UA College of Optical Sciences to Celebrate 50th Anniversary With Laser Fun Day
With activities like a laser maze, optical illusion exhibits and hands-on demonstrations, Laser Fun Day is designed to kindle interest in science and technology.

By Amanda Ballard, University Communications
Feb. 21, 2014

As part of its 50th anniversary celebration, the University of Arizona College of Optical Sciences will hold its fourth annual Laser Fun Day, helping light the way for future generations' interest in science and technology.

Laser Fun Day is a free public event that gives elementary and middle school students the chance to learn about the science of optics. The event will take place Saturday from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m. at the UA's Meinel Optical Sciences building, 1630 E. University Blvd.

With activities like a laser maze, optical illusion exhibits and hands-on demonstrations, the family-friendly event is designed to make learning about optics fun and exciting.

Optical sciences and engineering major Ben Cromey is the outreach coordinator for the college's Student Optics Chapter, also known as SOCk, which puts on the event each year with support from the Center for Integrated Access Networks, the Optical Society of America and the Society of Photo-optical Instrumentation Engineers. He said SOCk's goal for the event is to make the sometimes complex sciences behind optics easy to understand and accessible to anyone.

"Laser Fun Day is a place where anyone can learn cool things about light, and how we can use our understanding of how light works to improve science and technology," Cromey said. "It is a place where you can understand some of the behavior of light that one can observe on an everyday basis, such as why the sky is blue, or how rainbows are made."

Attendees will learn how common objects – from DVD players and cellphones to barcode scanners – utilize optics.

"I'm so thrilled that the students come together to do this. It's fantastic," said Tom Koch, dean of the College of Optical Sciences. "It's about fun, but it's also about trying to address the STEM problem and get more kids interested in science."

Koch said it's also a chance to showcase what optics is all about.

"A lot of people think it's microscopes and eyeglasses," he said. "Yes, it is that. But it's also the Internet, medical technology that saves lives, industrial processes, defense, fundamental science and so on. People don't always have an appreciation of how much it permeates their lives."

Laser Fun Day is just one event that will celebrate the college's 50th anniversary. The first was held Feb. 4, when alumni and industry partners gathered at a reception in San Francisco. This fall, Tucson hosts the Optical Society of America's 98th Annual Meeting, being held Oct. 19-23, and the college hopes to transform it into "Optics Week."

In addition, Professor Emeritus James C. Wyant helped mark the 50th anniversary by gifting $10 million for the college to use towards graduate student scholarships – the largest donation towards scholarships the University has ever received. (Read more about the gift in this UANews article.)

The College of Optical Sciences was founded in 1964 as the UA Optical Sciences Center to combat a national shortage of trained optical scientists. Aden Meinel, former director of the UA Steward Observatory, was its founding director. In 1968, James W. Mayo became the center's first graduate. He shares his memories of the college's bustling early days on the College of Optical Sciences' website.

Since its founding, the college has grown into one of the largest optical science educational programs in the country. The college's graduate program was ranked No. 7 in the 2014 U.S. News & World Report Best Grad Schools list. Its faculty has included three Nobel Prize winners and top researchers specializing in optical engineering, optical physics, photonics and image science.

Koch said that the fast-paced industry of optical sciences continues to rapidly expand into fields including technology, health sciences, medical imagery and astronomy.

"It's a good field to have a strong enterprise in," he said. "The pace gets faster and faster."

He added that the college will continue to host outreach programs, like Laser Fun Day, to encourage continual growth for the next 50 years and beyond.

"It's all about enabling new talent to come into the field," Koch said. "It's paving the road for young people to become aware of science. It's enabling discovery, improvements in our quality of our life, and new business opportunities that lead to new jobs. It's an exciting field to be in."