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Spreading the Joy of Active Learning about Light and Color with Teachers in Mexico

Rebecca E. Vieyra, Patricia Moraes, Alison Owens, and Pilar del Carmen Suárez Rodríguez

The topics of light and color are very accessible to learners of all ages, and many everyday materials can help learners to develop robust understandings about physics in general and optics in particular.

Caption: ITEN Team and BUAP Professor of Physics. Pictured from left to right: Dr. Carmen del Pilar Suárez Rodríguez (ITEN), Rebecca Vieyra (ITEN), Dr. Josip Slisko (BUAP), Patricia Moraes (ITEN), and Alison Owens (ITEN). 

Credit: ITEN Team

The Inter-American Teacher Education Network (ITEN) is an initiative that responds to a mandate from the Ministers of Education of the Organization of American States, and is managed by the Department of Human Development, Education and Employment. ITEN aims to contribute to the improvement of quality and equality of education in the Americas by promoting the exchange of knowledge, capacity building, and technical assistance to advance the teaching profession in the region. ITEN recently partnered with the OSA Foundation to bring light and color to life through a series of workshops in Puebla, Mexico. The ITEN team was invited on behalf of the Benemeritous Autonomous University of Puebla (BUAP) to engage with teachers in hands-on, minds-on sessions at the “International Workshop New Trends in Physics Teaching” from May 23 to 26 in Puebla, Mexico.

Through two 75-minute sessions, the ITEN team used the OSA Rochester Section Optics Suitcase, supplemented by activities previously co-developed between OSA and the American Association of Physics Teachers, to lead approximately 80 high school and university physics teachers through a learning progression that included color addition and subtraction, wave properties of light, and  geometric optics. Many of the activities the ITEN team used during the workshop rely on the Optics Suitcase equipment and other easily-attainable materials such as monochromatic light produced by a smartphone screen, candies, colored gelatin, polymer beads, and reflective paper.

At the core of the workshop, however, was an emphasis on good pedagogical strategies that have been shown to improve educational quality, including Marzano’s Nine High-Yield Instructional Strategies and Everyday Actions from the NSF-sponsored STEP UP 4 Women program that STEM teachers can take to ensure that all students—especially young women—consider careers in physics.

Caption: A physics teacher workshop participant looks through a hydrophilic sphere and sees an inverted world. 

Credit: Patricia Moraes

At the conclusion of the first part of the workshop, one participant said, “Without doing things the traditional way…I think this is a better way to grab students’ attention” while another added that “It’s very important to have lots of materials so students can hypothesize [about light and color], and then to use those materials in order to test their thinking. That doesn’t always happen so smoothly as what we did here.”

To support quality instruction and an emphasis on optics for workforce development at the systemic level across the Americas, later this summer ITEN will announce the first-ever international ITEN Teacher Fellowship, composed of two groups: secondary physics teachers for whom optics is a natural part of their instruction, and early childhood teachers who are interested in bringing a STEM emphasis to their teaching.

In August, a total of 35 teachers will come together to engage in 6-days of instructional workshops, including the OSA-inspired activities already used in Mexico, optics-related simulations from the Physics Education Technology (PhET) project at the University of Colorado-Boulder, and a 4-day Active Learning in Optics and Photonics workshop from UNESCO/International Center for Theoretical Physics. Across the remaining 1.5 years of their Teacher Fellowship, these individuals will be supported to provide professional development to their peers, and, in coordination with their Ministries of Education and teacher education institutions, become agents of change for the improvement of STEM education in the Americas.

* Acknowledgement: The Inter-American Teacher Education Network is generously funded by the U.S. Mission to the Organization of American States.

Caption: Physics teacher looks through an OAS Optics Kit “Magic Peephole” diffraction grating to observe light spectra.

Credit: Alison Owens

Caption: Physics teachers use OAS Optics Kit “Magic Patch” thermopaper to describe how crystals reflect various colors of light

Credit: Alison Owens

Image for keeping the session alive