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Using online, game-based simulations to train photonic technicians and engineers

MIT wins $5 million grant to develop a virtual lab that will prepare students for jobs in industry and government.
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Interactive training simulations use 3D virtual environments to create a playground for photonics experimentation.
Interactive training simulations use 3D virtual environments to create a playground for photonics experimentation.
Image: Erik Verlage, Trevor Morrisey, and Ryan Kosciolek

For more than 150 years, MIT has revolutionized scientific and engineering education, which in turn has driven industrial innovation. Early students were the first to experience hands-on education, rather than learning by rote, and to travel to practice schools. Recently, MIT has added ambitious online learning initiatives, offered both to the MIT community and, through edX, to the world. Increasingly, MIT is leading the creation of curricula that combine online and in-person training — a perfect combination of traditional and contemporary educational tools.  

The rapidly evolving field of integrated photonics — a technology that shrinks signals of light to the sub-micron scale and funnels them into light-guiding circuits — entails designing, fabricating, packaging, and testing novel photonic microchips. Companies are eager to hire technicians and engineers but need help training an inexperienced workforce. 

The solution: create game-based interactive learning simulations.

The U.S. Office of Naval Research’s Manufacturing Engineering Education Program awarded Thomas Lord Professor of Materials Science and Engineering Lionel Kimerling’s group, the MIT Education Arcade, and MIT’s Office of Open Learning a $5 million, three-year grant to develop multimedia online training modules around simulations of photonic integrated circuit components. Cloud computing data centers, self-driving cars, and medical diagnostic chips use these state-of-the-art chips. Kimerling is also education and workforce executive of AIM Photonics Institute, and as part of his work with AIM Photonics, he oversaw the development of simulation prototypes used in an MITx course this spring, enabling students to see how changes in photonic device design affect the propagation and confinement of light signals.  

“Games allow students to explore, and make both good and bad design decisions,” says Kimerling. “They prepare students to tackle real-world applications, supplementing what they learn experimenting in labs and using large software packages.” 

The Virtual Lab, Kimerling says, will help build students’ knowledge and prepare them for jobs in industry and government.

MIT has teamed up with Clemson University and the University of Arizona on this grant. The Clemson University Center for Workforce Development has years of experience creating learning modules using virtual reality simulations for education in robotics and aviation, and Clemson launched, an online platform for manufacturing workforce training that includes a library of learning modules. The College of Optical Sciences at the University of Arizona provides distance education in optics and photonics for students worldwide. Some of the simulations developed in the collaboration will be hosted on the site. Kimerling’s group and MIT Open Learning will work closely to systematically field test and assess student engagement with simulations in new upcoming integrated photonics MITx courses. “We have the potential to give students tools that I could only dream of when I was in school,” says Erik Verlage, a postdoc in Kimerling’s group who will help lead the project.    

AIM Photonics Institute is one of 14 public-private manufacturing institutes started during the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama to spur growth in advanced manufacturing within the United States. In the third year of the new grant, the team will work with some of the other 13 manufacturing institutes’ education leads to create game-based education simulations for their unique technologies and learning goals.

Although the primary learners in integrated photonics have been the engineers who design these light-guiding chips, the new simulations will be helpful to technicians who operate the equipment and tools to manufacture and test the chips. MIT is developing a technician-certification program with Stonehill College and Bridgewater State University, and both schools will incorporate the simulations in their lesson plans. By including a varying number of parameters in the simulations, Kimerling’s group and Eric Klopfer’s Education Arcade can customize the complexity and learning challenges of the simulations. 

With this grant, MIT will bring together a diverse team to make difficult science and engineering topics easier to master for the next generation of photonic practitioners.

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