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Hands-on program ‘makes waves’ with kids

There’s no need to make science exciting for kids – it’s already exciting. Educators just need to show them.

That was the goal of the yearlong Making Waves: Optics and Acoustics program, which brought together students from three school districts in eastern Connecticut to explore the idea that understanding science can make a better artist and that cultivating the arts can lead to better science.

The 2013-2014 kickoff event was held in the fall at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain. After building homemade spectroscopes, 150 students examined the spectra from different types of light sources. They used the knowledge from that experience to identify light sources from photos of “mystery” spectra. In a second workshop, a dance instructor illustrated the science of waves through dance and movement. A star show at the university’s Copernican Observatory and Planetarium rounded out that day’s activities.


The Junior Laser Camp students were happy to be there.


Making Waves was coordinated by Nancy Magnani, a former fiber optics engineer who is now a program facilitator at Eastconn, one of Connecticut’s six regional educational service centers. Magnani administers several interdistrict grants from the state designed to engage K-12 students from rural and urban schools to work together in STEM activities. The optics- and photonics-related programs have received additional support from the OSA Foundation and SPIE outreach grants.

After the first large group meeting, Magnani met with individual classrooms to supplement their science lessons. In one activity, students were asked to identify the color of small candies illuminated by LEDs of different colors, leading to a discussion of what influences perceived color.


At the midyear program, students studied Josef Albers’ “Homage to the Square” and created their own versions of this series of paintings, which were displayed at the final event of the year.


The color activity was reinforced in the second large group event, held midyear at an elementary school. Students studied the work of Josef Albers, a 20th-century artist noted for his careful study of color. Albers created hundreds of paintings of nested squares of various colors and observed how the chromatic interactions depended on foreground and background colors. The children created their own versions of Albers’ “Homage to the Square,” and these works of art were displayed at the final event of the year in May.

The midyear program also featured a workshop that introduced refraction of light by asking students to observe and sketch a still life of a jar of water holding two paintbrushes. After the sketches were completed, Magnani gave a lesson on refraction, and then asked the students to once again observe and sketch what they saw. With their newly expanded knowledge of optics, the students correctly painted the “bent” paintbrushes on their second attempt.


One workshop demonstrated laser engraving on wood key tags.


The final activity of the year was a third whole-group event, a Junior Laser Camp held at Three Rivers Community College – an optics-themed day of workshops that has been hosted by TRCC and Eastconn since 2010. The 150 Eastconn students were joined by 20 additional fifth-graders from the local neighborhood for a day of mostly light- and art-themed activities. Workshops included creating “art” from cellophane tape sandwiched between two polarizers, pinhole photography with homemade oatmeal box cameras, making bracelets from color-changing UV beads and learning about fluorescence, kaleidoscope building with laser-cut mirrors, and laser-engraving wood key tags. Magnani facilitated workshops along with TRCC faculty and staff, and members of the OSA and SPIE student chapters. Sean “The Laser Guy” Kearney, a SPIE guest lecturer from New Jersey, provided the grand finale: a laser show that combined high-energy music and laser physics at just the right level for fifth-graders.

Judy Donnelly, Three Rivers
Community College, Connecticut
jdonnelly@lasertechonline.org


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