Dr. Carl Bassi is always thinking about how to innovate, create, and implement new things for the students at the College of Optometry.  Since most of the courses for the fall semester are blended, Bassi decided to make his optics lab 100% virtual as well, but he would need to create some things first to make it work.

The idea of an optics kit developed gradually, “I participated in a program from the Center for Teaching and Learning called ‘Resilient Course Design’ that started at the beginning of June. It was to prepare courses so that they could be easily transitioned to entirely online if necessitated by COVID-19.” The real possibility of moving quickly online, if needed, was a concern for Dr. Bassi, especially after last spring when campus closed abruptly due to COVID-19. “Last Spring, when we quickly went into lock-down, the transition of the lecture seemed to go well, and what I did for labs was to mainly do demonstrations using an optical bench on my dining room table.  While these, I feel were instructive, students could not get the ‘hands on’ experience in that setting,” Bassi commented. 

How could one create an optics lab at home? Through many searches, Dr. Bassi quickly realized that the cost over $2,000 per student was too high to pursue.  Going back to square one in the thought and development process, Bassi looked at other options, including less expensive and portable equipment. While some options were available, at about $300 per student, it still could not support all of the labs in the fall semester optics courses. 

Then the thought came into scope for Bassi. He began ordering parts and components from various sources that were significantly cheaper than what was readily available. He found another lab kit for about $50, and they seemed to suit the need to a particular level, but the quality was less than acceptable to him. “This equipment all not only seemed too ‘flimsy’  but they were far from complete (no light source or if there was one, it was a candle!; no lenses; inability to perform many of the experiments we usually did in the lab).  I started thinking about making my kit and doing literature searches and reading what others had done,” Bassi explained. 

Through his research, he also reached out to colleagues at other optometry schools and even a collaborator friend, Manu Prakash, at Stanford University. “Manu has been an inspiration for me because he has developed several inexpensive ‘laboratory grade’ devices.  Unfortunately,  Manu did not offer any direct suggestions other than to ‘keep him informed,'” commented Bassi.  With all the research and contacts used, Bassi began talking with Michael Howe about the project he had in mind. So Dr. Bassi and Michael started making a lab kit of their own. 

“I started working on labs one by one,” Bassi explained.  He made laser diffraction with a cat toy from PetsMart and a $1 grating slide he found.  This allowed them, with proper calculations, to determine the wavelength of the laser with far greater precision than the central optics lab allowed. “The cat toy laser will be used for small-angle prism measurements. A laser line marker (that was supposed to be used as an ‘add-on’ to a circular saw) was used for Snell’s law and thick prism calculations,” explained Bassi.  A protractor rotating table was replaced with a custom protractor designed for the experiment.  An optical bench set up will be used, made from a metal meter stick and has a lens, filter, mirror, light, and target screen holders that are machined on a CNC (we are setting up to 3D print them).  The lens holders are designed to be used with the students’ trial lens sets that they already purchased.  

“This gives a much greater range of lens choice than what we typically had in the ‘old lab.'”  The light used is a flashlight that is the same size as the cat toy laser; thus, it is interchangeable with the light holder.  Michael came up with an innovative object holder in the light path using a rotating paper clip.  Finally, an inexpensive multimeter (~$6) along with an LED was made into a fully operational photometer for light measurement experiments,” Bassi explained.  The kit also included a few other parts (flat mirror, concave mirror, hemicylinder, thick prism, alligator clips complete this first phase of the gears).  The total cost of the kits for all the experiments was close to $50 per student.

With the kits created and developed, Bassi then presented the students with a written summary of the experiments, datasheets, and accompanying videos so each student can work on the labs individually. Landon Kraus (’24) said, “I think the kit from Dr. Bassi works well, given our circumstances. I think it was a good idea, and Dr. Bassi helps significantly with his videos explaining how he wants everything used, so we use correctly.”

Another student, Kyrollos Saad (’24), was very complimentary of the innovative work that Dr. Bassi used to adapt to the current situation. “I love the kits, and it drives home the concepts we learned in lecture. All the parts included in the kit are both easy to use and intuitive and make performing lab efficient and fascinating. A smart move on Dr. Bassi’s part to bring this whole set up together so beautifully,” Saad commented. 

The new optics rooms were only approved for two students (we often would have four to five students per room).  “We couldn’t run the labs in the more open areas because it would mean multiple students are using lasers in multiple directions, and the need to move around to make measurements would make social distancing difficult,” Bassi said.

The students and Dr. Bassi are already noticing the benefits of the labs. “Sometimes simplifying things makes them not only easier to construct, but also for students to understand concepts.  I have already seen instances where this simplified version of the experiments facilitates explanations and understanding,” Bassi explained.  Current student, Lacey Roberts (’24), agrees. “This invention is amazing. It is innovative. I love how interactive we can be, which helps us understand the theoretical concepts we learned in the lecture,” she said. The kits allow each student to participate fully.  “While teams in labs are valuable, sometimes some students may not be fully engaged, or have great ideas/contributions but lost in the group projects.  Here each student does all of the experiments,” Bassi said.

With the new lab kits working successfully, Bassi does miss hearing the students’ reactions when they are working on the labs, and Bassi is already preparing for next semester.  Without the help of others, like Michael Howe, Dean Davis, and Janice White, the project would not have been possible.  A friend of the College of Optometry, Mr. Ray Barrett, heard about the kits Dr. Bassi was working on and immediately stepped up and made a donation to the College to help cover the cost to the students. “This was an incredibly kind gesture of Mr. Barrett to support our students,” Bassi concluded. While COVID-19 may have limited classroom learning, the innovation and creativity of Dr. Bassi keeps our students engaged and learning even from home.

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