Nicholas Wong (GlobalFoundries, Singapore,, Aaron Danner (National University of Singapore, Singapore,, and Anne-Sophie Poulin-Girard (Université Laval, Canada, served as the conference chairs for the 2021 ETOP conference.

Originating in 1988, the conference on Education and Training in Optics and Photonics (ETOP) is a biennial international conference which brings together leading optics and photonics educators, researchers, and professionals from all levels to discuss, demonstrate, and learn about new developments and approaches to teaching in these fields. ETOP has four permanent co-sponsors, namely, Optica (formally the OSA), SPIE, the IEEE Photonics Society, and the International Commission for Optics.

The most recent edition of ETOP was held on September 8–10, 2021. While originally planned to be hosted in Singapore, it was switched to virtual in lieu of the COVID-19 pandemic. Thus, this year marked the first time that ETOP was held entirely virtually. Fortunately, this enabled not only veteran attendees to participate, but also allowed new participants, whom otherwise may not have had the financial or logistical means, to join the conference. Besides the three chairs, the organizing work was supported by an international committee of 31 members from 13 countries, with an academia:industry representation of roughly 2:1. The virtual conference platform, staffing, paper management, and other administrative processes were handled by Optica, with financial support from the other permanent sponsors.

The conference featured two plenary sessions; a technical program which, along with the main oral and poster sessions, included 9 invited speakers; and a social mixer. The event drew over 180 registered attendees from more than 12 countries, with most global time zones represented. To increase access, the sessions did not follow a fixed daily schedule, but were spread out over multiple time zones. The virtual access was generally appreciated by many attendees, and there were common suggestions to consider a hybrid format for subsequent editions.

Plenary Sessions

Carl Wieman
Professor, Stanford University, USA
2001 Nobel Laureate in Physics

Talk: New Insights on Teaching and Evaluating Scientific Problem-solving

Carl Wieman is known for his contributions to both physics, where he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2001 for his and his co-winners’ work on Bose-Einstein condensates; and education, where he was awarded the 2020 Yidan Prize for pioneering new pedagogies in STEM education. His plenary lecture addressed a key and contemporary issue, that of educating STEM students to be able to solve science and engineering problems in the real world. It turns out that it sounds easier than it actually is. 

He began with a look at brain research and contrasted a prevailing model, where the degree of knowledge retention is fixed for each brain and varies across brains, with a model from new research, in which any brain can learn anything through intense thinking. Here, thinking is analogous to physical exercise; proper techniques of thinking build neuron connections, just like how proper exercise builds muscle. The old advice to keep practicing applies just as well here.

Next, he went into the optics education context and highlighted that typical textbook problems, such as identifying the correct formula for a focal point calculation, or calculating the critical angle for total internal reflection in a fiber, have limited pedagogical value to prepare students to tackle “authentic” real problems, such as doubling the output power of a dye laser within a fixed financial budget, or increasing the bandwidth of a long-distance optical fiber within practical constraints. The latter problems are complex, have no obvious unique solution, and often require figuring out missing information.

To address this gap, he detailed his group’s ~7-year-long research, which included interviewing around 50 successful scientists and engineers on how they solved significant problems during their careers. A surprising discovery was that they identified 29 common decisions that were made almost across the board [1]. These decisions included answering questions like “What information is needed to solve the problem?”, “What to prioritize?”, “How believable is the data?”, and “What can & cannot be concluded from it?” The research went further to categorize the 29 decisions into a thinking framework.

From this, he outlined his group’s next and ongoing work: creating decision-based-problem-solving assessments. Tests on students and skilled practitioners revealed that consensus was achieved among the latter group, but not the former, over the various decisions. To tackle this, he dove into each of the categories comprising the 29 decisions and advised on ways to encourage students to practice making these decisions as part of the learning process.

He concluded with a discussion of which specific decision types were the most important and the most difficult to learn, which he opined are reflective decisions. Again, regular practice is important for such learning. This rounded up an insightful journey into cutting-edge developments in pedagogy.

*Prof. Wieman has kindly made his slides available. Please contact the conference chairs for more information.

  1. K. Price et al., CBE—Life Sci. Educ. 20, 3 (2021).

Judy Donnelly
Professor Emerita, Three Rivers Community College, USA

Nancy Magnani
Sumner School district, USA

Vasudevan (Vengu) Lakshminarayanan
Professor, University of Waterloo, Canada

Talk: ETOP Retrospective: An Update

Judy Donnelly, Nancy Magnani, and Vasudevan (Vengu) Lakshminarayanan are all well-known veterans in the ETOP community. It is apt that they shared a retrospective look at the ETOP conference during the second plenary session.

They began with the geography of ETOP, showing a map of past locations. Two pertinent points were: 1) that ETOP has yet to be held in South America, Africa, or Oceania, and thus, there was an encouragement for educators from these regions to bid for future hosting; and 2) that the COVID-19 pandemic, for better or for worse, has added cyberspace to the list, given that this was the first fully virtual edition.

Past locations of ETOP conference.

 Next, they brought everyone down memory lane, going through each historical ETOP location since the 1988 inaugural edition in San Diego, CA, USA with SPIE and the OSA as co-sponsors. The 1997 edition in Delft, the Netherlands was the first outside the USA and the first in Europe. The 1999 edition in Cancun, Mexico was the first (and to date, the only) one in Latin America. The 2001 edition in Singapore was the first in Asia. In the 2009 edition in St. Asaph, Wales, UK, the IEEE joined as a permanent sponsor. The 2011 edition was meant to be held in Tunis, Tunisia, with Vengu as a co-chair, but due to the Arab Spring situation, it was postponed till 2012 and ultimately cancelled. The most recent physically held ETOP was in 2019 in Québec City, Québec, Canada, which was co-chaired by our 2021 edition co-chair, Anne-Sophie Poulin-Girard, and was co-located with the Photonics North conference.

Thereafter, they shared some interesting analytics, obtained by pouring through the ETOP papers published in the SPIE Digital Library (a total of 1,198 records). In terms of the geo-residence area of first authors, most (37%) were in North America, followed by Europe (33%), Asia (22%), Latin America (5%), and the rest of the world. The percentage of first authors from transitional and developing economies varied from 10% to 30% over the years. Regarding targeted education levels, an overwhelming majority focused on graduate/undergraduate education, with a lower proportion focusing on K–12, and a small but finite portion covering technical/vocational education and continuing education.

Since 2015, several trends were observed. Firstly, technical-level education has increasingly been represented. Secondly, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of outreach and informal education papers. Thirdly, a few emerging topics were identified, namely, active learning, teaching with technology, online education, and interdisciplinary projects. Hands-on workshops have also become a regular feature at ETOP, though it was noted that they are likely only feasible at a physical conference.

Judy and Nancy concluded the talk portion of the session by highlighting a key feature of ETOP that makes it stand out from other traditional conferences, that is, the special events. Over the now more than a dozen editions, conference attendees have always been treated to social events that showcase the host cities’ unique culture, from a medieval banquet in St. Asaph, Wales, UK in 2009, to Bordeaux tasting in Bordeaux, France in 2015; a spectacular nighttime water show of “Hangzhou, A Living Poem” at West Lake in Hangzhou, China in 2017 (the same show presented during the 2016 G20 Hangzhou summit); and a homely sugar shack visit with lots of dancing in Québec City, Québec, Canada in 2019. More than the cultural discovery, these events and the conference in general are regarded by many as “family reunions” for the close-knit ETOP community.

The session then moved into an informal Q&A/discussion, where various suggestions for future ETOP editions were raised and considered. As a fitting conclusion to the lively plenary, the speakers shared a memorable video of conference attendees dancing away to cultural music during the sugar shack event in Québec, perhaps a subtle expression of hope that we could soon resume these “reunions”.

Ray Davies, Photonics Academy of Wales @ Bangor: A Tribute

Presented by K. Alan Shore, Professor Emeritus, Bangor University, UK

K. Alan Shore presenting the tribute to Ray Davies.

Ray Davies is well-known in the ETOP and the broader optics education communities. He upheld a strong hands-on, challenge-based approach to learning which encouraged starting with solutions, not problems. As director of the Photonics Academy of Wales at Bangor University from 2006 to 2021, he led many successful programs, perhaps the most notable of which is the Photonics Academy Summer School (PASS). Here, around 20 upper secondary students would develop, construct, and test applied optics projects over 4 or 5 summer weeks.

He had a profound ability to engage and get anyone interested in optics. For example, he trained a team of primary school pupils to perform with light-based instruments at the St. Asaph Music Festival [2]. He regularly engaged with the ETOP community, presenting at multiple editions, including in 2015, where he elaborated on public engagement in photonics in Wales for the International Year of Light, in which he played an active role.

Ray’s passion for teaching, well into his eighties, and numerous contributions to optics and photonics education and outreach live on through the many lives he has impacted for the better.

  1. K. A. Shore, (2021).

Highlights from Technical Sessions

There were more than 80 presentations given across 14 sessions covering 9 themes, which comprised 5 regular topics and 4 special topics. The regular topics included:

  1. New Methods, Tools, Kits, and Models for Photonics Education.
  2. Curriculum Development and Improvement in Optics and Photonics.
  3. Outreach Education in Optics and Photonics.
  4. Education and Training in Multidisciplinary Environments.
  5. Teaching Optics and Photonics Using New Technologies.

A poster session was also held. The special sessions addressed themes that were of particular relevance to the contemporary optics and photonics landscape. These were:

Education in Quantum Optics

As the quantum discipline gradually moves from abstract to applied, and with emerging technologies such as quantum computing, there is much recent interest in academia to develop quantum science and engineering curricula to meet the growing demand for skilled graduates. This session included updates on programs and teaching approaches to quantum optics. In an invited talk, Paula Heron from the University of Washington set the stage with a treatment on dual-process theories of reasoning, where thinking (in the context of solving problems) occurs in fast (intuitive, heuristic) and slow (reflective, analytical) phases. This model aims to more accurately understand the experiences of learners and to improve pedagogy.

An inquiry approach to learning EM waves and quantum physics was presented by Rhys Adams from Vanier College. In this project-oriented program, students reflect, raise and answer questions, and present findings on the science behind photonics-based Nobel prizes. This helps to promote “photonics awareness” and enhances the students’ ability to connect the science to everyday life.

Other presentations covered improved ways to teach quantum optics. Bahaa Saleh from The College of Optics and Photonics, University of Central Florida, and the author of the textbook “Fundamentals of Photonics”, talked about incorporating quantum information science into an optics curriculum. He carefully explained how to exploit classical-quantum congruences to introduce quantum concepts. For example, taking a matrix optics approach, students learning about polarization and the Poincaré sphere can then go further into the quantum perspective by analogously considering qubits and the Bloch sphere. In another talk, Yuriy Akimov from the Institute of High Performance Computing, Singapore, compared classical and quantum descriptions of light emission, highlighted similarities and differences, and addressed common misconceptions in the quantum domain.

Low-cost Experiments for Higher Education

This session explored enabling learning through affordable, often home-built, kits and apparatus. The kits presented included, among others, a microcontroller-based LED current-voltage curve tracer, by Everardo Vargas-Rodriguez; an interferometer using a household mirror and a beam splitter taken from an old compact disc player, by Ana Guzman-Chavez (both from the University of Guanajuato); and a laser pointer housed in a 3-D printed assembly for demonstrating interference and diffraction, by Christopher Nakamura, Saginaw Valley State University. Besides financial cost considerations, these projects also addressed the challenge of enriching home-based and remote learning.

Clint Bennett from Ateneo de Manila University shared an unconventional program for undergraduates where they investigate special relativity, not through conventional albeit expensive optical equipment, but rather via affordable analogous op-amp-based electronic circuits. The program also provided an opportunity for students to gain research exposure and encouraged publishing their results.

Strategies and Tools for Remote Learning

Remote learning has existed before COVID-19, but the pandemic has put a spotlight on it, making it a necessity in many contexts and accelerating its large-scale adoption. This session looked at remote learning strategies for optics education. Timo Betz from Georg-August-Universität Göttingen gave an invited talk on a LEGO-based microscope design that 9-to-13-year-old students can construct at home.

Several programs were also discussed. Lukas Chrostowski from the University of British Columbia elaborated on the motivations, design, and implementation of the online edX course “Phot1x: Silicon Photonics Design, Fabrication and Data Analysis” which he developed. Matthew Posner from Excelitas Technologies Inc. spoke about challenges and key considerations made to convert a traditionally in-person educational event, the annual Montreal Photonics Networking Event, to virtual. No doubt, the points are broadly applicable to many physical-turned-virtual conferences, including this edition of ETOP.

ETOP Celebrates Holography and the 50th Anniversary of Dennis Gabor’s Nobel Prize

Dennis Gabor is credited “for the invention and development of the holographic method”, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1971. This special session was held to commemorate this milestone 50 years on, and included two parts. It began with a historical perspective, delivered by Augusto Belendez from Universidad de Alicante, going over Gabor’s early Hungarian origins, his work on improving the electron microscope, and his subsequent investigations of “hologram” interference patterns. Contributions to early holography by Yuri Denisyuk (wave photography), and Emmett Leith and Juris Upatnieks (lensless photography) were also acknowledged.

In the second part, John Sheridan from University College Dublin gave an overview of the applications of holography and holograms. He touched on holographic optical elements and noted especially that spatial light modulators and micro-electro-mechanical systems have made possible various holographic technologies such as programmable illumination, optical computing systems, and dynamic switching networks. He also spoke about how holography is modeled and how the underpinning theoretical concepts could be explained in educational settings.

Social Event – ETOP Mixer

Participants in ETOP from around the world got to know one another in a kick-off mixer on Zoom. The Zoom format allowed the hosts to randomly mix participants into small groups (breakout rooms) and many new friendships were forged this way. To facilitate discussion, the various groups brainstormed on questions such as “How can we leverage data to improve optics and photonics education?” and also discussed the merits of online education and how the future of optics and photonics education will change. In spite of the time zone differences, all continents were represented at the mixer.  To organizers of other online conferences, we highly recommend a kick-off meeting in this format.

Attendees in different time zones networked during the ETOP mixer which kicked off the conference.


Plans for the next edition of ETOP, in 2023, are already underway. While the format and location have not yet been officially fixed, the conference has been tentatively planned to be held physically in Singapore. Further details will be updated in due course. We all look forward to the next ETOP!