Unit 8.3: A High-Energy Exploration of Sound and Light

Friday, January 3, 2020
The school band was totally pumped about performing at the local amphitheater. Then they got the bad news: their show was cancelled. Something was wrong with the stage lights at Penelope’s Orpheum. Sometimes, the lights illuminated the marquee correctly, and other times, the only visible letters were “P  o  O  p.”

And that’s not all, says Chris Geerer, a science teacher at Parcells Middle School, in Grosse Pointe Woods. Sometimes the underwater laser light show flashed into the audience. Plus, the neighbors were complaining about the noise. “It was so bad it was making the windows rattle.”

What would it take to get Penelope’s Orpheum back in business and the school band on the stage? That’s the challenge students face in Mi-STAR’s Unit 8.3, Sound and Light Waves.

Students had fun with the mild potty humor implicit in the challenge, says Geerer, who is piloting the unit. But they quickly buckled down and began solving the problems. The amphitheater’s underwater laser show turned out to be a major culprit.  “The laser lights are supposed to shoot into the sky, but when they hit the air, they hit the audience in the face,” Geerer explains. “The kids can solve that problem any way they want—change the angle of lights, get rid of water, whatever. They just have to explain why the light is bending and how to fix it.” 

Then there’s the business of the sign. To figure that out, Geerer’s classes put colored filters on lights and shined them at gummy bears. They quickly determined that they’ll have to change the colors of either the letters or the stage-light filters. “One of the best things about this unit is thatthere isn’t a right or wrong solution to these problems,” Geerer notes. “There are multiple fixes, and as long as the students can justify their solution with evidence and reasoning, it’s good.”

To address the window-rattling problem, the students figured out how sound waves travel and then considered possible ways to reduce the noise leaving the concert venue, including relocating the stage. In the process, they learned about sound traveling in different mediums and sound amplitude and frequency.

Yes, the unit was engaging. “One of my girls had always wanted to be an architect, but now she wants to do something with sound and light as a career.”  Geerer relayed the girl’s story to Mi-STAR curriculum developer Doug Oppliger, who provided a list of related careers in medicine, engineering, music and even architecture. Now the student is rethinking her future. “She was that excited about this unit,” Geerer says.

Jackie Huntoon, a Mi-STAR team member from Michigan Tech, wasn’t surprised that the unit prompted the student to broaden her horizons.  “Mi-STAR’s interdisciplinary approach is intended to build connections between science, engineering and other disciplines,” she said. “In this case, the Unit Challenge helped a student learn about a career opportunity that she had never considered before.”

Jared Anderson, chair of Michigan Tech’s Department of Visual and Performing Arts,   agreed. “When we help students to think creatively, they begin to realize there is much greater breadth to intellectual inquiry than they often suppose,” he said, adding, “This unit demonstrates approaches often used in arts education. There isn’t only one answer; often there are multiple answers that work well.”

Jenne Bush, an eighth grade science teacher at Newaygo Middle School, is also piloting Unit 8.3. Her students liked attacking the Penelope's Orpheum problem, and they also illuminated just how difficult it can be to correct entrenched misinformation.

Though all the evidence from the light spectrum showed that the color blue has more energy than red or yellow, some students would still insist that red has more energy than blue. “They’d have all the right answers until the very end,” says Bush. “Then they would get stuck.”

So Bush talked about the difference between science and art. “Pigment is not the same as energy,” she says. “In the art world, we think of red being hot and blue being cold. But look at the stars: red is cooler than blue.” Eventually, she says, her students figured it out, but it took awhile. “That shows how ingrained those misconceptions can be.”

Though she’s taught Mi-STAR for two years, this is Bush’s first time piloting a unit. “It was great, though there were times I changed something three periods in a row,” she says. “By my fourth science period, my students got a totally different experience.”

One of the best aspects was the Professional Learning Communities, or PLCs. “We’d troubleshoot and have some great discussions. I’d think that I’d come up with a good idea, and then another teacher would have tried something that was even better.”

The PLC was especially useful for Bush, the lone eighth grade science teacher in her district. “The upside is that I didn’t have to fight to start teaching Mi-STAR, but on the flip side, I don’t have anybody to bounce ideas off of.”

As for her students, they willingly put in the extra effort when they learned they’d be piloting too. “I told them the unit was brand new and that they’d be the first in the entire state to be doing this,”  she says. “I have to give a final exam, and I told them that I’d be sending the results to Michigan Technological University, so they’d need to show these people everything they know. That was really cool for them.”

Bush calls Mi-STAR “fantastic,” both the units themselves and the ongoing process to make them better through the PLCs. “It’s always a work in progress, and I’m happy there’s a coalition doing this,” she says. “It’s not about right or wrong anymore, it’s about the evidence. Our kids are actually doing science.”

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Mi-STAR was founded in 2015 through generous support provided by the Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation. Mi-STAR has also received substantial support from the National Science Foundation, the MiSTEM Advisory Council through the Michigan Department of Education, and Michigan Technological University.