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Beer & Blog: Constant Learning in an Innovative Optics Industry, with Josh Cobb

Beer & Blog: Constant Learning in an Innovative Optics Industry, with Josh Cobb


Josh Cobb, Senior Optical Engineer with Corning (Tropel), has spent years in the optics industry learning, teaching, and learning more. We sat down with him to hear more about his work in the classroom and in the field with the Advanced Optics division of Corning.

How would you describe your job at Corning?

The Advanced Optics division is a unique part of Corning. We primarily develop and build optical products for companies outside of Corning. Our customers are a mixture of defense and commercial work... lot's of stuff I can't talk about. The short answer is that Advanced Optics is a team of scientists, engineers, and technicians who use fundamental principles of optics and physics to solve challenging problems. A lot of the stuff has never been done before. I like that the environment encourages creativity.


What got you started in the optics industry?

When I started at the University of Rochester I was not sure what I wanted to do.  I had interests in music and math, so I began taking classes in classical piano and general science. I wasn't in the Eastman School, but I love music and was taking a course at Eastman. After the first semester, a professor took me aside and said that, as a professional classical pianist I was not good enough. "Not even close," she said. That was hard to hear after only one semester. I was really depressed. I had always liked math and science, and I was good at it. My roommate said that the U of R was really well known for optics, so I decided to take an introductory class the following semester. Things took off from there, and I love what I do. I tell people, "Thank God I wasn't a better musician!"


You are an adjunct professor in the Optical Systems Technology program at Monroe Community College. What do you do there?

My biggest contribution has been working with my colleague Tom Dunn to completely modernize the Optics 131 and 151 laboratory courses. The curriculum was outdated and needed to be created from scratch so that it reinforced the lecture materials and used more modern, up-to-date equipment. MCC received some large donations from Corning and Sydor, and I built a new laboratory for the school.  Each lab reinforces the lecture for that week, but it also teaches specific laboratory skills that the students can take into the workplace. 


Why is the lab work so important?

Lab work plays an important role in solving the technical problems in today’s high tech world. Students leave MCC ready to go out and work right away. You can't learn optics quickly, though. It takes practice. No one learns anything in class, no matter what subject. You have to do all the work outside the class. An important part of getting things right is getting things wrong and making mistakes.  Fixing the mistakes is how you learn.  Lab work gives you a unique opportunity to make mistakes you otherwise wouldn’t get the chance to make.


What's the most important thing you teach at MCC?

I tell people that I teach Math and English as much as I teach optics. Optics is a "teachable" moment for math because it is hands on. As far as English, you can't get anywhere if you can't express yourself. If you can't write, no one will bother reading what you have to say.  It's like having a dirty face---people can only see the thing on your face and won’t listen to you.  Good writing gives you the opportunity to present ideas to others.


You do a lot of teaching. What are you learning now?

I am taking a break from MCC to teach a new class on illumination at the University of Rochester, and I am following the model I use at MCC. The classes cover the theory of illumination optics but a big part is the labs where students use a program called LightTools to solve illumination design problems. My point is that teaching is the best way to learn stuff. I don't like to teach things I don't really understand.


What is something most people don't know about you?

I paid for college by working as an amusement park clown. I've been juggling since I was 11. I can still balance a chair on my chin and ride a unicycle.


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