Educational Outreach

The Optics Suitcase and Liquid Crystal Mood Patches

For reprints of papers and materials to help you with your Optics Suitcase, click Library at the right.

Since 1999, the Laboratory for Laser Energetics (LLE) has teamed with the Rochester Section of the Optical Society of America (OSA) to develop and administer the Optics Suitcase program. The principal goal of this program is to provide a demo lesson for college students, scientists and engineers to take into middle school classrooms. It is expected that, by enthusiastically discussing their careers, these visitors can motivate students to take math and science courses in high school, thereby “keeping the door open” for further training to enter technology fields after secondary school. (see Fig. 1)

Fundamental to our approach is the Optics Suitcase, a black plastic box that contains instructions and sufficient give-away materials to conduct a 40- minute in-class presentation that may be repeated two more times. Each Optics Suitcase provides a 14-page “Educational Outreach Presentation Guide” that describes how to arrange for and give a middle school technology lesson. Reusable items in the Suitcase include a portable heat therapy pad, “Happy/Unhappy” balls, a silicon wafer, a silica lens, a slinky, two high quality linear sheet polarizers, plastic cups, a sheet of temperature sensitive liquid crystal film (see Fig. 2), and a set of six presentation transparencies. Giveaway supplies include 75 copies of the periodic table of the elements and 225 “theme packets” that explore color in white light through three handson experiments: The Rainbow Peephole® - color by diffraction (75 ea.), Magic Stripes – color by polarization (75 ea.), and the Magic Patch – color by selective reflection (75 ea., see Fig. 3).

We provide the Optics Suitcase without charge to any organization (e.g., university, public or private school) or company willing to perform outreach. All we require is a letter on institution stationery identifying the responsible person and a plan for use. Replacement “theme packets” are supplied when requested, provided we receive electronic feedback with comments and photos describing completed events. The assembly of Suitcases is done by staff, graduate students and undergraduate technicians working at LLE. Materials are purchased with outreach activity grants obtained from the Rochester Section of OSA, the National OSA, the OSA Foundation, and SPIE. Assembly of “theme packets” is done for us by the physically disadvantaged employees of the Progressive Workshop in Kittanning, PA. The per packet fees charged by the Progressive Workshop are paid for by the Electro-Optics Center in Kittanning, part of Penn State University.

We have manufactured 195 Suitcases as of July 2009. Recipient institutions are located in 22 countries (Australia, Columbia, Canada, Ecuador, France, Germany, Great Britain, India, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Malawi, Peru, Romania, Rwanda, S Africa, Spain, Taiwan, Tasmania and Turkey) and 28 states including Hawaii. Many undergraduate students, graduate students, engineers and scientists in the Rochester area and within LLE have done presentations. One of the more difficult but extremely rewarding presentations was described by former U of R graduate student Alexis Spilman (Optics Ph.D. ’08 - currently a research engineer with Bausch & Lomb) who visited 600 students at Gowa Community Day Secondary School, in Malawi, Africa (see Fig. 4): “I began each presentation by asking the class if they thought women could be engineers. Many students replied with an emphatic “no.” Their response was discouraging but not surprising. In Malawi, as in many African nations, very few girls continue school past eighth grade. An even smaller number go on to college, and, of those who do, a miniscule number study science….The Optics Suitcase was an overwhelming success. Many students were so amazed and intrigued by the demonstrations that they sought me out after school to learn more. We pulled out a woven mat, sat on the ground and performed demonstrations together for the rest of the afternoon and into the night, by candlelight….”

Four years ago, U of R undergraduate students Katie Spencer (Optics ’05), Rupal Varshneya (Optics ’05) and Anne Marino (Mathematics ’05) expanded the Magic Patch “theme packet” into a middle school lesson entitled “Liquid Crystals and Mood Patches”. Several workshops have been given to show teachers how to do the lesson, and its first use occurred with 100 students in five sixth grade science classes of James Carpenter, at Arcadia Middle School in Greece, NY (see Fig. 5).

With financial and material support from OSA, OSAF, SPIE, APS and Tessera Technologies, Inc., we have developed a supplement to the Optics Suitcase presentation called "Experiments with a Laser Pointer and The Optics Suitcase". Consisting of 12 laser pointers and other supplies, the supplement gives six additional experiments that may be carried out with middle school students in conjunction with items from the Suitcase. As part of LaserFEST, celebrating 50 years of Laser Innovation (, we are offering the supplement during 2010. An electronic copy of the Supplement may be obtained by accessing our reprints on this page.

Figure 6

If you are interested in obtaining more information, contact:
Tanya Kosc
University of Rochester / LLE

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