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Online Activity Guidebook for Teachers

Activities written by educators with input from scientists, researchers, students, and teachers are provided here to help you and your students investigate light, optics, and color. Each activity has a teacher version followed by a separate student page. However, student pages can be easily adapted for use by children working with their parents, instead of a teacher. In fact, students, teachers, and parents are encouraged to work together to cooperatively explore new ideas, concepts, and ways of thinking. Then, after students achieve a better understanding of the basic principles and theories behind optics and related topics, they can explore them to advanced levels through the various features of the Molecular Expressions website.

Many of the teacher activity pages are equipped with activity extensions, which may include historical and artist vignettes related to the topic, as well as additional discussion ideas and student, or class, projects. The vignettes are generally written at such a level that they may be read directly to students if desired, but can also simply serve as background information. Please keep in mind that some additional materials, such as specific books, may be needed to complete activity extensions, so availability of these items should be considered before undertaking them.

Activity 1: Perspectives: Powers of 10 - Scientists look at things with a wide variety of instruments, approaching them from various and diverse perspectives. Introduce students to new ways of looking at the world around them by having them imagine what it would be like to be a flea on a dog's back or the giant in Jack and the Beanstalk walking through a normal-sized village.

Activity 2: K-W-L: A Strategy for Learning - The K-W-L chart can be used to help students clarify their ideas about difficult concepts and take responsibility for their own learning. It is also an opportunity for teachers and students to look at possible misconceptions and use them as a vehicle for asking questions and finding ways to answer them. A simple, yet effective strategy, the chart itself is divided into three columns: K - what I know, W - what I would like to know, and L - what I have learned.

Activity 3: Using Media to Explore Light and Optics - As educators, we ask our students to take the information we provide in the classroom and use it to interpret their world. However, it is important to realize that the topics we cover are also incurred by students in newspapers, magazines, on radio or on television, as well as online via the Internet. Helping students analyze, evaluate, and interpret the messages to which they are constantly exposed decreases levels of misinterpretation and misunderstanding.

Activity 4: Exploring with Lenses - A lens is a piece of transparent material with at least one curved surface, which refracts, or bends, light rays coming from an object. Lenses are important in optical devices that use light, including our eyes, cameras, telescopes, binoculars, microscopes, and projectors. In pairs or small groups, students will examine various lenses and will write a description of what each lens looks like, what objects look like when viewed through the lens, and other information that they decide is necessary to enhance their understanding of how lenses change the way we look at objects.

Activity 5: Looking Through Lenses - There are two basic kinds of lenses: convex and concave. Looking through both types of lenses reveals some of their primary characteristics. For instance, convex lenses cause light rays to converge or come together because they are thicker in the middle than on the edges. Concave lenses, on the other hand, are thicker on the edges than in the middle, which makes things look smaller when viewed through them.

Activity 6: Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Angles of Reflection - Reflection involves two types of light rays: the incoming, or incident, ray and the outgoing, or reflected, ray. The angle between the incident ray and an imaginary perpendicular line drawn to the surface of the mirror is called the angle of incidence. When incident light comes into contact with the surface of a mirror it is reflected at the same angle that it strikes that surface, a phenomenon known as the law of reflection.

Activity 7: Mirrors and Images - Based on their experience with Activity 6, your students should have some understanding of incident rays, reflected rays, and the general behavior of mirrors. Therefore, your students should be ready to be introduced to the different types of reflection that may occur. Encourage them to explore specular and diffuse reflection, as well as the relationship between the angle of a hinged mirror and the number of images it produces.

Activity 8: Light, Prisms, and the Rainbow Connection - White light is composed of all the visible colors in the electromagnetic spectrum, a fact that can be easily proven through the use of a prism. As light passes through a prism, it is bent, or refracted, by the angles and plane faces of the prism and each wavelength of light is refracted by a slightly different amount. Violet has the highest frequency and is refracted the most. Red has the lowest frequency and is refracted the least.

Activity 9: Investigating the World of Colors - What humans normally notice most about light is color, a phenomenon that originates from the visible spectrum. The color of an object is directly related to the amount, and type, of light that it reflects or absorbs. If an object appears to be red, for instance, it is because the object absorbs all of the colors in the light spectrum with the exception of red, which is instead reflected back to our eyes

Activity 10: Investigating Special Properties of Light - Many unique properties of light can be investigated in the classroom by using learning centers. Experiences at the centers can provide data for students to record, analyze, and use to learn more about the world around them. Students will be exploring the concepts of diffraction, translucence, transparence, and opaqueness, as well as learning about mirages and other optical illusions.

Activity 11: Investigating Shadows - A shadow is formed when light hits an opaque object that does not let the light pass through. Everywhere else around the opaque object, the light continues in a straight path until it bounces off the ground or wall behind the object. The result is a dark patch, or shadow, with the same outline as the object surrounded by light.

Activity 12: Shadowbox Theatre - Students will be making shadowboxes and manipulating light and shadow to create special effects. Once students understand how a shadowbox theater works and how light and shadows can be manipulated, the device can be used with any unit of study as an alternative way for students to share information with the class.

Activity 13: Exploring Microscopes - Delving further into the realm of magnification, students will be carrying out comparative observations of objects using a simple water drop magnifier, a hands lens, and a field microscope, which is an example of a basic compound microscope. Students should see the relationship between magnifying lenses and microscopes and realize that the same principle used in finding the focal point of a lens is used in focusing a microscope.

Activity 14: Making Crystals - In some solids the arrangements of molecules throughout the material are random. In crystals, however, the molecules are repeated in exactly the same pattern over and over again throughout the entire material. Due to their repetitive nature, crystals can take on strange and interesting shapes naturally. Your students can observe the shapes of crystals firsthand by making their own via a saturated solution of copper sulfate or some other crystal-forming substance.

Activity 15: What Variables Affect Crystal Growth - The varied appearance of crystals stems, in part, from the different ways that crystals may form. Some crystals, for instance, are formed when molten rock cools and hardens. Others are formed when water containing dissolved minerals evaporates. Students can explore other aspects that affect crystal growth by manipulating specific variables as they make their own crystals.

Activity 16: Using Microscopes to Investigate Birefringence in Crystals - An anisotropic crystal whose lattice is the same along two directions but different along the third, is double refractive or birefringent. A birefringent material has two indices of refraction, one index for the two directions that are the same and another axis for the direction along which the molecules are spaced differently. Calcite, or calcium carbonate, is the most common birefringent mineral found in nature.

How Can I Learn More About...?

Inquiry 1: Eyeglasses - Using a variety of media, have groups of students research the following types of eyeglasses: traditional eyeglasses for nearsightedness and farsightedness, bifocal lenses, monocles or eye rings, lorgnette glasses, contact lenses, bifocal contact lenses, sunglasses, or pince-nez glasses. Encourage groups to present their findings to classmates.

Inquiry 2: Animal Vision - Several of these activities encourage students to research different animals and how they see, where their eyes are located, and why these animals have these special adaptations. The book Extraordinary Eyes: How Animals See the World by Sandra Sinclair is an excellent resource that students can use as a starting point or to provide context for their animal vision projects.

Inquiry 3: Telescopes - Scientific and technological advances have caused telescopes to change a lot over the years. However, it is still unclear exactly what the earliest telescope was like since there is some confusion about who the inventor of the instrument was. Have students work in groups, each group researching someone that may have been the first to use a telescope.

Inquiry 4: Eclipses - The moon revolves around the Earth and the Earth and moon revolve around the sun. As this occurs, some of the sun's light is blocked by the moon's shadow or by the Earth's shadow. When the Earth's shadow falls upon the moon, a lunar eclipse occurs; conversely, when the moon's shadow falls upon the Earth, a solar eclipse occurs.

Inquiry 5: People in Optics - A series of suggestions, students will learn new ways to carry out research about people who have influenced the study of optics, people who have invented instruments that have extended the study of optics, and people that have influenced the process of scientific discovery. Also provided are different ways of looking at science, discovery, and invention that could be used as the basis for research projects in your classroom.

How Does It Work?

Inquiry 6: Cameras and Photography - Since the time of Aristotle people have been able to view pinhole images. Pinhole photography, however, was developed later and involves the capturing of those images and shapes onto film using a tiny hole, instead of a lens. In a pinhole camera, light passes through the hole and an image is formed on the back wall of the instrument. Students can easily learn how to make this simple device and how to use it to safely view the sun.

Inquiry 7: Lighthouses -Though many ancient peoples built fires on hills and mountainsides to bring sailors home from the sea, the first great lighthouse was built on an island in the harbor of Alexandria, Egypt. The Pharos tower, built around 280 BC, was 450 feet high, and the light produced by a fire kept blazing on its roof could be seen from as far away as 29 miles out in the Mediterranean.

Inquiry 8: Binoculars, Periscopes, and Kaleidoscopes - Binoculars, periscopes, and kaleidoscopes use mirrors, lenses, and/or prisms. Learning about these optical instruments can enhance your students' study of light and optics. After discussing the history, concepts, and technology behind the devices, encourage students to construct their own out of common household items.

Inquiry 9: 3D Images and Holograms - The principles of three-dimensional images were known even before photography was invented. An overview of these principles, as well as the history of holograms, is provided here. Students are encouraged to design a series of stereoscope programs depicting historical events and to investigate some of the current applications of holographic images.

Inquiry 10: Project Ideas for Light and Optics - Additional project ideas are provided that may be used as extensions to other activities or as the main focus of additional units of study. The enrichment opportunities will help your students learn more about the human eye, vision problems, ophthalmology, the design of optical devices, and the history of theories involving light and its properties.

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