Developing Optical Devices and Projects to Improve Undergraduates’ Research and Design Skills

Nathan Lemke
Associate Professor of Physics and Engineering
Bethel University

NeedProject-based learning is generally regarded as an excellent approach for undergraduate engineering education, but also one that requires significant resources including faculty time, lab space, and specialized equipment and tools. We observe a need for relatively simple and inexpensive optics-based projects, for use in both traditional (guided) laboratory curricula as well as open-ended, student-led projects. We are creating a suite of tools and techniques based on optics to be used for teaching a variety of engineering topics. Each tool is intended for non-expert use and without the need for high-end, research-grade equipment.Guiding QuestionIn addition to the design and development of the optics projects themselves, we aim to study how best to implement these projects into an interdisciplinary physics and engineering curriculum. We are paying particular to attention to how aspects of engineering design thinking and learning are present in the curriculum, and whether these projects are beneficial to students’ research and design skills. OutcomesThree tools have been developed to date: a smartphone schlieren imaging system for teaching fluids students about convective flows; a simple laser communication protocol for teaching about waves, signal processing, and information; and a holography-based material deformation apparatus relevant to a mechanical measurement setting. The tools are being implemented in laboratory curricula this semester; early results from studying the teaching and learning with these tools indicate the students enjoy the non-traditional optical tools, and are engaging with the new curriculum. Analysis of student interactions with the tools through lab reports and reflection quizzes is ongoing. Broader ImpactsIn addition to direct mentoring opportunities for undergraduate research assistants who have developed the devices and projects, this work results in project-based learning opportunities for engineering students at our university and any other universities who choose to reuse the tools we have developed. Designs and implementation will be shared via a web repository.


Nathan Lindquist, Bethel University, St. Paul, MN; Karen Rogers, Bethel University, St. Paul, MN; Keith Stein, Bethel University, St. Paul, MN