BME PhD Student Runs Boston’s First Family Optics Day

BME graduate student Tim Ford explaining polarization to Family Optics Day attendees
BME graduate student Tim Ford explaining polarization to Family Optics Day attendees

The ninth floor colloquium room in the Boston University Photonics Center typically serves as a backdrop for PowerPoint presentations and heady, equation-rich discussions of the latest light-bending technology. But for one Saturday in mid-September, the room appeared more like a science fair. For three hours, more than 200 kids, parents and teachers milled about 10 tables at which volunteers—many of them BME graduate students—introduced hands-on demos highlighting different aspects of the field of optics. Energized by hot dogs, fruit and other snacks, participants built everything from kaleidoscopes to beaded bracelets that change color when exposed to the sun’s ultraviolet light. 

So went the Boston area’s first Family Optics Day, an event aimed at exposing young people to the fascinating world of optics through tangible, interactive activities. Sponsored by the BU Chapter and New England Professional Section of the Optical Society of America (OSA), the event was coordinated by BME PhD student Katherine Calabro, president the BU Chapter and a council member of the New England section, with assistance from several BU Chapter graduate student members.

“Above all, we wanted the kids to come away from the event being excited about science—particularly optics, which often gets short shrift in schools—and wanting to learn more,” said Calabro. “We hope that it makes them think optics is interesting, and perhaps even ‘cool.’”

By presenting demos of familiar phenomena such as rainbows, polarizers in sunglasses, UV light from the sun and corrective lenses in eyeglasses, Calabro and her co-organizers sought to impart a greater understanding and appreciation for the way optics works and affects us in our everyday lives.

“Being able to understand why and how things work—from why the sky is blue to why a red shirt looks red—makes you appreciate the world in a whole new way, and makes you want to learn more about it,” Calabro said.

Toward that end, demos included a “jello optics” table, where attendees cut lens shapes out of jello and used laser pointers to understand how lenses (like glasses) work by bending and focusing light rays; and a table where participants mixed cyan, magenta, and yellow-colored water, and learned that the these three colors, widely used in printer cartridges, are the actual primary colors—not red, blue and yellow, as commonly believed. At other tables, volunteers demonstrated polarizers, diffraction gratings, biomedical applications, infrared heat sensing cameras and a laser maze.

“Family Optics Day was a great success,” said Associate Professor Joyce Wong (BME, MSE). “My son, daughter and her classmates attended, and they loved the hands-on nature of the program.”
 

BME graduate student Bobby Liu demonstrating biomedical optics applications to Family Optics Day attendees
BME graduate student Bobby Liu demonstrating biomedical optics applications to Family Optics Day attendees