Shining lights.

The Graubünden University of Applied Sciences (FHGR) offers a bachelor’s degree programme that is unique in Switzerland. It is no coincidence that photonics is taught here – the rapidly growing tech branch has its Swiss centre in Eastern Switzerland and needs a steady supply of skilled employees.

There are two answers to the question of what photonics is. The first is that, in a few years, the question will be as absurd as someone asking what electronics is today. The second, perhaps more helpful, answer is light-based technologies. Photonics is how an iPhone recognises the face of its owner. It is what self-driving cars use to detect hazards. Photonics is the technology behind ultra-thin OLED screens, intelligent waste sorting systems, laser-ground progressive glasses, endoscopes, fibre-optic cables and taps that start running when you put your hand under them. Smart sensors and image processing often work in the background of photonics systems. The technology is already all around us, and the term itself will soon be just as familiar.

“Yes, at the moment, not many people know what photonics is, but the bachelor’s degree programme has only been running for three years. The number of applications keeps growing,” says Professor Tobias Leutenegger, the Photonics Director of Studies at the FHGR. Tobias, a man with an athletic build and a focused gaze, is one of those Graubünden natives who spent a few years “in the lowlands” (which is what Graubünden residents actually call anything that is not Graubünden) when they were younger before returning to their old homeland. “When the children started to talk with a Zurich accent, we knew it was time to leave,” he laughs jokingly. He really liked Zurich – where, by the way, he spent two years as a stay-at-home dad after writing his dissertation at the ETH Zurich. But of course, “Graubünden is extremely beautiful.”

Great interest in the industry.

This year the first students to start a degree in photonics will be graduating. The majority of the graduates have already signed a contract for their first job after graduation or are about to do so. The reason for the great interest shown by the industry is obvious – the sector is growing and this is the only place that photonics specialists are given practical training, and many of the graduates have already worked on company projects during their studies and thus already know their future employers. There is close cooperation between the university and industry, with around 43 regional and national companies from the high-tech sector in the partner network of the study programme. With so much interest and commitment from the industry, graduates are quickly hired.

 

Tobias isn’t surprised by the fact that some of the students head in a different direction after a few semesters. “You have to find out whether the subject suits you,” he explains. “Photonics isn’t the right degree programme if you’re not interested in the technical side of things. The ideal photonics student is someone who is very interested in technology – maybe someone who grew up with a soldering iron and a power adapter on the desk in their childhood bedroom.”

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Focus on technology.

Hands-on work like soldering and assembling is as much a part of photonics as programming and configuring. “You have to be interested in the technical side of things and enjoy tinkering around,” says Tobias, who holds information events for prospective students in the laboratory for this reason. Practical work accounts for about 20 per cent of the degree programme, with the rest ranging from the basics of physics and mathematics to laser technology, management and innovation. Students come from all over Switzerland and have backgrounds in a wide variety of fields, including electrical engineering, computer science, optometry, polymechanics and physics.

 

The enthusiasm that Tobias has for “his” subject and “his” students is almost palpable as he walks through the different rooms of the institute and explains the ongoing projects. He describes the range of courses as “guided failure”: “We make sure that nothing happens, that the students keep on trying and never repeat the same mistake again. That’s how you learn. That’s how innovation works.” In the future, we will be using technologies that don’t exist today, technologies that we won’t be able to imagine life without. Some of them may well be developed by Tobias’ students.

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