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Rainbow in the Room

Author(s): Nancy P. Moreno, PhD, Barbara Z. Tharp, MS, and Judith Dresden, MS.


A prism is a transparent optical element with flat, polished surfaces that refract light. At least two of the flat surfaces must have an angle between them. Prisms can be made from any material that is transparent to the wavelengths for which they are designed. Typical materials include glass, plastic and fluorite. When white light passes at an angle from one transparent material (such as air) into another (such as water or glass), a rainbow forms. The colors of the rainbow always appear in the same order, because they correspond to different wavelengths of light. Conduct further explorations of the spectrum by using prisms outside with sunlight and/or indoors with light from incandescent or fluorescent bulbs.

Help students understand waves by modeling wave motion with a spring toy (Slinky®). Lay the spring on a tabletop and wave one end from side to side. Students will be able to see waves move along the length of the spring.

Explore the vast differences among wavelengths in the electromagnetic spectrum by measuring out (or creating a scale model of) some of the following kinds of waves and displaying them in the classroom. Alternately, you can measure out the actual lengths on the playground.

  • AM radio waves: 100m 
  • FM radio waves: 10m 
  • Television waves: 1m 
  • Microwaves: 1 cm 
  • Infrared waves (felt as heat): less than 1 mm

Printers use cyan, magenta, yellow and black inks to create all of the colors in a printed document. Have students examine color photographs, comics or advertisements printed in the newspaper using a hand lens or magnifier. Have them identify the combinations of colored dots used to create colors such as orange, green and purple.

Funded by the following grant(s)

National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, NIH

National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, NIH

My Health My World: National Dissemination
Grant Number: 5R25ES009259
The Environment as a Context for Opportunities in Schools
Grant Number: 5R25ES010698, R25ES06932

Houston Endowment Inc.

Foundations for the Future: Capitalizing on Technology to Promote Equity, Access and Quality in Elementary Science Education