What optics topics/resources are best for teaching children about optical science?

I am an educator working with students in 3rd through 8th grade. I would like to work with students once a week doing a series of mini lessons with an optics focus. What sort of topics would be interesting/understandable for this age range? Are there any education resources already out there?

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That sounds amazing! I wonder if we could get you setup with the outreach program at the University of Arizona, which has an entire class dedicated to having undergrad / graduate students share optical knowledge with others.

In the meantime, I have always been fascinated with the physics of rainbows, and put together a small write-up on them from a geometrical optics perspective:

I think this make be slightly too complex for the 8th graders (unless they have already learned about geometry), but I think the concept of explaining optical phenomena that we observe in our everyday lives could be really fun!

I’m thinking of a few experiments that the kids could play with to study the effects of light. One could be showing them how a glass of water bends a laser beam, another could be a prism and showing them how it can separate light into colors, etc.

I will also think about what kind of online resources might exist that have some other ideas. I definitely support the sharing of optical knowledge!


@jaynal7 You did outreach I recall, were there any standout demos that kids really went for?

From what I remembered, color theory was pretty fun. You can get red, green, and blue light bulbs, and then adjust how bright each is with a white paper dome over it. The colors mix and it shows how primary colors mix to create the full spectrum. Also, you can then pull out a prism or a diffractive grating and show how white light is made up of individual colors. This opens up a nice opportunity to show that sunlight for example is made up of a solid spread of colors, while LED lights or fluorescent lights are made up of select distinct colors and are not a continuous spectrum.

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I’m in that outreach class right now!

@janetacree Here is a list of the UofA Optics demos that are ‘established’ by the class and have a pre-existing kit, which students check out and demo to any local school that wants a demonstration. If you’d like, we can visit you too! I think we also have instructions to create identical kits, if the instructor liked the demo that day and wants that as a permanent part of their repertoire. I don’t have exact information about the content or kits yet, but for now, many of these demos have titles that can be looked up online.

Outreach Demos

  • 3D TV and glasses
  • 3D pictures (with take home glasses)
  • Anamorphic cylindrical art (with take home)
  • Birefringent demo with polarimeter (with take home polarizers)
  • Color mixing (additive)/color subtraction


  • Spectrum tubes and diffraction glasses (with take home)
  • Light bulb bar and diffraction glasses (with take home)
  • Spectrometer
  • Electric pickle
  • Fresnel lens (with take home)
  • Inverted Einstein/Dragon (aka hollow face) (with take home)
  • Kaleidoscope
  • Laser transmitter
  • LCD screen taken apart (with take home pixel magnifiers)
  • Thermal IR camera
  • Near IR camera with Wilbur
  • Mirror making turntable water demo
  • Moire patterns
  • Peppers ghost (with take home)


  • Persistence of vision clock
  • Flip book
  • Color wheel
  • Praxinoscope
  • Zoetropes (future take home)


  • Mirrored pigs
  • Infinity mirror
  • Khet laser game
  • Light cone in fish tank
  • Laser waterfall (TIR)
  • Fiber optics (TIR)
  • Acrylic rod (TIR)
  • TIR with fish tank (TIR)


  • Geometric optics classroom kit
  • Light blox
  • Fish spearing
  • Rainbow demo
  • Bending laser beams in sugar water
  • Jello optics
  • Schlieren imaging
  • Solar Telescope
  • Speed of light in a microwave with chocolate bar
  • Squircle (take home)

Hi @lrgraves! It’s been a while, but I do remember kids enjoying the laser fountain to show TIR and relate it to fiber optics. Some of the first demos we ever did also included the glass bead rainbow and projecting a drop of water from the turtle bond to act like a microscope. We also did take apart a projector and laser printer to show the optics behind those devices. Hope this helps!


Wow, thanks @jaynal7 and @henryquach, you guys are incredible! These are great resources @janetacree, its great to hear of so many cool demo ideas! I may be channeling my inner Dae Wook here, but I think with all these great ideas it really can help get kids excited about such a cool topic as optics! (Ok, that was definitely channeling my inner Dae Wook :wink: )

This is incredible! So many great demos. How is the outreach class going? Would you be willing to come facilitate a demo or connect me with someone else in the class that would be interested? I’d love to get something scheduled for later in the month or in April!

@janetacree I totally wish I had responded to you sooner. Gah! I would have loved to schedule one for April, but alas, I took non-pandemic life for granted.

Outreach is very interesting at the moment. Remote opportunities are not in short supply - organizations such as https://www.skypeascientist.com/ connects classrooms and specialists around the world. It seems to be a successful canvas for blowing the minds of students.

However, the wow-factor of optics demos is partially hindered by a remote interface. Diffraction, rainbows, optical illusions, etc are much more effective when seen live because they generate both wonder and doubt about the ‘what you see is what you get’ aspect of human vision. It isn’t quite the same when seen through a monitor. :cry:

Henry, thanks so much for your response. I, too, took non-pandemic life for granted! I completely understand the outreach not working through online platforms. So much of interesting science ideas need to be seen and touched in person in order to make them real and powerful. Hopefully we can get something scheduled for the fall or whenever we finally all head back to school/work and things settle down a bit!