Bending Light

Jamie Schoenberger, Windermere Preparatory School Windermere, Florida University of Colorado Boulder
Type Category
Instructional Materials
This resource, vetted by NSTA curators, is provided to teachers along with suggested modifications to make it more in line with the vision of the NGSS. While not considered to be "fully aligned," the resources and expert recommendations provide teachers with concrete examples and expert guidance using the EQuIP rubric to adapted existing resources. Read more here.



Resource has two components. The first is an interactive simulation the allows students to explore how light moves through different mediums (air, water, glass).   The second is an activity, “Bending Light Lab,” created by Jamie Schoenberger.  The activity uses the simulation to explore how light moves through different mediums.

The simulation has three components. The first and simplest level explores bending of light between two media with different indices of refraction. (View the light as a single laser beam or a wave.) Level 2 introduces robust tools to investigate how incident rays behave when they hit differently-shaped prisms and concave or convex lenses. Choose a single laser beam, triple beam, or a visible light beam. Click to view the normal (perpendicular) line, turn on a reflection tool, and change the color or environment. Level 3 offers additional tools to measure intensity, speed, and time, allowing teachers to easily integrate mathematics.

The  “Bending Light Lab”  activity is comprised of fifteen question, which guide students through a different scenario to explore using the different parts of the simulator.

Intended Audience

Educator and learner
Educational Level
  • Middle School
Access Restrictions

Free access - The right to view and/or download material without financial, registration, or excessive advertising barriers.

Performance Expectations

MS-PS4-2 Develop and use a model to describe that waves are reflected, absorbed, or transmitted through various materials.

Clarification Statement: Emphasis is on both light and mechanical waves. Examples of models could include drawings, simulations, and written descriptions.

Assessment Boundary: Assessment is limited to qualitative applications pertaining to light and mechanical waves.

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this performance expectation.

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
Throughout the simulation students are able to manipulate the variables in the simulation to see and be able to describe that waves are reflected, absorbed, or transmitted as they pass through different materials. The accompanying activity allows the students to work through the three stages of the simulation with structure. If students are allowed to use the simulation to freely explore the features a table or spreadsheet would assist in keeping students on a course through the simulation, and record their data for further analysis. An extension activity would be to have students design their own scenarios to explore using the simulator. This simulation could also be conducted over a series of class periods. Each period could focus on a type of material the waves/beams are moving through; air, water, glass, etc. The activity could be used in segments to assist with a more gradual path through the simulation.

Science and Engineering Practices

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this science and engineering practice.

Comments about Including the Science and Engineering Practice
The simulation, as an entire experience, will assist students in understanding refraction phenomena. This simulation offers a great opportunity for students to make predictions as to how light is reflected, absorbed, or transmitted through different materials. Students could predict the outcome of changing the environment, or when a prism is introduced, predict how the light will pass through. In the “Intro” and “More Tools” segments there are items that can be used to measure the angle, intensity, and speed of the waves. These measurements can be used as quantitative data to examine predictions. The activity sheet does not contain specific prediction scenarios, however, adding a second column to the table that is labeled “student predictions”would give the worksheet an additional dimension.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
The simple nature of this simulation allows it to be used to directly to see how light is reflected as it passes through a media. The feature of this simulation that allows the user to change the light color can come into play here to test, “Do different wavelengths of light behave differently from one another?” Students could be given a series of scenarios, and directed to test them with different color waves. This process could be replicated in all three areas of the simulation, and again the three tools of measuring speed, intensity, and angle could be used to determine how different colors of light behave under similar conditions. The activity sheet directs the students to use the laser feature. There are no scenarios where the students are prompted to change from the laser to a wave. Adding a few scenarios using waves would show students how laser beams of energy act compared to wave bands.

Crosscutting Concepts

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this crosscutting concept.

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
Throughout the simulation there are opportunities for students to make predictions, design testing scenarios, and collect data to predict outcomes. Testing these scenarios and collecting data help show the cause and effect relationship between light and how it is reflected, absorbed, or transmitted.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: All three dimensions are clearly present within this simulator. Students have the opportunity to use light, at various wavelengths, and use the model experiment with many situations. These situations include air, water, glass, and a custom range. Students can make the environment somewhere between the three mediums. The mystery media could be used at the start of student experimentation to find student baseline knowledge of reflection, absorption, and transmission. The same, or a different mystery media, could be used to determine the student growth during the time spent using the simulation. The cross-cutting concepts of cause and effect can be implemented at multiple times when using this simulation. Students can use a simple prediction chart to give what they think, and then show what they learned. This simulation also allows students to see the why behind that phenomena. They will also see the cause and effect relationship between light as it enters and/or reflects in air, water, and glass.

  • Instructional Supports: The simulation engages students in an exploration that deepens their understanding of light waves and how they are reflected, absorbed, and transmitted. Every child has at one time seen an object bend and become larger when put into a glass of water. There are means by which students can measure parts of the wave to deepen their understanding of the properties of waves. The area that needs to be further developed is guidelines to teachers. The activity resource does not provide a specific lesson plan to follow, or suggestions as to how this resource could be differentiated for students of all learning levels. A suggestion to bridge this gap is to use all three levels of the simulation gradually in class. Each level can build upon one another. Teachers could develop a pathway through the entire simulation that could be modified for special education students, or students who are struggling with the core idea of this activity. A detailed spreadsheet with room for predetermined investigation, as well as individualized study would allow students to learn, build, and grow in their understanding. This simulation has many possibilities, there has to be guidance and structure on the part of the teacher to ensure that all students can understand and build new question to explore while they are working through the simulation.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: The resource lacks evidence of monitoring student progress. It is suggested that the teacher develop a series of formative assessment to measure student understanding of the core idea being investigated. If a teacher designed a pathway that gave students directions to explore the different levels of the simulation, the formative assessments could be embedded within the student work, and be a natural evaluation. A general rubric would need to be developed to assess students using this resource. The rubric can be simple in nature, and could be designed and utilized by both the teacher and students.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: This resource is highly interactive. Student tasks could be developed by the teacher before the use of the simulation, or by the student and teacher as the students work through the simulation. Students can manipulate objects that not only change the system being used, but also to measure accurately. This ability to measure items (speed, angle, and/or intensity) makes the development of assessments and rubrics easier.