Professors design new 3-D approach to teaching optics

Contact: Scott Nelson

A National Science Foundation grant will allow two Mississippi State University professors to develop a new way to teach optics, a branch of physics dealing with light and vision.

The National Science Foundation has awarded $100,000 to John Foley of physics and David Banks of computer science to design an interactive computer graphics system for use in upper-level optics courses taught in physics departments and various engineering departments throughout the country.

Currently, physics and engineering students learn about optics from textbooks or drawings presented on overhead projectors, which portray a two-dimensional black and white figure.

"These traditional methods of communication are less than ideal for imparting a comprehensive understanding of the many optical phenomena, ranging from laser beams to polarization to holography," Foley said.

"What we need is a system in which the user, whether it be the professor lecturing or the students working on their own, can call up the phenomenon of interest, enter the values they want, and then watch a three-dimensional, animated visualization of the phenomena," added Foley.

The system is called The Optics Project (TOP). It will contain eight modules that will cover topics typically presented in a junior/senior optics course. Included are subjects such as geometrical optics, wave simulation, reflection and refraction, and others.

"Each module will contain several options which investigate different phenomena. Three of the modules are already near completion," said Foley.

The project has an advisory board made up of six optics and computer graphics experts who will look at the modules and make suggestions for improvement.

Physics departments from several universities in the Southeast, including the University of Mississippi, the University of Alabama and Auburn University, have agreed to examine TOP and consider it for use in their optics courses.