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GTRI Researchers Take the Laser Project to D.C.

Published: May 17, 2012


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After packing up 10 museum-quality exhibits, Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) researchers Michael Knotts, Jack Wood and their team boarded a plane for Washington, D.C., where they showcased their work on lasers to the crowd at the USA Science & Engineering Festival, held from April 27-29, 2012.

GTRI’s Laser Project joined the College of Computing’s augmented reality demonstration and College of Engineering’s nanotechnology presentation to showcase some of Georgia Tech’s contributions to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education. The combined display was just one of the more than 3,000 other interactive exhibits in the Walter E. Washington Convention Center.

An estimated 150,000 visitors attended the festival, with more than 4,500 attendees visiting the Georgia Tech booth. The Laser Project presented students with multiple opportunities to learn about optic, lasers and laser technology. Exhibits include a large laser fountain that demonstrates the piping of light by a stream of water and a ray box with 43 lasers made visible by a stream of moving fog so that students can learn about lenses and prisms. The exhibits were housed under a tent to allow for better viewing of the lasers.

“The kids’ faces would light up with anticipation when they approached our laser exhibits,” Wood said. “As the children worked with them, they realized that we brought them something cool that they would otherwise never get to see. This ‘cool factor’ tricked them into learning something, and they didn’t mind at all.”

Knotts and Wood, researchers with GTRI’s Signature Technology Laboratory (STL) and Electro-Optical Systems Laboratory (EOSL), respectively, started the Laser Project in summer 2009 as a response to the American Meteorological Society.

“They requested we participate in LaserFest, a year-long celebration in 2010 of the 50th anniversary of the invention of the laser, organized by the Optical Society of America and the American Physical Society,” Knotts said. LaserFest presented the duo with an opportunity to create a hands-on, mobile science museum that goes directly to the target audience: school children.

“In the presently austere climate for education budgets, field trips have become less common,” Knotts said. “Many students will not have the opportunity to see a science museum unless it is brought directly to them. One of my most exciting experiences happened when a child in a Title 1 school came to me and said ‘I’ve changed my mind. Now science is my favorite subject.’”

The two researchers have used the Laser Project to help students develop an interest in STEM classes. So far, the group has reached roughly 19,000 people in 33 venues. Setting up and breaking down the exhibits usually takes around five hours for each event, but this festival took nearly three times as long to set up—not including the shipping. Previously, three of the exhibits went to Washington, D.C., while one of the exhibits traveled to Cambridge, Mass., for a science expo, both in 2012.

Knotts and Wood, along with several other dedicated GTRI volunteers, have spent countless hours showing the exhibits around metro Atlanta, as well as supporting the previous expos in D.C. and Massachusetts.

Researchers from both STL and EOSL, along with employees from the GTRI’s Director’s Office, Support Services Department and Communications assisted with the trip to the Festival. View photos of the event on GTRI’s Facebook page.