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Professional societies fund future photonics technicians

IEEE, SPIE, and OSA will support students within a new program launched in collaboration with MIT’s Initiative for Knowledge and Innovation in Manufacturing.
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Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito tours a lab at Bridgewater State University.
Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito tours a lab at Bridgewater State University.

Photonics technology, harnessing light particles called photons, are in an increasing number of high-tech applications — from lidar in driverless cars to sensors, data centers, and high-speed communication. Now, three professional societies that have a strong focus on photonics — Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Photonics Society, the International Society for Optics and Photonics (SPIE), and the Optical Society (OSA) — have each offered $75,000 to fund tuition for the first 15 students of a new photonics-technician program that Stonehill College and Bridgewater State University in southeastern Massachusetts will launch this summer, in collaboration with MIT’s Initiative for Knowledge and Innovation in Manufacturing, which leads the AIM Academy project, the education and workforce development initiative of the manufacturing institute AIM Photonics.

All three professional societies have collaborated on programs before, but have never worked together on technician training. They are, however, all acutely aware that their industry members have struggled to fill photonics technician jobs, and have thought about how they might address this need. “For photonics technologies to continue to grow, we need skilled technicians who can bring engineers’ vision to life,” notes SPIE CEO Kent Rochford. “SPIE is delighted to support students of this exciting photonics-technician program as a timely way to address technician shortages in photonics.”

MIT and its partners were determined to have a successful launch year for their technician program. Aware of how often students graduate with debt that they cannot pay, they wanted to design their program so students would graduate debt-free and with a good job. The 15-month program includes three academic semesters and a summer internship, which would give students strong qualifications in a field with plenty of jobs. Stonehill College and Bridgewater State University are confident that they can place students in companies. They didn’t know, however, how to offer them a debt-free education.  

The professional societies were impressed with Stonehill College and Bridgewater State University’s strengths in optics and photonics. Stonehill College introduced a photonics major and minor this year, and Bridgewater State University has 20 years of experience in photonics and optics-related research programs and has already offered courses that will become part of an accredited photonics and optical engineering degree program next year. They also liked the schools’ ties to MIT and AIM Photonics. AIM Photonics is one of 14 federally funded manufacturing institutes launched as part of a federal initiative to strengthen advanced manufacturing in the United States. All three partners were committed to teaching students skills that would prepare them to work in the state’s most innovative companies.

“Burgeoning technologies such as integrated photonics require a robust workforce pipeline of well-trained, talented technicians,” says Elizabeth Rogan, CEO of OSA. “To close the skills gap in the United States and remain competitive, we must invigorate technical education, expand hands-on training and equip the next generation with specialized skills.”

Their professional society investments follow a $3.8-million Massachusetts M2I2 award to both schools to build photonics labs, or LEAPs (Labs for Education and Application Prototypes). In this launch year, the technician students will get a fully-funded education in perhaps some of the best-equipped university labs in the country.  

“We are excited to be part of this innovative program that links industry, higher education, and government to create a local, high-tech workforce,” says Peter Ubertaccio, dean of Stonehill’s May School of Arts and Sciences. “This program will not only be open to traditional college students, but also to community college and vocational high school students, as well as to workers seeking retraining.“

The Office of Naval Research funded the creation of the photonics-technician program with a $1.8 million grant to MIT.  

“To address many of the current and future photonic R&D and manufacturing challenges and opportunities, we must have a highly skilled technician workforce,” says Ed White, chair of the National Photonics Initiative steering committee and AIM Photonics associate vice president for the Test, Assembly, and Packaging Facility. “The NPI applauds Stonehill College, Bridgewater State University and MIT’s AIM Photonics Academy for launching this photonic technician initiative and applauds the Office of Naval Research, OSA, SPIE, and IEEE for their sponsorship of the initiative.”

MIT has played a critical role guiding the rollout of the program. Former MIT postdoc and OSA ambassador Samuel Serna worked on the AIM Academy project this past year, and this fall joined the faculty of Bridgewater State University. Erik Verlage, who is developing a virtual lab of integrated photonics components and systems at MIT, plans to teach one of the technician courses. The technician students will also participate in two day-long boot camps at MIT. 

“I have worked in integrated photonics for more than three decades, and am delighted to share what I’ve learned at MIT with the professors at Stonehill College and Bridgewater State University as they develop a manufacturing and photonics curriculum for the next generation of technicians,” says MIT Principal Research Scientist Anu Agarwal.

All the courses that Stonehill College and Bridgewater State University develop for the program will be available to any instructor or school that wants to launch a similar program. All three professional societies hope the MIT/Stonehill College/BSU program will allow not just 15 new technicians to enter the workforce, but thousands to pursue careers in photonics across the United States. “The program will offer hands-on experience and know-how in everything you will need to gain well-paid positions in the fast-growing photon- and light-based economy,” says Ed Deveney, professor of physics at Bridgewater State University.  “We hope to grow this new program each year, and help other schools offer similar opportunities to their students.”

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