Model Building on Spring Break

My school started its two-week Spring Break this past Monday. My honors physics classes have finished up the mechanical modeling materials (with the exception of the central force model). When we return from break, they will begin an investigation of light and optics. I didn’t want them to spend the next two weeks ignoring physics nor did I want them reading chapters from a book. To keep them engaged and thinking about the world around them, I gave them the following assignment. This is a great group of students this year, so I think our first day back will be very interesting.

We have spent months together not only learning about the natural world, but also learning how to learn about it. In our time together, we have developed models explaining the behavior of pendulums, objects moving with constant or changing velocity, projectiles, balanced and unbalanced forces and the conservation of two quantities (momentum & energy). The tools we have used include diagrams, graphs, mathematical equations and verbal descriptions. At this point, I want to give you a chance to strike out on your own.

When we return from Spring Break, we will be spending our time investigating the nature of light. What is it? How does it move? How does sight work? This study will include things like shadows, mirrors and lenses. We’ll look at the difference between colored light and the white light we receive from the Sun. In preparation for this study, I want you to spend some time during Spring Break doing one thing:

Develop a model for light or a light-related phenomenon.

What is a “light-related phenomenon”? Consider the following questions:

  • If shadows are blocking the Sun, why isn’t a shadow black? Why is it a diffuse gray?
  • Why is my reflection in a spoon upside-down on one side and right side up on the other?
  • Why is the sky red at sunrise and sunset, but blue during the day?
  • If you look at a green shirt under a red light, is it still green? What does this say about the nature of color?
  • Why does the portion of a drinking straw submerged in water seem larger or even broken from the portion still in air?
  • Can you ever add light from two sources together to produce darkness? Or do they always produce a brighter light?

During Spring Break, take time to look around you. Light is ubiquitous, yet to this point we may only understand its nature in a rudimentary sense. Make observations. Draw diagrams. Take pictures or video. If you choose to make measurements, record them. Write down your thoughts. Don’t daydream about light. Purposefully direct your attention to an observation about it. What do you notice? Alter the situation and see how things change. This will be challenging, but you are capable of doing challenging things.

When you return from break, we’ll spend some time together sharing what we found.  



  1. This is really great, Brian! Do the students tend to interact with each other over spring break (live near each other etc)? I wonder what would happen if they informally communicated with one another.

    1. Thanks, Andy.

      My students come from all over the surrounding area, so very few live in the same neighborhood. As is common for kids their age though, they Snapchat, tweet, etc. I’ve encouraged them to take pictures and record video with their phones, so hopefully they will share interesting phenomena with one another.

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