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Proceedings Paper • Open Access

Teaching optics concepts through an approach that emphasizes the colors of nature
Author(s): Stephen M. Pompea; Laura D. Carsten-Conner

Paper Abstract

A wide variety of optics concepts can be taught using the overall perspective of “colors of nature” as a guiding and unifying theme. This approach is attractive and interesting with a wide appeal to children, nature enthusiasts, photographers, and artists. This approach also encourages a deep understanding of the natural world and the role of coloration in biology, remote sensing, the aurora, mineralogy, meteorology, in human-made objects, and astronomy, to name a few. Third, using this theme promotes a close look at optical phenomena at all size scales–from the microscopic (e.g. silica spheres in opals) to the mid-scale (the aurora), to the largest scale (astronomical phenomena such as gaseous emission nebula). Fourth, the natural and human-constructed world provides accessible and beautiful examples of complex phenomena such as interference, diffraction, atomic and molecular emissions, Rayleigh and Mie scattering, illumination engineering, and fluorescence. These areas can be explored successfully in the context of “colors of nature”. Finally, using the “colors of nature” also promotes an understanding of technology, from flashlights to streetlights, from telescopes and binoculars, to spectrometers and digital cameras. For examples something as simple as how to set the white balance on a digital camera to get a realistic looking photograph can lead to a lengthy exploration of spectrally selective surfaces and their reflectance, the nature of different illumination sources, the meaning of color temperature, and role of calibration in a digital image. We have used this approach of teaching using the colors of nature as an organizing theme in our NSF-funded project “Project STEAM: Integrating Art with Science to Build Science Identities Among Girls” (

Paper Details

Date Published: 8 October 2015
PDF: 11 pages
Proc. SPIE 9793, Education and Training in Optics and Photonics: ETOP 2015, 97932U (8 October 2015); doi: 10.1117/12.2223238
Show Author Affiliations
Stephen M. Pompea, National Optical Astronomy Observatory (United States)
Laura D. Carsten-Conner, The Univ. of Alaska, Fairbanks (United States)

Published in SPIE Proceedings Vol. 9793:
Education and Training in Optics and Photonics: ETOP 2015

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