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Program is geared toward placing graduates with jobs

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JOSH KULLA - A green laser, which typically uses helium to obtain its color, is shown in the optics laboratory at Oregon Tech's Wilsonville campus.The hissing of pneumatically supported tables is just one clue this is no ordinary laboratory.

Built to stabilize incredibly sensitive lenses, lasers and other optical equipment and instruments, the tables are one of the signature features of the new optoelectronics lab at the Oregon Institute of Technology’s Wilsonville campus.

Optoelectronics is the study and application of electronic devices that source, detect and control light. It’s usually considered a sub-field of photonics, and is offered at Oregon Tech as a sub-field of electrical engineering degrees, both under- and post-graduate. Applications are far reaching, from consumer electronics to military and industrial uses.

For Oregon Tech, the lab also represents another facet of the university’s consolidation in Wilsonville last year of four Portland area campuses. Oregon Tech hasn’t had a dedicated optical lab of this type in some time, and worked in the past with the Oregon Medical Laser Center at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland.

With the $30 million refurbishment of the former InFocus building in Wilsonville, however, the university now has a new facility with advanced equipment that school officials envision as providing another gateway between academia and industry.

“We do a lot of pragmatic stuff,” said Scott Prahl, optoelectronics program director. “We do a little of everything, and the idea is the student should be able then to have the background to pick up whatever highly specific skills are necessary in the company they work for.”

In the Portland metro, the ties to optoelectronics and its various applications run deep. There are more than 90 companies in Oregon, the bulk of them in the metro area, now hiring engineers with expertise in optics. Nationwide, the university estimates that more than 1,200 engineers with these skills are being hired annually.

The problem for industry — and the opportunity for universities like Oregon Tech — is that American institutions currently are turning out just 230 engineers with optical skills a year.

“This is the only program of its kind in the state of Oregon,” said Cristina Crespo, the program chair for Oregon Tech’s renewable energy engineering department. “Again, there are a lot of companies in Oregon and elsewhere that are looking for this expertise. So we’re trying to get the word out there so they are aware of it.”

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JOSH KULLA - Oregon Tech Professor Scott Prahl works with a laser in the optics laboratory at the university's Wilsonville campus.

Wilsonville company FLIR, for example, manufactures a range of advanced infrared-based optical equipment for the Department of Defense and other clients. Located in the same office complex as Oregon Tech, it and neighboring Rockwell-Collins are just two of numerous companies that now are collaborating with the university.

Ultimately, Crespo said, placing engineering graduates in the workforce is one of the university’s top priorities. In turn, Prahl added, the school’s interaction with industry, where company representatives sit on an industry advisory board, helps drive curriculum and instruction.

“They (FLIR) do a lot of infrared detection,” he said, “and we cover a little bit of infrared, but we’re not talking about the latest and greatest high-density infrared imaging systems. Those are $10,000 each and we can’t afford any of that stuff, but if they learn the basics, those basics are always the same.”

With the opening last fall of the Wilsonville campus, Prahl saw the chance to reconstitute the university’s former optics laboratory from the main Oregon Tech campus in Klamath Falls. With the help of a few students and colleagues, the lab now is functioning at a high level, and the five students currently engaged in the optoelectronics section of their electrical engineering degrees are working on a variety of projects.

“We brought the equipment up and got it installed and started using it for the first class,” Prahl said. “So far we have a really small group, five students so far, because no one knows about the program.

“We’re stealing students,” he quipped, “who had come here for other reasons.”

That doesn’t, however, necessarily include current graduate student Peter Dekluyver.

When it comes to lasers, Dekluyver isn’t satisfied with merely studying them. He’s currently building a working green laser using almost entirely parts and equipment purchased at local hardware and electronics shops.

Designing a zoom lens

In addition to lasers, the optoelectronics program will soon have students designing an optical zoom lens. Essentially a stripped-down version of those found on anyone’s Nikon or Canon camera, this lens will provide focal lengths up to 500mm and teach students how the various glass elements work together to transmit light as well as distort the final image when projected onto a digital sensor.

“The challenge is to minimize distortion, whether it’s chromatic or angular,” Prahl said. “In making a zoom lens you have all sorts of trade-offs. You want a range of distances, and you want to keep everything in focus. Doing it well is incredibly hard and that’s where a lot of optics people spend their whole lives.”

For Prahl, students like Dekluyver are likely to find lucrative employment more rapidly than many of their university counterparts in other fields.

“I want this to continue the process of placing OIT graduates in industry,” he said. “Back when the program was in Klamath Falls, their graduates were snapped up very quickly by a lot of different companies and all those students are now in management roles in these companies and they’re all doing quite well. And I think I want to continue that. That’s sort of the long-term goal, to renew that stream of people.”

Crespo agreed.

“It’s a field people might not know about,” she said. “There are a lot of high-paying jobs in this field, and in this economic situation it’s ridiculous that companies in Oregon can’t find the people with the right set of skills within the state.”

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