Unit 1: Exploring the Nature of Light Phenomena

I. Introduction

This course is intended for prospective and practicing elementary and middle school teachers. By exploring physical phenomena in class, you will learn science in ways in which you are expected to teach science in schools or in informal settings such as afterschool programs, youth group meetings, and museum workshops. This course also is appropriate for general science students and others interested in exploring some of the physical phenomena underlying global climate change.

The theme for the course is: What happens when light from the Sun shines on the Earth? The emphasis is on questioning, predicting, exploring, observing, discussing, reading, and writing about what one thinks and why. This first unit focuses on exploring the nature of light phenomena. Among the unit’s many goals are two primary ones: to learn about light phenomena and to learn about ways to foster science learning for yourself and others such as your family, friends, and students.

What does it mean to “explore the nature of light phenomena”? You will be:

  • identifying resources such as positive experiences you already have had in learning about light and
  • developing central ideas based on evidence that you record while exploring everyday phenomena such as light and shadows.

By central ideas, we mean understandings about physical phenomena that emerge from your discussions with your group members as well as with the instructor. These also are powerful ideas because they form conceptual models useful in:

  • explaining an intriguing phenomenon such as what happens when you look through a pinhole camera, something most find surprising, yet even children can understand.

After developing conceptual understandings of the relevant physics principles, you will be:

  • developing mathematical representations of this phenomenon and using these when
  • estimating a quantity of interest, such as the diameter of the Sun.

Throughout the course you will be reflecting upon ways that are helping you learn science. In reflecting upon this learning process, you will be:

  • making connections to educational policy, such as the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States, 2013). This document has been adopted by many departments of education as the science standards for grades K-12 in the United States.

Other light phenomena that you will be exploring during this unit include reflection, refraction, and dispersion. You will develop additional central ideas based upon these explorations; then use this expanded conceptual model for light to explain another intriguing but more complex phenomenon: rainbows.

Because K-8 curricula emphasize learning to read and write well, this course also models ways to integrate science and literacy learning. By literacy learning, we mean learning to speak clearly, listen closely, write coherently, read with comprehension, and create and critique media.

The main sections present questions with suggestions for exploring topics and for writing reflections about your findings. The text in gray font indicates that these are suggestions; you may think of better ways to explore the topic. You are encouraged to ask and explore your own questions about light phenomena as well as those posed here. Check with your instructor if you choose to devise an alternative approach.

Keeping track of what one is doing and thinking is important. This course uses a physics notebook page that can organize how you record your notes during class. This physics notebook page can help you remember your thoughts before, during, and after an exploration. An experienced elementary teacher, Adam Devittt, designed this physics notebook page to mirror the structure of before, during, and after reading strategies:

Before starting your exploration, think about and discuss with your group members what you know already about this topic, how you plan to conduct the exploration, and what you think you might find out.

During your exploration, record what is happening, what you are observing, and what you are thinking about what you are observing. Include sketches of equipment and observations. Note any words that are new and their definitions.

After your exploration, record any central ideas that have emerged from your observations and discussions. Also note the evidence on which you have based these ideas. State explicitly how the evidence is relevant and supports the claims you are making in stating the central ideas. Also explain why this result is important. Then write a reflection about whatever you want to remember about this experience. In addition, briefly state what you are still wondering in this context.

After class, use your physics notebook pages and any handouts to write a summary of your exploration and findings. Writing such a summary after every class is a good way to prepare for the midterm and final examinations.

Next, to be sure you have understood the physics involved, read this text and some examples of student work. The student authors first wrote drafts, received feedback for ways to enhance content and clarity, and submitted these final versions. Also read about some nuances to consider when explaining the phenomena explored.

You may also find helpful student reflections about teaching a friend or family member about what they had just learned in class, historical information about ways knowledge about the topic developed, and some relevant aspects of the nature of science in the context of the topic explored. These sections of the text may broaden your understanding of science and of science learning and teaching.


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Exploring Physical Phenomena by Emily Van Zee & Elizabeth Gire is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.