Integrating the Arts: Teaching about Color Mixing with Light

By Gran, Susan; McNamara, Michael | Science Scope, March 2012 | Go to article overview

Integrating the Arts: Teaching about Color Mixing with Light


Gran, Susan, McNamara, Michael, Science Scope


"Why do I need to know this if I don't want to be a scientist?" is a question middle school teachers probably hear on a regular basis. In an effort to answer it, we have tried to appeal to students' varied interests, and thus developed myriad ways to show students how science is a part of their everyday lives. What is described here is an example of one of those efforts. It is a guided inquiry lesson (part of a larger unit on light) that is designed to help students develop conceptual understanding of the primary colors of light and differentiate between additive and subtractive color mixing. As described, the lesson takes two class sessions of approximately 50 minutes each, plus a trip to a theater to demonstrate theater lighting equipment in context of the stage. We are fortunate enough to be within walking distance of the theater building at our local university, but the demonstration can be accomplished successfully in a number of other ways. Because it is a simple demonstration using three lighting fixtures, many high schools or community playhouses have similar equipment that would work, as well. The units are also portable, so they could be brought to your school if a trip is not possible; many theater departments have outreach coordinators and are happy to work with teachers.

Engage

The lessons on light began with a discussion of color, an investigation on color mixing with colored pencils, and questions about light. Through the use of productive questions (Harlen 2001), we were able to elicit students' prior knowledge during a whole-class discussion about color, the primary colors of pigment, and what emits light and how light travels. Questions included the following: "What do you know about color?," "What happens when you mix colors?," and "What is light?" Next, we gave students about five minutes to use the colored pencils (a set of 12 basic colors works fine) to investigate different color-mixing combinations on their own and then share their results with their group. Groups of three work best for this lesson because of the Explore phase of the activity. We then had students share where they had done this before and asked for explanations of primary colors. Students shared experiences about other color mixing with pigments such as paint and crayons and listed the primary colors for pigment. We informed students that during the next few classes we would be trying something similar with light rather than pigment.

Explore

Following the discussion, each trio of students was given a large, white piece of poster paper. Each student was then provided with a flashlight and a colored "gel" (a transparent, colored filter that allows through only certain wavelengths of light; see Figure 1). The gels are flexible and can be attached to the flashlight by folding the excess gel around the edge of the flashlight and wrapping the excess using a rubber band or tape. Because we wanted students to develop the conceptual understanding that a primary color is a color that cannot be derived from any other color and that the primary colors of light are red, blue, and green, all students had a gel of one of these colors in their trio. Students were encouraged to find out all they could about the materials, including the interaction of the different colors. While exploring, students took turns in their groups shining their gel-covered flashlight on the poster paper and making note of their individual colors, as well as all the different combinations they could devise. Students were asked action questions during this phase such as "What happens when you shine the flashlight through one of the gel colors onto the poster paper?" and "What different colors can you make by shining different combinations of gels onto the paper?" (see Activity Worksheet). These questions helped keep students focused on making observations about the effects of color mixing. After providing sufficient time for students to explore and record their observations, about 10 to 15 minutes, we came together as a class so groups could share what they had discovered. …

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