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Coursework: Advanced Lens Design teaches optics through teamwork

SHOOT FOR THE MOON: Professor Julie Bentley gave her Advanced Lens Design students a daunting challenge: to design ideal zoom lenses for the Europa Clipper spacecraft mission to Jupiter’s Europa moon.(NASA / JPL-Caltech)

A popular optical engineering course equips students with technical and professional skills while putting them on the radar of industry-connected alumni.

On the Syllabus

OPT 544: Advanced Lens Design

Instructor: Julie Bentley, Professor of Optics

In addition to working together on a group design project, students learn about the design of camera lenses, infrared objectives, eyepieces, microscope objectives, zoom lenses, and reflective systems. Other topics include tolerancing, sensitivity analysis, and Monte Carlo analysis. Bentley also teaches an introductory companion class—OPT 444: Lens Design—each spring.

University of Rochester professor Julie Bentley gave the nearly 40 undergraduate and graduate optics students enrolled in OPT 544: Advanced Lens Design two daunting tasks. First, design the best zoom lens for NASA’s Europa Clipper mission to explore Jupiter’s moon. Then, design the ideal zoom lens to record the mission as it blasts off into space.

Bentley’s students worked on the project collaboratively and competitively throughout the fall semester. They broke into teams to explore the myriad factors that would influence the final lens designs, including the different fields of view, sensors, packaging constraints, and photon budget. Some students helped build tools in programming languages like Python and MATLAB that were first developed in the class more than 10 years ago and each cohort improves upon. Others conducted market research to see what available products could feasibly meet the project requirements.

The result was that the students learned as much about project management, teamwork, and communication as they did about optics. Joanna Rosenbluth ’24, who served as the class’s lead project manager, found that she loves leading in that role and studied Bentley’s style closely.

“She’s very particular in a good way about wanting everything to be correct, and that really went into my project management style,” says Rosenbluth. “It’s pretty clear when things are wrong and running behind time, so I had checks along the process to make sure no one was getting off track. I learned from her teaching style that if you get a little off track, you can be totally in the weeds, so by keeping everyone moving, we were all able to find a successful design.”

Female PhD student stands before classmates, giving presentation of her group's lens design.
LENS CRAFTERS: PhD student Yi-Ting (Sherry) Feng leads her group’s final presentation. While the course is graduate-level, it also includes advanced undergraduates. Bentley’s class is “one of the few courses where they really can compete on equal footing,” says Institute of Optics director Thomas Brown. (University of Rochester photo / J. Adam Fenster)


Bentley started teaching the course annually nearly 20 years ago with fewer than 10 students enrolled. Thomas Brown, director of the Institute of Optics, says the course has grown to become one of the institute’s most popular, with Bentley teaching her largest cohort ever in the fall. He notes that everyone from third-year undergraduates to PhD students line up to take the class and that it poses a challenge for all.

“It’s one of the few courses where they really can compete on equal footing,” says Brown. “The undergraduates and graduates take all of the lectures together and put their best foot forward on the project.”

Examples of past projects include exploring lens designs for non-destructive art analysis (2013), underwater zoom cameras for observing coral bleaching (2021), and zoom cameras for canopy animal photography in Africa (2022).

Representatives from NASA, Garmin, Optikos, Excelitas, and other companies and organizations tuned in for the students’ final presentations.

This year’s project culminated in a marathon four-hour presentation where the small groups outlined the constraints of the project, and each student showcased their final lens design.

And although the class is demanding, Bentley keeps the mood balanced with her trademark sense of humor, peppering constructive feedback with lighthearted jokes. During a pizza break midway through final presentations, she had optics senior Samuel Erdogan ’24 sing one of his parody songs based on Bentley’s classes—which range from “Lens Design” set to the tune of “Silver Bells,” to “I’m Sorry Ms. Bentley,” a twist on Outkast’s “Ms. Jackson.”

Student in an advanced lens design class stands at the front of the classroom.
FACE THE MUSIC: Students in OPT 544: Advanced Lens Design work hard, learning about camera lenses, infrared objectives, eyepieces, microscope objectives, zoom lenses, and reflective systems. Yet they also manage to balance that rigor with levity. In December, optics senior Samuel Erdogan ’24 serenaded his classmates and professor with “Lens Design,” a parody set to the tune of “Silver Bells.” (University of Rochester photo / J. Adam Fenster)

The work-hard, play-hard mentality seems infectious, and the students know that if they can excel at the challenging class, they might catch the eye of prospective employers.

“We had about 50 people from 30 different companies in the Institute of Optics’ Industrial Associates program who listened to the final presentation,” says Bentley. “The audience includes former optics students who’ve gone on to work as lens designers at great places. People I know through industry are very interested in these students and get to watch how they perform. We had a bunch of people from NASA as well as Garmin, Optikos, Excelitas, and others. Our students are excited because they want to go get jobs at these companies.”

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