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Online Activities for Students

The following activities are provided to help you investigate light, optics, and color. They were written by educators with input from scientists, researchers, students, and teachers. Students, teachers, and parents are encouraged to work together to begin an exploration of concepts that help us learn about how we see our world.

Activity 1: Perspectives: Powers of 10 - Scientists look at things using their eyes, but they also use a wide variety of specialized tools that give them extra capabilities. For instance, some objects are so small that scientists must use powerful microscopes to see them. Other objects may be very large but are so far away that scientists have to use a powerful telescope in order to observe them.

Activity 2: K-W-L: What I Know, What I Want to Know, What I Learned - The K-W-L chart is a way for you to put in writing some of your ideas about lenses. The chart has three columns: K - what you already know about lenses; W - what you would like to know about lenses; and L - what you have learned about lenses. The L column gets filled in as you discover new things, so at first it will have a lot less in it than the other columns.

Activity 3: Using Media to Explore Light and Optics - Much of the information that you get comes from the media--newspapers, magazines, radio, and television. You are the focus of the media because of your "buying power." As the focus of so much media attention, you need to become a good consumer of information, just like you would be a consumer of toys, food, or games.

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. All lenses, however, are not alike.

Activity 5: Looking Through Lenses - There are many different types of lenses, each with their own characteristics and behaviors. Convex and concave lenses are the two primary types of lenses. By looking at a wide variety of objects through these lenses you will discover many of their similarities and differences.

Activity 6: Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Angles of Reflection - The way light bounces off mirrors is very much like the way a ball bounces against a hard surface. You can throw a ball straight down, and it will bounce straight back at you. Or, you can bounce a ball at an angle and it will bounce off the floor at the same angle away from you. Light reflects the same way off of a mirror, bouncing away from its surface at the same angle as it arrives.

Activity 7: Mirrors and Multiple Images - What is it that lets us see objects? Some objects, such as the sun, give off their own their own light. Most objects, however, do not. These objects must reflect light in order to be seen. For instance, the walls in the room do not put out their own light; they simply reflect light from overhead lights or from sunlight that enters the room through a window.

Activity 8: Light, Prisms, and the Rainbow Connection - Did you know that the light from the sun or from white electric lights is made up of all the colors that can be seen by the human eye? Try using a prism to prove that this is true. You will find that when you shine a light in just the right way on a prism, the light enters the prism, bends, and spreads out, showing us all of the beautiful colors of a rainbow.

Activity 9: Investigating the World of Colors - What humans normally notice most about light is color, which originates in the visible spectrum. The colors that we see usually result from the way light is reflected or absorbed. The reason something like an apple appears red, for instance, is because all of the colors in white light are absorbed by the apple except red, which is reflected to our eyes.

Activity 10: Using Learning Centers to Investigate Special Properties of Light - Many unique properties of light can be investigated in the classroom by using learning centers. Experiences at the centers, which focus on topics such as diffraction and the relationship between light and heat, provide data for you to record, analyze, and use to learn more about optics and the world in general.

Activity 11: Investigating Shadows - A shadow is a dark outline or image cast by an object that blocks light. It 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 - When the sun is shining brightly, shadows can be seen most everywhere. In fact, shadows are so common that you probably do not pay much attention to them. However, there is much to discover if you observe shadows and experiment with making your own. A fun way to learn about shadows is to make a shadowbox theater and shadow puppets.

Activity 13: Exploring Microscopes - The compound microscope is believed to have been invented around 1595 by Zacharias Janssen and his father Hans Janssen. Their primitive device had two lenses that only allowed them to see objects about nine times larger than normal. The invention, however, quickly underwent many changes as other scientists altered the initial design.

Activity 14: Making Crystals - Crystals are special kinds of solids that are made up of molecules arranged in a regular repeating pattern. In some solids, the arrangements of the molecules are random throughout the material. In crystals, however, the molecules are repeated in exactly the same pattern over and over again throughout the entire material.

Activity 15: What Variables Affect Crystal Growth - Almost every solid that occurs in nature is made up of crystals, though the crystals may vary greatly in shape, size, and color. Salt, for instance, looks like rough sand to the unaided eye. However, when looked at using a hand lens or a microscope, you can see that the salt is actually made up of small cube-shaped crystals.

Activity 16: Using Microscopes to Investigate Birefringence in Crystals - Crystals are found in many different shapes. In fact, scientists can look at the shape of some crystals and easily know what substance they are observing. They can also discover many things about substances by studying crystal shapes, which they often do with the help of a microscope.

How Can I Learn More About...?

Inquiry 1: Eyeglasses - Believe it or not, sunglasses are not a twentieth century invention. The Inuit people used materials from their environment to fashion protective eyewear to cut down on the sun's glare many years before. They needed to protect themselves from the blinding glare called "snow blindness," which occurs when light reflects off snow. Items used to make these sunglasses were driftwood, deer's hooves, and baleen (whalebone).

Inquiry 2: Animal Vision - Some animals have eyes in unusual locations on their bodies. The position of an animal's eyes determines what it can see. Many animals also have a different kind of eyes than humans. Creatures such as insects, spiders, and crustaceans, for instance, have compound eyes that are made of many lenses rather than just one.

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 still some confusion about who the inventor of the instrument was. Research Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler, Hans Lippershey, or James Metius and share what you discover by presenting it to your class.

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 - Scientific discoveries usually happen as a consequence of identifying a problem or asking a question. However, scientists do not work in isolation and do not conduct their work outside of the realm of political and historical events. Some early scientists and inventors, for instance, had direct connections to kings and courts that supported their work by providing them with an income, a place to live, and a way to disseminate their findings.

How Does It Work?

Inquiry 6: Cameras and Photography - Daguerreotypes were the first quality photographs, but the metallic images could not be reproduced. The first type of photograph that could be used to make multiple prints was the Calotype, which produced a negative picture on paper; the lights of the image were recorded as darks, and the darks as lights. Both kinds of technology were available during approximately the same time period.

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 - Soon after telescopes were invented, people started to fasten two of the long tubes together to make binoculars. These long binoculars, however, were heavy and difficult to handle. Since it was difficult to keep these tubes parallel to one another, the image seen was often doubled.

Inquiry 9: 3D Images and Holograms - Stereoscopic, or 3D, photography works because it is able to recreate the illusion of depth. Our eyes are about 6.5 centimeters apart, so each eye sees something different. If you view two photographs that are taken the same distance apart with a stereoscope, then you are able to perceive depth.

Inquiry 10: Project Ideas for Light and Optics - Additional project ideas are provided that may be used during your study of optics as extensions to the other activities. These enrichment opportunities will help you 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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