Optics in the Outback

What we did

At CUDOS we place a heavy emphasis on outreach activities and one of the main aims of this is to further educate high school students in introductory optics. We attempt to achieve this through classroom visits, undertaken by a team of dedicated physics honours, Masters and PhD students who are affiliated with CUDOS and are undertaking further studies in the area of optics. During these visits, the students give presentations which feature a range of interactive demonstrations in a way that supplements the existing syllabus while remaining both educational and entertaining!

A very successful extension of the school visitation program has been the Optics in the Outback initiative where a team of 2 – 3 students spends a week travelling to rural Australian high schools, at no cost what so ever to the schools! The aim of this is to both educate and entertain students from remote locations; we provide them with opportunities to interact with university physics students and experiment with hands on optical demonstrations they would not otherwise have access to.

What we offered

We commence with an interactive talk which begins at basic optics before branching into topics of current research. These talks are slightly informal, with students encouraged to participate through asking/answering of questions. During this time we reward good answers and enthusiastic questions with prizes such as LED bouncing balls and laser pointers. The exact content of the talk is slightly flexible depending on the teachers preference and the level of the audience, but topics that are often covered include; a general introduction to optics, total internal reflection and its use in optical fibres, optical communications (the national broadband network), lasers, metamaterials which can be used to ‘bend’ and modify light and the ‘Harry Potter’ invisibility cloak.

Throughout the sessions we encourage the students to ask any questions they may have for us and allow them to experiment with a variety of interactive demonstrations including the Wavelength Division Multiplexing Sound System. This system encodes data from two separate sources (preferably students iPods, if they are allowed them) onto different coloured beams of light, which pass through an optical fibre together and are then directed to a sensor. This sensor is attached to a speaker and when both beams are directed towards the sensor both iPods can be heard. The students use coloured filters to separate out only one of the light beams, at which point only that iPod can be heard. In this way, the concept of Wavelength Division Multiplexing (used in many communications systems) is demonstrated to the students.

Our presentation also includes information about what life is like as a university student, what we actually do as physicists and what exciting opportunities await those who choose to pursue a careers in physics. We show our acclaimed careers video “YourFuture OwnIt”.

Where we have been

In 2011, Optics in the Outback reached over 450 students of various levels with great success. Travelling in an anticlockwise 2500 km loop around New South Wales 11 separate schools were reached within areas such as Yass, Hay, Wilcannia, Tamworth and Newcastle. Read more about the 2011 trip and see the video. In 2013 a CUDOS team carried out another, more intensive Optics in the Outback trip through regional and Southern NSW – visiting schools in Nowra, Ulladulla, Bateman’s Bay, Narooma, Bega, Eden, Yass, Young and Orange. Twelve presentations were given to over 350 students on topics such as “Crazy lasers: how do they work and what do we do with them?”, “Harry Potter and the Metamaterial Invisibility. Please read the SPIE report. Both tours have been outstanding successes and CUDOS intends to make this a regular annual event.

CUDOS acknowledges the generous funding from the Optical Society of America (OSA) and the International Society for Optics and Photonics (SPIE) who have supported the Optics in the Outback program.