At Photon Camp, undergrads help 'illuminate' optics for visiting high school students

Students using a telescope.
Sarah Bjornland uses telescope to help instruct visiting high school school students during the Institute of Optics' annual summer Photon Camp. Photo by J. Adam Fenster.


Sarah Bjornland trained a telescope on a diagram at the far end of the fifth floor in Goergen Hall recently to demonstrate resolution versus pupil size to visiting high school students.

Sean Reid explained a CO₂ laser in adjoining Wilmot Hall -- and helped those same students use the laser to engrave their names onto wooden disks.

The Institute of Optics’ Photon Camp is primarily aimed at introducing high school students to optics as a potential college major and career. But it also benefits Institute undergraduates like Bjornland and Reid, who serve as mentors during the camp. They have an opportunity to demonstrate what they’ve learned at the Institute. And they also are asked to give demonstrations and lead projects that require them to expand their knowledge.

Teaching others, after all, is one of the best ways to master a subject.

sean reid “I’ve learned more about diffraction grating this week than I ever have in the past,” said Reid, a rising junior who is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in optical engineering. “When you teach a subject to students you have to know it inside and out, and you have to double check everything you say to make sure what they’re learning is correct and what you’re saying makes sense.”

Daniel Smith, the Institute’s undergraduate program manager, said the aim of having undergraduates serve as mentors is two fold.  "Having our undergraduates serve as both team mentors and project managers provides them an opportunity to develop their organizational, time management, and leadership skills.   Our undergraduates were tasked with taking a group of students who may or may not have known each other previously, molding them into a cohesive team, establishing program milestones and objectives, and then delivering a product on a specific date and time.  These tasks are representative of the skills that are required for one to be successful in the engineering workforce.”

Eighteen rising seniors from four high schools in the Rochester area, and from Bergen County Academy in Hackensack, N.J., attended morning lectures by Institute faculty, got hands-on experience afternoon labs, and visited a local optics company and the Laboratory for Laser Energetics during the weeklong camp.

They also split into six teams, each mentored by an Institute undergraduate, to work on a “capstone” project.

Reid’s “Team Quantum”, for example, used optical, atomic force and scanning electron microscopes to study how diffraction grating splits and diffracts light, and how this is applied in the optics industry.

sarah bjornlandBjornland, a rising sophomore who is also pursuing a degree in optical engineering,  helped “Team Wave” compare an IPhone 5S camera to a Nikon D80 DSLR camera -- to understand how image quality relates to the quality of a camera’s optics.

“I really hope that this furthers their interest in optics, physics or any other type of science, and that they now know whether this is something they really like, and is something they want to stay with,” Bjornland added.

Camp participant Daniel Duguay, a rising senior at West Irondequoit (NY) High School, said he appreciated the weeklong opportunity to “learn about what actually happens in optics.” The camp gave him a “better feel of do I really want to go into this and so far the answer is yes.”

Working with undergraduates was a bonus, he said. They  “can really give you a feel for what it’s like” to attend the Institute, Duguay said. “They can talk to you informally about what they like and don’t like.”

Brianna Corte, a rising senior from the Bergen County Academy, concurred.

“I think it’s really helpful to have the undergraduate students involved because they are only a couple of years older than we are, so they know what we’re going through. “ Besides, she added, “they really knew what they were doing because they were able to do this in labs in college. So when we had questions, they could answer them.”

“I would definitely recommend this to other kids if they’re interested in optics.”

To learn more, contact Smith at

Team Prism at camp.
On the last day of camp, teams particpated in a poster session to demonstrate findings of their capstone projects to visiting family members, Institute of Optics faculty members and fellow Photon Camp participants. Panagiotis Koutsomitopoulus, member of Team Prism, explains differences in illumination and fluorescence among incandescent light bulbs, compact fluorescent light and light-emitting diodes.