A page from the "Causes of Color" exhibit...

Lesson 1 (All causes)


The perception of color is the interplay of the biological (sensing wavelengths of light via nerve cells) and the physical (the physical processes that cause different wavelengths of light). Moreover, human history is filled with the study of color by philosophers, artists, and everyday people. Because color is universal, all sighted students (even colorblind students) see a colorful spectrum around them. This lesson is a mixture of online research, hands-on activities, concept mapping, and presenting information to peers.

Learning Outcomes

At the end of these activities, students will be able to:
  1. Make a “nodemap”
  2. Imagine how to explain topics to other students
  3. List the main causes of color
  4. Compare and contrast
    • Light made
    • Light lost
    • Light moved
  5. Write a paragraph outlining examples of light made, light lost, and light moved
  6. Build a light bulb
  7. Mix chemicals to see a color change
  8. Explain the differences between colored lights and colored paints
  9. Spell new vocabulary words
  10. Use new vocabulary words in a sentence
  11. Share their nodemaps with friends

Standards and benchmarks

(adapted from NYS Middle School Standards)

Standard 4: Science

Students will understand and apply scientific concepts, principles, and theories pertaining to the physical setting and living environment and recognize the historical development of ideas in science.

The central purpose of scientific inquiry is to develop explanations of natural phenomena in a continuing, creative process.

Beyond the use of reasoning and consensus, scientific inquiry involves the testing of proposed explanations involving the use of conventional techniques and procedures and usually requiring considerable ingenuity.

Use conventional techniques and those of their own design to make further observations and refine their explanations, guided by a need for more information.

S2.1a Demonstrate appropriate safety techniques.
S2.1b Conduct an experiment designed by others.
S2.1c Design and conduct an experiment to test a hypothesis.
S2.1d Use appropriate tools and conventional techniques to solve problems about the natural world, including:

  • measuring
  • observing
  • describing
  • classifying
  • sequencing

The observations made while testing proposed explanations, when analyzed using conventional and invented methods, provide new insights into phenomena.

S3.1 Design charts, tables, graphs, and other representations of observations in conventional and creative ways to help them address their research question or hypothesis.
S3.1a Organize results, using appropriate graphs, diagrams, data tables, and other models to show relationships
S3.1b Generate and use scales, create legends, and appropriately label axes

Key Idea 3:

Matter is made up of particles whose properties determine the observable characteristics of matter and its reactivity.

Different forms of energy include heat, light, electrical, mechanical, sound, nuclear, and chemical. Energy is transformed in many ways.

Different forms of electromagnetic energy have different wavelengths. Some examples of electromagnetic energy are microwaves, infrared light, visible light, ultraviolet light, X-rays, and gamma rays

Light passes through some materials, sometimes refracting in the process. Materials absorb and reflect light, and may transmit light. To see an object, light from that object, emitted by or reflected from it, must enter the eye.

Presenting science in kid-friendly nodemaps

Over the course of the lesson, students will build a nodemap using SpicyNodes, an online tool for making “nodemaps.” These nodemaps are animated, graphic concept maps that present information in small chunks. The final product of this lesson will be a nodemap from individual students or small groups.

A nodemap is a new way to present information. Your students will design a concept map using SpicyNodes, an authoring system that is easy to use. Your students will have their very own URL to access their nodemap. They can email you the URL for you to assess their ability to follow directions, or if you are registered you will automatically see their nodemaps.

Nodemaps are fun and interactive, and are most engaging if they are intended to be shared. Students will learn about color, experiment hands on, and then explain what they learn in a language and style that will appeal to other kids. This activity correlates with a study of Energy in particular, though nodemaps can be used in social studies and language arts, as well as science.

Students can include a mixture of text and images in their nodemaps, and organize the nodes in a way that makes sense to them. This exhibit’s node view provides a summary of the entire Causes of Color exhibit using SpicyNodes. In this lesson, students will build their own nodemaps of approximately 30 nodes.

SpicyNodes can be integrated into classroom learning and homework assignments. The open-ended format of SpicyNodes provides a toolkit for learning across disciplines and integrating a variety of subjects. SpicyNodes can be used in all phases of learning - from brainstorming ideas to presenting one’s findings. For example, students can utilize SpicyNodes to break down complex topics into small, manageable, engaging segments. SpicyNodes supports open-ended and nonlinear learning, which is preferred by tech-savvy students. SpicyNodes also encourages a dynamic learning environment by providing virtually unlimited space and scope, as opposed to static and space-constrained concept mapping on paper or Microsoft’s PowerPoint.

Content knowledge for teachers

Light is a form of energy. It originates from many sources, including the sun. Depending on the wavelengths of light, we perceive different colors. Why are there different wavelengths? Why isn’t the world shades of grey? Causes of Color explains all possible causes of color, and how our eye and brain interpret those wavelengths as color. There are four main sections of the exhibit:

  • Made - These colors are “made” by new photons of light being created. Topics include: incandescence, fluorescence, fire, lightning, fireworks, vapor lamps, chemiluminescence, bioluminescence, mechanoluminescence, auroras, and Cerenkov radiation. Glowing gases, burning fuels, mixing chemicals, and moving electrons, all produce light of a specific color.
  • Lost - These colors are made when some photons are “lost,” and what we see is the remainder. Topics include: water, ice, glaciers, bacteria, metals (like gold), semiconductors, blue diamonds, LED lamps, photoluminescence, red rubies, green emeralds, blue sapphires, amethysts, quartz, chlorophyll, and anthocyanins. Parts of the light are eliminated and you see only a fraction of the whole light wave, that is, a specific color.
  • Moved - These colors are made when some wavelengths are “moved” differently than others, causing certain wavelengths to be seen. Topics include: rainbows, dispersive refraction, scattering, interference, iridescence, and holograms. Light waves can be bent, bounced, and reflected, and these phenomena produce different colors.
  • Vision - Explanations include: colorblindness, colors for animals (such as birds and horses), early studies of color, representations of color, and melanin. A history of color is delineated and how color is perceived is explained.

The exhibit is a mixture of basic science ideas, which students will be able to immediately understand, and higher-level material that you can explore in depth to give you sufficient background to explain the ideas to your students.

Vocabulary Words

CyanobacteriaHydrogen bondAbsorption spectra