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An (almost) one-woman STEM revolution brings photonics to light

“Photonics is revolutionizing the 21st century just as electronics revolutionized the 20th century,” says Colette DeHarpporte.

Laser Classroom’s latest product, Light Blox, has been selected as UNESCO’s “Featured Kit” for its 2015 International Year of Light (IYL).
Courtesy of Laser Classroom

Colette DeHarpporte is on a mission. For the CEO of Laser Classroom, DeHarpporte’s Minneapolis startup, light, laser and optics technology — otherwise known as photonics — is a STEM educational tool with the potential to change the lives of elementary and secondary school kids around the world.

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“Photonics is revolutionizing the 21st century just as electronics revolutionized the 20th century,” says DeHarpporte. Kids who want access to high-paying engineering jobs need to be STEM literate by the time they apply to degree programs, she argues, and learning about photonics is one avenue to learning about STEM.  

DeHarpporte is doing her part by designing, building and marketing educational light, laser and optics tools for schoolchildren, working out of her home in Northeast Minneapolis when she’s not co-working at Joule. Laser Classroom’s latest product, Light Blox, has been selected as UNESCO’s “Featured Kit” for its 2015 International Year of Light (IYL). The distinction promises “international exposure on a huge level,” says DeHarpporte. “We’re getting orders from all over the world now.”

“I believe we’re at a turning point in 2015,” she adds.

Global exposure for Light Blox 

As part of 2015 IYL, the photonics society SPIE will distribute Light Blox kits to schools, student interest organizations and volunteer outreach groups in more than 40 countries. The Optical Society (OSA) will distribute Light Blox to more than 350 student chapters around the world.

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“Endorsements [from UNESCO, SPIE and OSA] assure me that I’m on the right track — and assurances are very hard to come by,” says DeHarpporte. Because she’s an independent entrepreneur with a small team of collaborators, she adds, “A confidence booster is always appreciated.”

UNESCO’s honor also attracted the interest of Timstar, a UK-based science education company with clients across the UK and EU. Laser Classroom could become a major supplier there, dramatically increasing its sales and global footprint.

Laser Classroom already works with three of the largest science education distributors in the U.S.: Fisher Education, Carolina Biologicals and Ward’s Science. Coupled with some smaller partners, these companies provide coast-to-coast exposure for Laser Classroom.

Innovating to prepare future scientists 

According to DeHarpporte, Laser Classroom fills a critical need, by providing the tools to prepare elementary and secondary students for training in photonics, a fast-growing field that harnesses light for high-precision applications. Photonics underpins the high-tech economy, supporting data storage and transfer devices, medical scanning technologies, next-generation communications and manufacturing processes.

For DeHarpporte, Laser Classroom’s success vindicates a half-decade of hard work. She began her career in public health, where she worked on HIV prevention, multicultural education and interdisciplinary networking for about a decade. Public health work transformed her understanding of the learning process, reinforcing the importance of experiential learning.

“I learned that content is a small piece of education,” she explains. “What’s really important … is connecting the content to something [the student] cares about and wants to act on.”

In 2008, DeHarpporte left her public health job and bought her dad’s laser-pointer company. Taking the temperature of its best clients, she realized that the company’s pointers were being used as teaching aids in the classroom — a welcome use.

But the pointers were designed for business presentations, not education. So DeHarpporte “developed a new design for a laser that would be easier and more flexible to use in high school and university classrooms,” she says.

That design became Laser Blox. The thin, magnetic, stackable lasers are available in three wavelengths: red, green and violet. Using mirrors, frosted lenses, a diffraction grating and other complementary items, teachers use Laser Blox to illustrate basic photonics concepts, like light’s propensity to travel in a straight line until it hits something, as well as more challenging ideas like refraction and diffraction.

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Collaborating for classroom relevance 

DeHarpporte started selling Laser Blox in early 2011, complementing the product with a curriculum of “more than a dozen comprehensive lessons that we give away for free, regardless of whether you buy anything,” she says.

“A piece of equipment is only as good as its ability to teach,” she explains.

Her innovative flagship product, and its custom and comprehensive curriculum, provide a great foundation for Laser Classroom. But DeHarpporte is smart enough to know her limitations. “I’m neither a classroom teacher nor a laser scientist,” she admits. “I have to learn something every day … and be creative.”

Fortunately, she has collaborators — and teachers — who are scientists, or at least engineers: Yvonne Ng, president of Engineer’s Playground, and her husband Troy Pongrantz, principal at Pongrantz Engineering. Pongrantz’s engineering expertise was integral to Laser Blox’s final design. Ng helped DeHarpporte write the initial curriculum, infusing it with challenging but critical concepts illuminated by Laser Blox-centric activities.

“Colette liked my approach toward integrating STEM topics — teaching science, engineering, mathematics and technology as a complementary set,” says Ng. “We also share a [desire] to make STEM knowledge and skills, tied to gainful employment, available to all.”

“Yvonne’s support and input are extremely valuable to making sure the product is relevant in the classroom,” says DeHarpporte.

Creating new opportunities for learning 

Currently, Pongrantz is helping DeHarpporte design and build a new product, which should be ready for rollout in March 2015.

“The device is focused on the use of light and lasers in communications and data transfer,” explains DeHarpporte. “It allows students to create their own message, send it via laser beam to another location, receive the message there and decode it.”

The new device is more complicated than either Laser Blox or Light Blox, so building it has been “more of a challenge,” says DeHarpporte. “But the opportunities for teaching and learning are that much greater.”

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For now, aside from collaborations with Ng and Pongrantz, DeHarpporte remains a one-woman show. She contracts order processing, fulfillment and some finance work to RiverStar, a logistics company in Winona. 

But the UNESCO bump for Light Blox, four upcoming conventions (which could net new contracts) and the pending new-product launch have DeHarpporte wondering if it’s time to scale up. “Honestly, I have loads of ideas,” she says.

This article is reprinted in partnership with The Line, an online chronicle of Twin Cities creativity in entrepreneurship, culture, retail, placemaking, the arts, and other elements of the new creative economy. Brian Martucci is The Line‘s innovation and jobs news editor.