthew is a doctoral researcher at the University of Southampton’s Optoelectronics Research Centre. His research investigates the design, fabrication and testing of photonics integrated circuits for applications in large-scale quantum networks. He is an active science communicator and combines his research work with outreach, science communication and public engagement with research activities. In his free time, Matthew cycles, climbs and goes mountaineering. You can read more from him on his International Research and Outreach blog.
Matthew Posner

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