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Lasers light the way for budding scientists

Young women from local schools get a taste of emerging technology at USC Viterbi event

By proclaiming 2015 as the International Year of Light, the United Nations is raising awareness about how light-based technologies provide solutions to global challenges in energy, education, agriculture and health.

To celebrate IYL2015, the scientific community held an International “Introduce a Girl to Photonics” Week from Oct. 3-11 with events taking place around the world.

At USC on Oct. 10, more than 550 young women from Los Angeles middle and high schools visited the Epstein Family Engineering Plaza for a hands-on look at photonics technology. The students had received a personal invitation to attend from USC Viterbi School of Engineering Associate Professor Andrea Armani.

“Our target audience was fifth- through 12th-grade girls, but everyone was welcome,” said Armani, holder of the Fluor Early Career Chair in Engineering, who designed the event like a science fair where the young women could engage in meaningful conversations with USC Viterbi students as well as volunteers.

‘That’s science’

Like many of the visitors at the event, Armani’s interest in science and engineering began in her youth.

“I fantasized about being an astronaut,” she said. “Growing up in Memphis, we had lots of blues, jazz and rock ’n’ roll, barbecue and soul food, but our science experiments consisted of watching grass grow.”

optics event

Photonics industry volunteers introduced girls to lasers and optics. (Photo/USC Viterbi)

Armani remembers the day she and her class went to a science center, where a chemical experiment went awry.

“I mixed two chemicals together and watched it foam out of the beaker and across the floor. Though not the goal, for me it was like ‘wow — that’s science.’”

That first eureka moment propelled Armani into an illustrious career as a chemical engineer. In 2013, Popular Science magazine named her one of their Brilliant Ten.

Enticing a new generation

The USC event made a lasting impression on its visitors.

“I want to be a scientist when I grow up and make lasers and robots,” said Anabelle Bianca, a sixth-grader from El Portal Elementary School.

Scientists are cool.

Anabelle Bianca

Why? “Because scientists are cool,” she said with a smile.

“We come to events like this to recruit the next generation of scientists,” said Luke Sweatlock, a research scientist at Northrop Grumman’s Aerospace Research Laboratories and one of Armani’s volunteers. “More diversity on our teams only makes our research stronger.”

Sweatlock recreated one of Newton’s famous experiments — the geometry of a prism — using only a cellphone and stuff he found in his garage.

“It’s so cool to see the look on their faces when they physically touch what was once an abstract math problem to them,” he said.

Armani believes events like this can shape the way math and sciences are taught in our schools.

“One of the classic ways of teaching science is to start with the equation. What if we started with the application? They would be hooked. Why? Because the application is more exciting.”

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Lasers light the way for budding scientists

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