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Georgia Institute of Technology


Yearlong LaserFest Takes Technology to Students

Common applications of lasers motivate schoolchildren in STEM disciplines.

Published: Friday, May 28, 2010 - 09:26

Children enjoy an exhibit demonstrating the applications of lasers. The GTRI researchers developed the museum-quality exhibits and are making them available for loan to K-12 schools.

Credit: Brian Childress

A dozen hands-on, museum-quality exhibits created by Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) volunteers will help celebrate the 50th anniversary of the laser’s invention. The exhibits can be seen—and test-driven—as part of LaserFest, a yearlong event that volunteers hope will help attract more U.S. students to the STEM disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

The GTRI exhibits were displayed during WeatherFest, an American Meteorological Society event held recently at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta.

“Our display at WeatherFest was met with significant enthusiasm,” reports Michael E. Knotts, the GTRI senior research scientist who led the exhibits’ design team. “We encountered strong interest in having our exhibits appear at other LaserFest events throughout the year, as well as at Atlanta-area schools.”

WeatherFest and the LaserFest exhibition were visited by more than 5,000 children, parents, teachers, and other interested individuals. On hand from GTRI were 11 researchers as volunteers, presenters, and booth personnel.

“We experienced tremendous positive feedback during the exhibition,” says GTRI senior research scientist Jack W. Wood. “Among the most satisfying were the ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ from the kids as they approached our rather sizeable and eye-catching exhibition booth.”

Children enjoy an exhibit demonstrating the applications of lasers. The GTRI researchers developed the museum-quality exhibits and are making them available for loan to K-12 schools.

The GTRI’s exhibits feature a variety of laser-related topics and activities, including:

• Experiments to let onlookers explore the phenomenon of light diffraction by using a laser to see a magnified shadow of the hairs on their fingers

• Ways in which lasers have become part of daily life, including DVD recorders, and laser pointers

• A “laser fountain” showing that light can follow pathways—in this case a stream of falling water

• A reproduction ruby laser modeled on the world’s first laser, built by Theodore Maiman at Hughes Research Laboratories in 1960

• A laser telephone that allows people to converse via a beam of light

• A hologram that looks like a real 3-D object, thanks to lasers

• A laser light show that users can control, creating effects ranging from simple to complex

• A laser ray box that illustrates how different shapes of glass such as lenses bend rays of light in useful ways

• A speckle exhibit that demonstrates a special property of laser light called “coherence”


The GTRI researchers developed this demonstration showing how laser light can be bent. The project was part of LaserFest, a yearlong celebration of the 50th anniversary of the invention of the laser.

Credit: Brian Childress


The GTRI laser exhibits will be available for display at area schools for the indefinite future, Knotts says. Since the World Congress Center event, the exhibits have toured about a dozen metro-Atlanta schools, he adds. By June, more than 10,000 schoolchildren will have experienced them.

On April 24, one GTRI laser exhibit was shown at the Cambridge Science Festival in Massachusetts, while another 10 exhibits were displayed at Atlanta’s Fernbank Science Center as part of National Astronomy Day. “The excitement of the children was thrilling,” says Lon Pringle, Signature Technology Laboratory director, who volunteered for the Atlanta event. Four days after the Fernbank appearance, three of the exhibits were shown to Congress at the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, D.C.

Primary credit for GTRI’s LaserFest effort belongs to Knotts and Wood. Knotts oversaw the exhibits’ design, assisted by Wood and other GTRI personnel, including Tedd Toler, Jon Swarner, James Fraley, and Jeremy Wooten. Most of the funding for the laser exhibits was provided by GTRI. In addition, Irvine, California-based Newport Corp. donated $4,000 worth of optical components used in the exhibits.

“The LaserFest effort indicates GTRI’s commitment to public outreach that can foster education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics,” says Tom McDermott, interim GTRI director. “Budget cuts have forced many schools to curtail field trips and reduce spending on special programs. By taking our laser exhibits directly to schools, we can help make sure that science-related curriculum enhancement doesn’t suffer.”

The GTRI has put some LaserFest material online at http://eosl.gtri.gatech.edu/Portals/2/LaserFest%202010%20Program.pdf.


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Georgia Institute of Technology

The Georgia Institute of Technology is one of the nation’s top research universities, distinguished by its commitment to improving the human condition through advanced science and technology. Georgia Tech’s campus occupies 400 acres in the heart of the city of Atlanta, where 20,000 undergraduate and graduate students receive a focused, technologically based education.