Teacher's Lab
The Science of Light
Light in ColorLaws of Light

light through the grades

Light is a wonderful subject for school study partly because you can teach some facet of it at every grade level.

Younger primary school students can compare their own shadows against themselves. You might ask them, How is your shadow like you? Is it taller or shorter or just the same height? These students can look in a mirror, raise their right hand, and answer the question, Which hand is the reflection raising? At this stage, they make only informal observations about light and color.

Slightly older students develop more sophisticated ideas about shadows. For example, when they are outside, they will see that the places in shadow are the ones from which they cannot see the sun. These students may also learn more formally about color; for example, remembering that blue and yellow make green when they are mixing pigments. They may also play more games with mirrors, especially in math class.

Students in the middle grades learn about prisms and spectra, and may informally study refraction (how the pencil seems to bend when it is put in water), more sophisticated reflection (why a right-angle mirror always reflects), and other physical properties of light (such as its momentum, as evidenced by the radiometer).

All of this prepares students to grasp the subject of light more formally: from calculating reflection angles to learning about energy transfer, the electromagnetic spectrum, the indices of refraction, the speed of light, and so forth.

light for scientific inquiry

In the National Science Education Standards (National Academy of Sciences, 1996), you can find many reasons to study light. Various aspects of this subject appear in the standards for physical science.

To begin, you will need to engage students actively in doing scientific inquiry. In the Standards, the authors describe the Science as Inquiry content standard in this manner:

Students at all grade levels and in every domain of science should have the opportunity to use scientific inquiry and develop the ability to think and act in ways associated with inquiry, including asking questions, planning and conducting investigations, using appropriate tools and techniques to gather data, thinking critically and logically about relationships between evidence and explanations, constructing and analyzing alternative explanations, and communicating scientific arguments. (p. 105)

Light is particularly suited to students' inquiry. Students already have ideas about light, but the study of light still has surprises for them. From the teacher's point of view, light is cheap and easy to manipulate.

using this lab

The activities in this lab are organized under two topics: Light in Color and Laws of Light. For each one, an introduction outlines the rationale for teaching the topic and briefly describes the activities. Follow the links to the activities themselves. There you can access a background page that may include an elaboration of the rationale, grade-level information, and connections to standards for that specific activity. Resources may also be listed to help you investigate the topic further.

Overall, the activities explore sophisticated science without doing a lot of sophisticated data gathering or calculation. All you have to do is think about light—and be ready to have your assumptions challenged.

Back to The Science of Light.


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