Science grant helps local college build laser program

The $15-thousand grant came from the National Science Foundation, and with it they hope to fill 20 classroom seats with high school students.

Northwestern Michigan College is hoping to provide the country with some new faces to fill the high demand in photonics jobs, and they recently received a grant to help them do that.

NMC has had a photonics program on and off for the last several years. The original program was cut but it came back in the fall of 2013. Currently there are only two students enrolled, and instructors are looking to change that.

"Photonics is using light to go through a different medium whether it's glass or plastic, air, studying how that light is going to go through lenses off of a mirror, how it can be focused and used to transmit information and to image distant objects," said Brian Sweeney, an NMC adjunct instructor.

The $15-thousand grant came from the National Science Foundation, and with it they hope to fill 20 classroom seats with high school students.

"Right now there are approximately 800 jobs a year that are open to photonics technicians and community colleges are only providing about 300 people to fill these jobs," said Sweeney.

Sweeney says that photonics technology is used in lasers and can be found in things like CD and DVD players, police radar guns, and even in the medical field.

Dr. Bradley Hochstetler works at Cedar Run Eye Center in Traverse City and says that laser technology in Ophthalmology has come a long way in recent years. He also says they use laser technology on a daily basis.

"We treat retina with lasers, we treat patients with glaucoma with lasers, we treat patients with cornea transplants with lasers, patients who have Lasik surgery are treated with lasers, and most recently we do some cataract surgery with lasers," said Hochstetler.

It's also a technology that could be replacing older ones soon.

"Well one of the things is the fiber optics that is coming down the road," said former photonics student, Jackie Miller. "A lot of people are going just from regular wire to fiber optics and being able to work in that field is going to be pretty much an advantage."

"Chances are you may have to move out of state to one of the coasts," said Sweeney. "But there are jobs in the area right now that need to be filled, there's just people that don't have the training for them yet."

NMC will be using part of the $15-thousand grant to pay for a part-time recruiter who will visit area high schools and explain everything about being a photonics technician. The remaining $6-thousand will be used to fund scholarships for students who want to take the class.

The class will be offered to seniors in the Fall of 2014.