NSF Grant Boosts New Photonics, Laser Education At Baker College of Flint

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FLINT (WWJ) – Baker College of Flint has received nearly $200,000 in a grant from the National Science Foundation that fast-forwards the state’s first photonics and laser technology associate degree program being launched fall quarter. Classes begin Sept. 30.

The NSF award allocates $199,757 over three years to help create Baker’s photonics program, advance and enlarge Baker’s photonics lab, educate the first group of students, and develop outreach programs that encourage high school students to consider careers in photonics. The result will be a model for other colleges interested in photonics nationwide.

The grant is part of the NSF Advanced Technological Education program that supports efforts to improve the knowledge and skills of technicians who work in high technology fields.

“This is the forefront of a new technology that has the power to impact many industries and help diversify Michigan’s economy,” said Anca Sala, engineering and computer technology dean at Baker College of Flint. “Photonics is a growing, high-tech, high-demand field. We’ve listened to many of the 50-plus companies in Southeast Michigan that work in the areas of photonics and lasers. Their expressed need for trained technicians is loud and clear. Graduates of our program will be well positioned for successful careers in Michigan or anywhere in the nation.”

According to the National Center for Optics and Photonics Education (OP-TEC), the approximately 30 colleges in the U.S. that offer photonics instruction are estimated to graduate 250 to 300 technicians annually. This is about one-third of the industry’s projected demand of 800 new photonics technicians each year through 2017.

“Recognition by the National Science Foundation is a tribute to the growing depth of our engineering and computer technology division,” said Julianne T. Princinsky, Baker College of Flint president. “Dr. Sala has shown vision, initiative and determination in bringing us to this point. The new photonics program is an important asset in Baker College’s portfolio of advanced technology programs as well as an important asset to manufacturing in Michigan and the country.”

This is the first NSF grant awarded to Baker College of Flint. Only slightly more than one in four proposals for NSF grants are approved for 2,000 educational, business, science and research organizations each year.

Sala said that recent state and national efforts to increase the development of photonics helped propel Baker’s NSF proposal. The National Photonics Initiative was created in May to push for awareness of, funding for and investment in photonics.

In Michigan, Mi-Light, a photonics cluster, was formed December 2012 to support the state’s photonics-related businesses with the goal of growing the state’s talent pool to expand the photonics industry and stimulate innovation. Sala is a founding member and inaugural secretary for Mi-Light.

Michigan collaborators

“We will do whatever we can to support Baker’s new program,” said Michelle Stock, inaugural board chair of Mi-Light and president of mlstock Consulting. “Dr. Sala was highly engaged in our meetings while we were forming Mi-Light last year and 2011. She was ahead of us with respect to addressing workforce development. She had already been reaching out to survey employers in the state and had identified that photonics was an important, growing industry in Michigan that wasn’t being supported.”

Stock said that Mi-Light has earmarked money from a Michigan Economic Development Corp. grant for Baker’s program to create an endowment and two scholarships.

Need is great

At Mi-Light meetings, Sala is surrounded by representatives of companies — such as Advanced Photonix of Ann Arbor, IPG Photonics of Novi, and Rigaku Innovative Technologies of Auburn Hills — in dire need of photonics technicians. Many assisted with Baker’s NSF grant application by writing letters of recommendation.

Establishing a photonics technician training program in the state was one of the primary reasons that Richard Kurtz, CEO and president of Advanced Photonix, became a founding board member of Mi-Light. API provides opto-electronic solutions and terahertz sensors for process and quality control worldwide, and employs 65 in Ann Arbor and 60 in its manufacturing plant in Camarillo, Calif., near Los Angeles.

“We need a shorter training program for people who want to work as high-tech photonics technicians,” Kurtz said. “We have the Ph.D.s, but it’s the trained technicians who fix the machines, work to manufacture and assemble products, and perform testing. These are good paying jobs. The new Baker College program is a huge step to close that gap in our educational system.”

Mike Klos, general manager of IPG Midwest Operations, said his company has found it difficult to find qualified people for many years. IPG sells lasers for automotive and other manufacturing tools. Forbes just named IPG Photonics the number-five fastest growing tech company, behind LinkedIn, Facebook, Apple and 3D-printer-manufacturer 3D Systems.

“We hire many of our technical people from competitors; others come from Germany and Russia,” Klos said. “We haven’t even found anyone to work as an intern for the past two years.” Klos is also a member of Baker’s advisory board for the photonics program. He helped validate Baker’s curriculum based on real-world needs.

Bill Bowman, sales engineer at Rigaku Innovative Technologies (RIT), predicts rapid growth for the photonics industry. RIT employs more than 1,000 people worldwide in the manufacture and support of its analytical equipment.

“The manufacture of sensors, tracking devices and all forms of optics will expand as using light as a sensing and measuring tool becomes more prevalent,” Bowman said. “Trained talent is not meeting our demands today. It is difficult to find technicians with the skills or even the vocabulary to begin to understand our processes.

“Most of the technicians at our Auburn Hills facility have various bachelor’s degrees in engineering or physics, then they receive on-the-job training. They spend a significant part of their time performing metrological tasks. Graduates of Baker’s associate-level program will fully understand measurement tools and techniques and should be able to assist in this area.”

The NSF grant

Specifically, the NSF funds will support:
* Creation of specialty courses based on industry input
* Recruiting students, including those from underrepresented minorities (women and other minorities) and veterans groups
* Offering short-term training courses to adults already working in the field, who have been displaced from their jobs, or who want to change careers
* Promotion of photonics to high school students through outreach activities in schools and at Baker College summer camps

The grant also enables Baker College to obtain additional lab equipment and increase the lab’s capacity to accommodate larger classes. Sala has already acquired approximately $60,000 of industry-grade lab equipment through purchases and a recent donation by IMRA America of Ann Arbor, a global company that develops ultra-fast fiber laser technologies for commercial applications.

The Baker photonics lab was designed to be similar to an industrial lab. It currently has a complete set of lasers and optical components, including mirrors, lenses, and gratings, and test equipment to measure optical beams that will provide the hands-on experience that is stressed across all Baker programs.

OP-TEC, for which Sala is college coordinator, and Indian Hills Community College in Ottumwa, Iowa, southeast of Des Moines, are named in the NSF grant abstract as collaborators in creating the photonics academic and outreach programs.

OP-TEC is also funded by the NSF ATE program and provides assistance to colleges and universities for creating and implementing successful photonics programs. IHCC has offered a photonics technician program for more than 25 years.

“We’ll exchange information about the programs, about the best practices to promote photonics and to recruit students, and we will visit each other’s campuses to review our labs,” Sala said.

Dan Hull, OP-TEC executive director, said that starting salaries for graduates of two-year associate degree photonics programs range from $40,000 to $50,000. Recent graduates have had an average of three to four job offers.

Hull explained how he compared technicians to scientists and engineers: “Scientists discover, engineers design, and technicians are the geniuses in the laboratory and masters of the equipment.”

Baker’s photonics program

The two-year Baker associate program will prepare students to build, test, modify, install, operate, calibrate, maintain and repair laser and electro-optic devices and systems.

Photonics is the science of using light to generate energy, detect information or transmit information. A photon is a unit of light. Photonics enables scientists to create new applications for lasers and optics and allows engineers to design new equipment and procedures.

Lasers weld and cut metal, are used in lighting, illumination, medical applications, additive manufacturing, and are used to improve procedures and equipment. Sala said that because of this diverse use of lasers, jobs will be available in many industries, including manufacturing, medicine, defense, aerospace, robotics, telecommunications, environment, solar energy and lighting.

For more information about Baker College of Flint photonics and lasers program, contact admissions at (810) 766-4000 or Jodi.Cuneaz@baker.edu.

The largest private college in Michigan, Baker College is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission and is a member of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools. It is a nonprofit higher education institution, serving more than 35,000 students on 12 campuses and in three satellite locations. Baker grants certificates and associate, bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business, health sciences, education and human services, and various technical fields, as well as a doctorate of business administration. As a career college, the Baker College system is pleased to report that 97 percent of its available graduates are employed. For more information about Baker College, visit http://www.baker.edu.

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