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16 Science Lessons About Visible Light

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Use these free STEM lessons and activities to teach students about the science of visible light.

Shadows on a wall from mixing colored light, a mirror maze, and a refraction activity with a jar to represent collection of STEM lessons and activities to teach about light

The free STEM lessons and activities below help educators teach K-12 students about the science of light, specifically, visible light, with hands-on exploration and active learning.

The resources below have been grouped by grade band to help educators select the experiments and lessons that best fit their needs. (Note: Our lesson plans offer NGSS-alignment information for specific grades. They can still be adapted by educators for use in other classes. Our informal STEM activities have been designed for use with a wide range of ages. While we have loosely sorted the resources below into grade levels, we encourage you to review all grade levels.)

For a summary of important concepts and key terms to review with students, see the information and vocabulary words at the bottom of this resource.

Note: Science Buddies Lesson Plans contain materials to support educators leading hands-on STEM learning with students. Lesson Plans offer NGSS alignment, contain background materials to boost teacher confidence, even in areas that may be new to them, and include supplemental resources like worksheets, videos, discussion questions, and assessment materials. Activities are simplified explorations that can be used in the classroom or in informal learning environments.

Lesson Plans and Activities to Teach About the Science of Visible Light

Light Science Lessons and Activities for Elementary School Students, Grades 1-3

  1. 1. Transparent, Translucent, or Opaque?

    In the Can You See Through Me? lesson, students experiment with materials to see how they absorb, scatter, transmit, or reflect light. As they observe how much light passes through a material, students correlate their findings with whether a material is labeled as translucent, transparent, or opaque. Questions: Are there any materials that allow all light through? Are there any materials that absorb all light?

    Three containers with light shining through them to demonstrate properties of being translucent, transparent, or opaque

  2. 2. Casting Shadows

    What happens when you walk down the street and the sun is in front of you? A shadow appears behind you! Objects that block light cast shadows. In the Explore Shadows with a Shadow Play lesson, students use shadow puppets to explore how shadows are made and how they can be controlled to change their size or direction. For an informal version of this science lesson, see the Making Shadow Puppets activity. Questions: How can you make a shadow taller? Do translucent objects cast shadows? What determines how dark a shadow appears? (Note: This lesson is also part of our Imagine Your Story - STEM Activities for Storytellers of All Ages! collection.)

    Making Shadow Puppets – STEM Activity

  3. 3. Reflections in a Mirror

    In the Mirror, Mirror on the Wall... lesson, students experiment to see how reflective surfaces like mirrors change the direction of light. Using what they learn, students experiment with bouncing light from a flashlight off of reflective surfaces and then see if they can redirect light in a series of mirror bounces to reach from a starting point to a target location in the room. (Note: This lesson is NGSS-aligned for 1st grade. For a more complex version aligned for middle school, see the Solve a Mirror Maze Challenge with the Law of Reflection lesson.)

    Experimental setup with mirrors, flashlight, and target for light science activity

Light Science Lessons and Activities for Grades 4-8

  1. 4. Colors of a Rainbow

    In the How Many Colors in a Rainbow? activity, students use a pan of water, the sun, and sheets of colored paper to create rainbows. The activity helps students explore how refraction creates the colors we see in a rainbow (or when using a prism). Different colors of light have different wavelengths, so when each color bends (refracts) and then bounces back out of something like a water drop, the colors all refract at different angles, which enables us to see a rainbow of colors. Questions: Which color of light has the longest wavelength? Which has the shortest? If you think about a rainbow, how does the order of colors correspond to the wavelengths of visible light? How does the science of refraction and the wavelengths of colored light help explain the shape of a rainbow?

    Rainbow created from light shining through a container of water onto paper

  2. 5. What Color is the Sky?

    Depending on the time of day and the weather, you might describe the sky as blue, or pink, or purple, or grey, or a combination of colors! What color is the sky really and what causes the colors we see? Light from the sun is white light. It contains all the colors, which we can see in rainbow form when light is refracted by a prism, for example. If the light in our sky is all white light from the sun, why does it appear different colors at different times of day? In the Sky Science lesson, students explore how the colors we see in the sky are related to how light from the sun passes through our atmosphere. Questions: Why is the sky viewed from the Moon always dark, but the sky viewed from Earth seems to have many colors at different times of the day? How does milk act like the Earth's atmosphere in this experiment? (Note: For an informal exploration of sky colors, see the Sunset Colors in a Glass activity. In this activity, students use white light to create a simulated sunset in a jar!)

    White light in a jar being used to show colors of sunset occur

  3. 6. A Refraction Illusion

    Can an object in water seem to be invisible to our eyes? In the VOILa! Experimenting with Light Refraction activity, students experiment to find out how looking at an object through water (or another translucent material) changes how we perceive or see the object. As they experiment, students will learn about the index of refraction and how it relates to the speed at which light travels through a material. Questions: Does light move faster or slower in water? How does light change as it enters water?

    Jar with water and a stirring stick within that is hard to see
    Photo: Exploratorium Teacher Institute (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

  4. 7. Pour Light from a Bottle

    In the Serve Illuminated Water activity, students wrap a plastic bottle in aluminum foil and then shine a light through it to observe what happens when water is poured from the bottle into a sink or container. Students experiment with how altering the angle at which light hits a water-air boundary can change how the light behaves. Their observations are a real-world introduction to total internal reflection and can be used as a way to explain how fiber optic cables work. Question: Does light always travel in a straight line?

    Plastic bottle covered in aluminum foil for a light science activity

  5. 8. Mirror Maze

    In the Solve a Mirror Maze Challenge with the Law of Reflection lesson, students explore the physics of how light is reflected from a surface. Using mirrors to bounce (reflect) light from a flashlight to other surfaces, students investigate the relationship between the angle of incidence and the angle of reflection. Can they use what they learn to bounce a beam of light through a mirror maze? (Note: This lesson is NGSS-aligned for grades 4-8. For a similar lesson aligned for early elementary school, see the Mirror, Mirror on the Wall... lesson.)

    Solve A Mirror Maze Reflection Challenge!

  6. 9. Infinity Mirror

    Have you ever visited a fun house of mirrors or seen an infinity mirror room, a room in which there are so many reflections of a person or object (or you!) that it is hard to tell which image is real? In the An Infinite Number of Reflections? Really? activity, students use two mirrors and small objects to explore how reflections of reflections are created and repeated. Questions: How do reflections change from the original image as they get repeated? How would you position two mirrors to create the most reflections of an object? How do kaleidoscopes demonstrate the science of repeated reflections? (Tip! To help students visualize infinity mirrors on a larger scale, watch this video that shows examples of infinity rooms created by artist Yayoi Kusama.)

    Set of mirrors reflecting small objects in repetition like an infinity mirror or kaleidoscope
    Note: Students interested in further exploring the science behind an infinity mirror can experiment by building their own electronic version in the Explore Optical Illusions: Build an Infinity Mirror and Use an Arduino™ to Control a Color-Changing Infinity Mirror projects.

  7. 10. Mixing Red, Green, and Blue Light

    What happens when you mix red and green light? If yellow wasn't your first guess, this activity will help! In the Colored Shadows activity, students use flashlights and colored cellophane to create shadows and explore the science of additive and subtractive colors of light. It is important to note (and sometimes confusing) that mixing colors of light doesn't behave the same as mixing paint. When talking about colors of light, the primary colors are red, green, and blue, and these colors can be combined to make a spectrum of other colors. Computer displays, for example, use the RGB color model, a system that uses red, green, and blue to create the colors we see on the screen. Questions: Why are the primary colors for mixing paint different from the RGB system for mixing light? If you mix all colors of light together, what color will you get? If you mix all colors of paint together, what color will you get? (Note: Students interested in further exploring the mixing of light can experiment with the Mixing Light to Make Colors project.)

    Three light sources casting colored shadows of an object on the wall

  8. 11. Blocking Light and Superblack Coatings

    In the Black in the Spotlight lesson, students explore how different materials transmit, reflect, or absorb light and learn about superblack or ultrablack coatings that can transform how an object looks. Using a sensor app on a mobile phone, students test different materials from a box of mixed objects to see if they can find examples in each category. Question: What effect does a "superblack" coating have on what we see?

    Setup with mirror, light, and mobile phone with sensor app

  9. 12. Light Intensity

    In the Science with a Smartphone: Lux Meter activity, students use a cell phone's light sensor and a sensor-based mobile app to measure the brightness (or intensity) of light from different light sources and locations.


Physics of Light Lessons and Activities for High School Students

  1. 13. Measure the Speed of Light

    In physics, students learn that the speed of light is a constant: 299,792,458 meters per second. However, this is only true in a vacuum. Light actually slows down when it passes through other materials. The Using a Laser to Measure the Speed of Light in Gelatin project gives students a chance to explore this firsthand by using a laser to measure the speed of light in gelatin. In this project, students use Snell's law (about the trajectory of light as it passes from one medium to another) and the science behind a material's index of refraction to measure the speed of light in gelatin. For a different approach to measuring the speed of light, see the Measuring the Speed of 'Light' with a Microwave Oven project.

    A plastic container with a laser beam passing through gelatin

  2. 14. How Bright is a Star?

    What does the brightness of a star in the sky tell us? In the Star light, Star bright: How Does Light Intensity Change with Distance? astronomy project, students experiment to see how the brightness (or light intensity) of a star changes with distance.

    Lightbulb set up in relation to a cellphone with a sensor app to measure intensity with distance

  3. 15. Light Intensity, Distance, and the Inverse Square Law

    As you move farther away from a source of light, does the light seem to change? In the How Does the Intensity of Light Change with Distance? project, students explore how the intensity of light changes with increasing distance from the light source. Students build a circuit with a photoresistor (a light-sensitive resistor) and experiment to see if light intensity decreases according to the inverse square law. For a related exploration, see the The Joly Photometer: Measuring Light Intensity Using the Inverse Square Law project.

    A large lamp points towards a photoresistor that is connected to a multimeter

  4. 16. DIY Spectrophotometer

    A spectrophotometer is a device used in laboratories to measure the intensity of light. In the See the Light by Making a Cell Phone Spectrophotometer project, students build a simple spectrophotometer from a cell phone and use it to investigate how visible light is absorbed by differently colored solutions.


Teaching About Visible Light and the Physics of Light in K-12

When teaching about visible light, students learn that light is a form of energy and travels in waves (similar to sound). As students explore the physics of light, they are introduced to the electromagnetic spectrum and the portion that constitutes visible light. In a variety of hands-on experiments and activities, students can explore the absorption, transmission, reflection, refraction, and scattering of light and what it means for materials to be transparent, translucent, or opaque. Combining understanding of the electromagnetic spectrum, the wavelengths of different colors of light, and how light moves through mediums, students can explore questions related to sky colors, rainbows, and prisms and experiment with mixing light to create colorful light displays. Students can explore the science behind kaleidoscopes, mirrors, and infinity mirrors and can investigate how the speed of light may change when passing through certain mediums. In learning about the intensity of light, students can measure light using various devices, build and use a cell phone spectrophotometer, and investigate the relationship between light intensity and distance from the light source.

Vocabulary

The following word bank contains words that may be covered when teaching about visible light using the lessons and activities in this resource.

  • Angle of incidence
  • Electromagnetic radiation
  • Electromagnetic spectrum
  • Frequency
  • Illuminance
  • Index of refraction
  • Inverse square law
  • Infinity mirror
  • Infrared
  • Joly photometer
  • Law of reflection
  • Law of refraction
  • Light
  • Light absorption
  • Light intensity
  • Light transmission
  • Light wave
  • Lux
  • Opaque
  • Photometer
  • Photon
  • Reflection
  • Refraction
  • Scatter
  • Spectrophotometer
  • Speed of light
  • Snell's law
  • Total internal reflection
  • Translucent
  • Transparent
  • Ultraviolet
  • Visible light (visible spectrum)
  • Wavelength

Thematic Collections

Collections like this help educators find themed activities in a specific subject area or discover activities and lessons that meet a curriculum need. We hope these collections make it convenient for teachers to browse related lessons and activities. For other collections, see the Teaching Science Units and Thematic Collections lists. We encourage you to browse the complete STEM Activities for Kids and Lesson Plans areas, too. Filters are available to help you narrow your search.





Development of this resource to support educators teaching K-12 STEM curriculum topics was made possible by generous support from the Donaldson Foundation.


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