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Clemson and MIT to develop ways to teach high-tech job skills

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Clemson University officials announced a collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on a new way to teach the skills needed to work in a high-tech industry that is key to creating a faster wireless internet.

The collaboration with MIT will give students and technologists across the country a new and interactive way to learn about manufacturing the light-based technologies that are crucial for a host of next-generation products and services, including high-speed wireless networks, according to a news release.

The experience will be designed to teach students about photonics manufacturing but not in the traditional book-and-lecture format. Students will learn in online “modules” that incorporate virtual reality, augmented reality, videos and programs that teach but in some cases feel like video games, the news release said.

Researchers expect their approach to make complex topics in photonics manufacturing more accessible to a wider range of students. The team developing the curriculum includes researchers from the MIT, Clemson and the University of Arizona.

Photonics manufacturers make optical fiber and a wide range of devices used in modern technology, including the internet, lasers and CT scans.

It’s a large and growing global industry, with a domestic cluster of companies already making considerable amounts of optical fiber in Georgia, North Carolina, and the Northeast, said John Ballato, the Sirrine Endowed Chair of Optical Fiber at Clemson. Optical fiber will be in even higher demand as 5G wireless networks are installed and begin carrying vast amounts of data that enable new technologies, such as car-to-car communication, he said in the news release.

“You’ve got to put even more fiber up the poles, down the roads and into buildings,” Ballato said in the release. “Some of these companies are setting up entirely new fiber-fabrication facilities just for the coming 5G expansion.”

A special focus of the project is integrated photonic, a technology that uses circuits powered by light and is rapidly emerging within the advanced manufacturing scene. This integration of light and electronics can be used to do things such as send signals from computer chips directly into optical fibers at ultra-high speeds, the news release said.

AIM Photonics, one of 14 Manufacturing USA institutes, is leading the charge to develop advanced manufacturing capabilities in this new area, specializing in fabrication, testing, and packaging. Lionel C. Kimerling, the Thomas Lord Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at MIT, is helping support the education and workforce development activities of AIM Photonics, and these educational modules will be used for training employees to meet workforce demands in integrated photonics, according to the release.

About 40 educational modules will be rolled out over the next three years, and researchers plan to package them as the virtual manufacturing lab. Some will target technical colleges, while others will be geared for undergraduates and graduate students at universities and four-year colleges, according to the release.

The modules will be offered through Clemson’s EducateWorkforce.com website. 

The new modules are aimed at doing for photonics manufacturing what researchers from the Clemson University Center for Workforce Development have done for other forms of advanced manufacturing. Modules created there have been used in 22 states, including South Carolina, according to the release. In one module, students navigate an automotive factory from a first-person viewpoint similar to a video game, but they search for safety violations instead of zapping space aliens.

The researchers leading Clemson’s share of the photonics manufacturing project are Ballato and Kapil Chalil Madathil, the director of technology operations for the Clemson University Center for Workforce Development.

“We can then develop the relevant curricula,” Ballato said in the release. “As the nation’s premiere optical fiber research and education program, Clemson is well positioned to partner on this project. Clemson is one of only a handful of universities in the world with the level of expertise we bring to the table.”

Chalil Madathil will take the information he learns from Ballato and other subject matter experts, including several at MIT, and then work with a team to create the modules. He said that virtual and augmented reality have the potential to transform multiple fields of study, including photonics manufacturing.

“In this project, we’ll be working with an interdisciplinary team of photonics engineers, scientists and workforce development specialists to design the next generation of learning systems and environments,” Chalil Madathil said in the release. “I’m excited about the modules we will deliver, which could have a profound impact on the photonics workforce and building the next generation of technicians, engineers and scientists.”

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