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Liberal-arts-centric Stonehill College in Massachusetts has started offering certificates in specialty areas for teachers and last year added certificate training in advanced manufacturing and photonics, the technological uses of light in such things as optical communication.

Among the college’s goals were “to diversify its portfolio” and “open up new opportunities for some students that the college hasn’t had an opportunity to capitalize on,” said Melissa Ratliff, dean of graduate admission.

The number of new high school graduates in New England is expected to continue to shrink through 2037. That spells problems for small colleges like Stonehill — and for the region’s high-skills economy. Massachusetts alone is facing a major shortage of technicians.

A handful of liberal arts schools have invested in career and technical certificate programs that cost less and last just a few semesters, but the pandemic has pushed many classes aimed at older, non-traditional students online or socially distanced them when in person.

The public radio show Marketplace also aired a version of this story, which you can find  here.

At the end of October, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts announced it won a $3.2 million, two-year grant, in collaboration with MIT, community colleges, and state agencies, to prepare workers for stable high-paying jobs in advanced manufacturing. The program, called MassBridge, will create a curriculum that bridges between the Commonwealth’s excellent traditional manufacturing education and the advanced manufacturing needs of today’s economy. Massachusetts will serve as a foundry and pilot for this curriculum, which can later be used by other states to meet the nation’s growing need for these skills.

Many technologies—including the Internet, television, and medical equipment—depend on the use of photonics, but there is a shortage of trained technicians who can build, install, and maintain equipment in the field. Photonics is the science and technology of generating, controlling, and detecting particles of light.

A little over two years ago, a bright young Ph.D. candidate attending the University at Albany and SUNY Poly’s College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering decided to take a summer course recommended by her professor. This was AIM Photonics Summer Academy 2019; a week long course covering a number of new technology aspects of integrated photonics including: design, simulation, device characterization, and process development.  Going into this week-long training, she knew of the added educational benefits, but little did she realize how this would change her future trajectory.  A graduate of Stony Brook University, with a bachelor’s and master’s in Mechanical Engineering in just 5 years, focusing on Energy Technology, Ms. Erica Graham knew she had opened a new world that would not only change her view of technology, but the future of the 21st century. It was this simple one week course at AIM Photonics Academy’s HQ in the MIT campus where this happened.

The MassBridge program will boost training opportunities for technicians and better meet the workforce needs of employers. The program’s key deliverable is the development of an integrated, statewide program that will provide a stackable set of training programs that will create connections from existing technician training programs to the skillsets that meet the demands of today’s manufacturing sector. The goal will be to develop a model that can be replicated nationally. The program will work with existing vocational programs, high schools, community colleges, and supporting universities, to connect and engage students to encourage them toward careers in Manufacturing USA technologies.

Convergent Photonics has been awarded a $2,581,109 grant from the Massachusetts Manufacturing Innovation Initiative to support the development of an advanced manufacturing center in partnership with Western New England University (WNE). Called a “Lab for Education and Application Prototyping,” or LEAP, the lab will focus on product development, training, and research in integrated photonics, and will be the fourth lab of its kind in its state, according to a press release from the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative.

To support the development of future photonics professionals, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Photonics Society, the International Society for Optics and Photonics (SPIE), and the Optical Society (OSA) have each offered $75,000 to fund tuition for the first 15 students of a new photonics technician program. The 15-month program, which covers three academic semesters and a summer internship, will be launched in summer 2020 at Stonehill College and Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts, in collaboration with MIT’s Initiative for Knowledge and Innovation in Manufacturing, which leads the AIM Photonics Academy.

Photonics technology, harnessing light particles called photons, are in an increasing number of high-tech applications — from lidar in driverless cars to sensors, data centers, and high-speed communication. Now, three professional societies that have a strong focus on photonics — Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Photonics Society, the International Society for Optics and Photonics (SPIE), and the Optical Society (OSA) — have each offered $75,000 to fund tuition for the first 15 students of a new photonics-technician program that Stonehill College and Bridgewater State University in southeastern Massachusetts will launch this summer, in collaboration with MIT’s Initiative for Knowledge and Innovation in Manufacturing, which leads the AIM Academy project, the education and workforce development initiative of the manufacturing institute AIM Photonics.