Laser Light Show: Classroom Edition
In the classroom, it is a teacher’s job to bring students into the light — figuratively and literally. Light is a mandatory resource for nearly all workers in nearly all industries, and understanding how light is created and how humans can manipulate it is fascinating and beneficial.
Photonics, the study of photons or light particles, is a rarely breached STEM field in classrooms around the country, but it is one that is incredibly useful to future workers. Lasers in particular are becoming ubiquitous, moving from the humble pointer to tools of immense power and utility. Classrooms everywhere can gain by integrating laser lessons and equipment. Here’s why lasers are creating an ed tech revolution:
Learning About Lasers
Before teachers bring laser technology into the classroom as tools, students should fully understand the basics of optics and photonics. Light is primarily a particle, but it also behaves like a wave. Visible light is diffuse and consists of multiple wavelengths, which allows us to discern different colors in the world around us. Teachers can delve into how light is created at the atomic level — energy released as electrons move to different orbits — and how refraction and reflection work when light passes through different substances.
While “laser” has become a common word in the modern lexicon, it is actually an acronym that stands for, “light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation.” Lasers are a special type of light generated when electrons in special atoms become excited. Using electrical current or another laser, scientists can force special glasses, crystals, or gases to absorb energy, making their electrons jump to a higher-energy orbit. When those electrons return to their normal state, they emit light, and because the photons are all the same wavelength, the light remains focused for vast distances and appears as a single color.
Lasers come in all colors and sizes. In nature, lasers can last milliseconds or eons and typically occur around astrophysical phenomena, like comets and black holes. On Earth, scientists can produce lasers as wide as three football fields that remain focused to the moon and back; modern lasers can generate more than 500 trillion watts of power. On the other hand, manufactured lasers can also be minute and precise, cutting a line just 10 microns thick — which is about the size of two red blood cells. Lasers can last for short pulses, billionths of seconds long, or they can be sustained indefinitely, as long as energy is input.
Thanks to their seemingly limitless variability, lasers are changing the world — which is perhaps the most important lesson for students. Today, lasers are used for diverse purposes, from human surgery to reading data from CDs and DVDs. Lasers are essential tools in manufacturing, used for cutting metal and other materials as well as measuring distances, temperatures, and more. They are seeming more applications in the military, both as an observation tool and a weapon, and they are used in nearly every field of science. With this in mind, teachers should help students begin practicing using the tech that already impacts their lives — and will continue to do so in the future.
Teaching With Lasers
Most teachers already make free use of laser pointers to direct students’ attention at particular areas of their lessons. Most classrooms around the United States are also equipped with laser projectors, which provide higher-quality images and last longer than projectors of the past. However, there is a wealth of additional laser technologies that will assist teachers and students — both in learning about lasers and gaining other valuable knowledge and skills.
Laser cutters and engravers can help students learn about lasers’ mutability in size, motion, and power. Plus, teachers can combine use of laser cutters and engravers with other subjects and units. For example, students might learn CAD software to use laser cutters to make pieces for architectural models to learn design and construction. Further, they can learn photo-editing and illustrating software to use laser engravers for graphic design or branding practice. The same flexibility is true of other laser processes and devices, including laser surface modification, laser ablation, laser annealing, and more.
Lasers are not only applicable to academic science, the military, and manufacturing. It is beneficial for all students to grasp the scope of lasers, for they are undeniably increasing in importance and relevance. Teachers and students benefit by adding lasers to classrooms, and there are so many ways to do so successfully.