Lasering in on experimental physics education

Waterloo wins 2023 Gentec-EO Laser Lab Awards competition By Jordan Flemming University Relations Josh Crone, an undergraduate lab development specialist at the University of Waterloo, recently scored a win in the 2023 Gentec-EO Laser Lab Awards. This global competition is dedicated to enhancing optics labs in educational institutions, ensuring students have access to industry-leading measurement instruments. Collaborating with Nobel Laureate Donna Strickland, Crone paved the way for the win by developing a compelling narrative on how this equipment would benefit physics education at Waterloo.

The Gentec-EO Laser Lab Awards call for applicants to detail their plans for employing Gentec-EO materials in their labs and explain the physics principles students will grasp from these resources. Competitors must hold instructional roles, conducting laboratory demonstrations or experiments at a college or university.

The awards program offers a wide array of cutting-edge prizes. Winners can select their prize from among five options, each designed to enhance laser research capabilities in their respective institutions.

Strickland’s lab selected the PRONTO-SI , a portable photodiode-based laser power meter. This prize will provide first-year physics students with hands-on experiences that foster scientific curiosity.

In the upcoming first-year physics lab course designed for Honours Physics Majors, approximately 50 students per year will have the unique opportunity to engage in experiments that explore the fascinating phenomenon of frequency doubling.

This process involves transforming near-infrared light into blue light using a powerful class four laser. The PRONTO-SI will play a crucial role in this experiment, allowing students to explore and understand the intricate relationship between peak power, average power, and intensity within the laser system and understand why the light spectrum changes.

The experiment was designed as part of graduate student Urja Nandivada’s work on her master’s specialization in physics education.

"My main work focuses on using ultrafast lasers to develop experiments in undergraduate optics based on current best practices in physics education pedagogies," states Nandivada.

Strickland’s lab is actively working on a series of "Gee Whiz Labs" designed to ignite the fascination and interest of new physics students.

"These labs offer access to high-level equipment and experiments typically reserved for fourth-year or graduate students, bringing them to the first-year level," says Crone.

This initiative aims to inspire students by exposing them to exciting experiments, such as laser tweezers, which is closely related to the Nobel Prize-winning work of Arthur Ashkin who won the Nobel Prize in 2018 alongside Strickland.

"The equipment setup is almost complete, and we are conducting safety reviews - as you can imagine safety is very important, especially with working with class four lasers," says Crone.

Physics plans to roll out these experiments in phases, with the first-year Honours Physics course set to debut soon. Subsequently, the experiments will also be integrated into the third and fourth-year Modern Physics lab course, benefiting approximately 75 students per term.