During community outreach events conducted by collaborating optical societies in Southeast Michigan, interactions with pre-college educators suggest that the cost and perceived fragility of optical science materials makes them unattainable for many classrooms. In response, we began exploring whether discarded consumer electronics could be utilized for low-cost, hands-on STEM education and outreach. We have tested several approaches to disassembly of these items as an exercise in reverse engineering with elementary school students. Unwanted point-and-shoot cameras are in excess and too often discarded as e-waste containing a spectrum of high quality optical and electromechanical parts – lenses, prisms, telescoping viewfinders, motors, solenoids, and gear mechanisms. The first project examined was the disassembly of cameras by students with volunteers available to assist and explain the mechanisms of the internal electrical and optical elements. Processes, safety precautions, and tips for disassembling cameras as well as VCR’s will be discussed. We also describe how the recovered components can be utilized in reassembly projects which can be tailored in complexity to suit any age group. While no formal data was collected, we asked questions of the students throughout the activities and strove to analyze the impact on their interest in science. The disassembly was very popular, regardless of a student’s prior interests and experience. Lenses and other functional scrap parts were obtained using simple tools and allowed for a range of technical topics to be examined. This project appears to invoke curiosity, self-confidence, and process thinking skills which are essential in attraction to STEM education and success in STEM careers.

Pinky-Powered Photons - A 2015 International Year of Light Project

The 2015 International Year for Light led to the creation of many unique hands-on activities about optics and photonics phenomena and applications. Pinky-powered Photons is an activity created by the Michigan Light Project during the International Year of Light to encourage creativity in learning about light. It is a low-cost project. Participants make and take home a colorful LED light powered entirely by their fingers. Younger visitors "package" the electrical element into their own animal creation or shake light while older visitors actually solder the electrical parts together and then create their own design. Shake lights contain a piezoelectric element connected to two LEDs inside a small condiment container. This paper describes the assembly of this hands-on project where participants use ordinary piezoelectric guitar pickups to make a colorful LED light that is powered by human motion. It also details the learning objectives and outcomes of this project as well as how to implement it in an outreach event or classroom.

Have you ever wondered how we are able to send information across long distances to satellites or over oceans to other continents? Laser communication systems encode information in the laser light by modulating its intensity. When the light hits the receiver, the changes in intensity are converted into an electrical signal and the information is recovered. The principle is used in Bluetooth, the internet, and cellphone communication.