Dozens of children huddle around a thin, purple laser bouncing back and forth inside of a transparent plastic tube, as a student volunteer explains that this tube is what makes the Internet possible. In the next room, a pickle is being electrocuted as a way to demonstrate how streetlights work, while just around the corner kids are lining up to gaze down a seven-foot kaleidoscope.
These were a few of the scenes at the UA College of Optical Sciences' Laser Fun Day, an annual STEM outreach event held on Feb. 28 on the University of Arizona campus. The event is organized by the UA Student Optics Chapter, or SOCk, in affiliation with the International Society for Optics and Photonics, or SPIE, and The Optical Society, two of the largest and most prestigious professional societies in the field of optics.
"When most people hear about optics, they think of eyeglasses or lasers," said Benjamin Cromey, vice president of SOCk and an undergraduate in the College of Optical Sciences. "We want to bring people here and show them that optics is involved in every aspect of daily life — from medicine to the Internet connection that lets you pull up that cat video on your phone."
Consisting of 25 demonstrations, the event required 110 volunteers to coordinate. While most of those were students, representatives of Raytheon, Edmund Optics and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers also hosted demonstrations. Laser Fun Day attracted more than 1,400 attendees of all ages.
This year has been declared by the United Nations as the International Year of Light, a global effort to raise awareness about the importance of optical sciences and light-based technologies. To celebrate the occasion, Laser Fun Day focused on five key areas where optical science has the most transformative power: communications, health, agriculture, energy and education.
"Optics is everywhere, in so many different ways," Cromey said. "The goal of Laser Fun Day is to showcase just how impactful the optical sciences can be."
Indeed, the demos spanned a wide variety of fields, ranging from a model eye illustrating the effects of aging on vision to a photo op with an infrared camera where people could see the warmest parts of their faces. It also was possible to learn how a 3-D television works, explore the bizarre effects of a parabola-shaped funhouse mirror and visualize the displacement of air by a flame using a technique called Schlieren imaging.
By far the biggest hit at the event was its signature laser maze, which recently was redesigned thanks to a grant from SPIE. Participants in the laser maze had to navigate their way through a complex network of lasers in an otherwise pitch-black room, calling to mind a scene out of a science-fiction movie.
Cromey and other student volunteers, who conducted surveys showing that more than half of the crowd had never before been exposed to the optical sciences, emphasized that the most important aspect of the event is to open young minds to the possibilities of light science.
"Without outreach events like this one, some students might never get exposed to optics," said Cromey, who first discovered a love for optical science in high school. "For me, the most rewarding part is seeing the look of awe on kids' faces the first time they see themselves through an infrared camera or look down a giant kaleidoscope. It's a fantastic sight to see and makes all the months of work worth it."