Baker College receives NSF grant to boost Michigan’s photonics education

CADILLAC — Baker College has been awarded a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant of nearly $512,000 to advance photonics and laser education at Baker College and in Michigan through June 2020.

Baker College students Riley Ragsdale, of Clio, Richard Rogers, of Hartland, and Brian Heilner, of Fenton, perform an experiment on the diffraction of monochromatic light in the college’s optics and photonics lab. (Courtesy photo)

Baker College students Riley Ragsdale, of Clio, Richard Rogers, of Hartland, and Brian Heilner, of Fenton, perform an experiment on the diffraction of monochromatic light in the college’s optics and photonics lab. (Courtesy photo)

The goal, according to Anca Sala, Ph.D., Baker College dean of the College of Engineering, is to educate more students to become qualified photonics, laser and fiber optics technicians to meet industry need – in southeast Michigan and nationally.

The NSF grant supports development of curricula for educational institutions, expands Baker College’s photonics laboratory at the Flint Township campus, establishes laboratories at Baker College campuses in Auburn Hills and Jackson, and enables multiple information sharing events that involve educators, manufacturers and employers.

“We are working to get photonics – the science and technology of light – into the mainstream of science and technical education at all levels,” Sala said. “This will draw more young people into the field early on.”

Starting salaries for graduates of two-year photonics programs range from $40,000 to $50,000, according to OP-TEC, The National Center for Optics and Photonics Education.

“Scientists discover, engineers design, and technicians are the geniuses in the laboratory and masters of the equipment,” is how Dan Hull, OP-TEC executive director, relates the job of a photonics technician to others in the field.

The NSF grant allows Baker College to add the photonics and laser technology program to rosters at the Auburn Hills and Jackson campuses. It’s now offered at the Flint Township campus. New course modules will focus on photonics applications in emerging areas such as autonomous driving, integrated photonics and high-power lasers in manufacturing.

Photonics curriculum will be shared with other higher education institutions and K-12 educators as well as NSF Advanced Technological Education Centers located throughout the country. Important goals of the grant are to introduce photonics as a field of study in Michigan Career and Technical Education programs, develop pathways from high school to two- and four-year degree programs, and showcase available career opportunities.

Annual photonics symposiums are on tap, beginning early 2018, as well as workshops to introduce photonics to K-12 teachers and faculty at higher education institutions.

The Baker College program was in response to the urgent need for trained photonics technicians by employers. There were jobs in southeast Michigan that went unfilled. The need is still great. A 2016 Department of Labor O*NET report estimates 17,100 photonics, laser and fiber optics technicians will be needed between 2014 and 2024. That’s 1,710 per year, yet today two-year programs produce fewer than 400 qualified graduates annually, according to OP-TEC.

“Expanding photonics education is critical to Michigan’s manufacturing as well as health care, national security and defense, and other sectors,” Sala said. “Photonics and lasers are literally the cutting edge of science and technology in most everything.”

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Posted by Ken Grabowski

Ken is News Advocate’s education reporter. He coordinates coverage for all Manistee County schools and West Shore Community College. He can be reached by phone at (231) 398-3125 or by email at kgrabowski@pioneergroup.com.

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