A sparkling, rainbow light tunnel, immersive interactive displays and presentations from the Sonoma State Physics and Engineering Department were only a few of the special events held at the “Light World” exhibition Tuesday night in the SSU student center ballroom.
The interactive and community learning event was put on by a group of University Elementary School first-graders and their teacher Ryan Kurada, along with the SSU Physics and Engineering department in an effort to not only showcase student work, but to inform people about the unique and mysterious way light works.
Like many other schools in Sonoma County, such as Casa Grande High School in Petaluma, University Elementary is embracing project based learning, as well as working to integrate lessons that relate to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). With this relatively new teaching method Kurda kick-started the project by asking his class what their burning question was for the day and at the time the collective answer was light.
“We encourage our students to study around their topics of interest and so light is something at the beginning of the year the kids noticed more because of the different types of light happening and daylight savings time and so they became really interested in the concept of light and they started asking questions about it, how does it work and I noticed all these questions,” Kurada excitedly explained.
Following the flurry of questions from his curious students, Kurada partnered with the SSU Physics department and SSU’s Society of Physics club to answer his classes’ “burning question.”
The student run club visited Kurada’s classroom and did a series of interactive presentations with fiber optic cables and lasers to teach kids how light bounces and how it can bend with refraction.
Courtney McNatt, president for the SSU Society of Physics Students, who wants to eventually teach physics herself, said of the presentations that it is fun to share the activities with them and watch them learn.
“Our main goal when we go to University Elementary is to engage the students in thinking about why things work. It is a very hands on table rotation system where the students get to work in small groups with members of our club, teaching assistants and parents… and we try to get them to use their vocabulary words and get them moving and engaged in learning,” McNatt said. “This has been our third consecutive year going to University Elementary and it is always so much fun every time we go.”
The class also had Cotati long exposure photographer, Tim Morgan, visit the class and teach the kids about long exposure work and how to paint with light with LED lamps.
Kurada then had the students start their own demonstrative projects surrounding the exploration of light, making them work together and share ideas on various group projects — a task that can even make college students groan at the prospect of having to work together.
However Kurada, who always wears an infectious grin, was able to successfully encourage his students to work together and produced intuitive projects for the special exhibition. Each project focuses on a certain topic they learned, such as opaque colors, shadow and the refraction of light.
The class made a series of projects that touched on a certain topic of what they learned about light. One project displayed how light can reflect and bounce off objects. Kids created their own creative shapes clad with reflective materials such as tin foil and CD’s.
Siena Halloran, 7, a student in Kurada’s class talked about her own unique reflective light sculpture and said it was her favorite project so far.
“I used cardboard and tinfoil to create whatever shape I wanted to reflect the light and it took me a week to make it,” Halloran said of her reflective design. She also said that the whole project was fun and that she enjoyed learning about light.
There were also a slew of transparent sculpture creations to show how the different colored light can shine through a transparent structure. To show this phenomenon, students set up various clear tubes and other clear plastic objects and stringed blue, green, purple and red lights through the objects. Over the course of their project they also studied how light is seen from solid objects and measured their shadows during different times of the day, as well as crafted their own solid objects placed over lights to see what light would come through.
Some of the solid object creations were simple, from a structure that look like a house, to one that looked like a spaceship. Besides viewing their creations, the kids also got a chance to participate in the light crafting stations that allowed students and curious parents to make light-up ornaments, make shadow puppets with a projector and explore the use of black light.
Kurada, who has been a first-grade teacher for three years, says these were a few goals he envisioned for the night of science and fun.
“It is a chance to have a celebration of the children’s work but I had two goals in mind, which is to engage the community in project based learning and to show what it is by being immersed in it and my second goal was to demonstrate what is possible with project based learning and how we can collaborate with the community,” he said.
Kurada and McNatt also agree that it is important to introduce the concept of science and physics to children at a young age in order to prepare them for the future job market that is being more centered towards engineering, math and science and because physics, McNatt says, is part of everything we do.
“We don’t know what jobs there will be in the future. We’re basically giving them the crucial skills of curiosity, collaboration and creativity because these are skills that they can use in any job that may come available and they’re already talking about that jobs in STEM are going to be in demand, the science, technology, engineering and mathematics, those are the future jobs that we need to start preparing them for now,” Kurada said.
McNatt also emphasized that physics is important for kids to learn since it is has some role to play within every branch of science.
“Physics is in everything we do… And I wish there was a lot more emphasis on engaging students about science on lower levels of education because I see these first-graders asking more inquisitive questions than anyone I have ever tutored at the college level,” McNatt said. “These young students have the most amazing way of thinking and I feel that it is not always utilized to its full potential,” McNatt said.