The University of St. Thomas

NSF0509869

NSF-CCLI Grant #DUE-0509869

An Undergraduate Optics Laboratory with a Biomedical Emphasis

Principal Investigator: Adam Green
Award Dates: 2005-2008
Award Amount: $88,584

The project is improving the upper division physics curriculum by enhancing a recently established laboratory component for the junior-level optics course. The intellectual merit of this endeavor lies largely in its emphasis on biomedical applications and collaborative investigations. In the upgraded laboratory, students perform modern optics experiments to learn fundamental physics, and they acquire practical design and engineering skills by investigating substantive "real-world" problems found in contemporary biomedical optics research. Six sets of experiments are being adapted from undergraduate optics courses at other universities as well as a variety of recent articles in research journals. Students tackle these problems as a community of researchers, just as they would in a technical job environment. Topics include laser safety and eye damage, geometric optics and eye disorders, light scattering in simulated tissues, diffuse reflectometry for heart-rate monitoring, polarimetric imaging of skin cancer, and optical coherence tomography of tissue lesions. While these experiments are unified by the theme of biomedical optics, the physics and techniques involved are applicable to a wide variety of optics disciplines. The broader impact of this project is five-fold. First, the biomedical emphasis of the optics laboratory matches current research efforts in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics professions. Second, a growing number of journal articles on physics pedagogy demonstrate how such an interdisciplinary theme can provide diverse and attractive opportunities for students after graduation. Third, the focus on life science applications has the potential to attract new students to the physics program and diversify its demographic profile. Fourth, the optics course plays an important service role for the new Electrical Engineering Department, and it will benefit the growing fraction of engineering students who seek employment with local biomedical industries. Fifth, the topics of these laboratories overlap closely with student-centered research programs at the university.