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A Study of Light by Camille Hayward

Teachers take the time in setting the year’s thematic program in order to carefully ponder what topic to focus on each year when December arrives. Wanting to capture something of the essence of the season, we wish to do so in a way that is sensitive to all families and cultures. We also seek to identify a topic that has academic relevance and that, while it may reference a prior year’s focus, will be new for every child currently enrolled at  Lake and Park.

We completed the school year last June with a unit on Newton’s laws of physics, a component of which was a study of light. At the time we introduced the color spectrum, working with mirrors, flashlights and spinning objects. In planning this year’s work it occurred to us to build on that established background by looking closely at the essence of light-- so amply displayed at the darkest time of year.  Our study allow us to look beyond the physical properties of light, to learn of human attempts since prehistory to bring warmth and light under human control. This broad approach would  allow us to engage students in the following topics:  discovery of electricity, invention of the light bulb, energy sources that allow electricity to be channeled, circuitry which allows it to be directed.  We would also make room in our program to consider pre-electric sources of light. At the same time, we would think about the broader effects of overuse of traditional sources--fossil fuels, water--in the production of electricity and of its impact on climate change. Our Scientist in the Schools, Mary Fisher,  presented a lesson about the carbon dioxide cycle, and the need for conscientious use of sources.

Looking at a Light Bulb as a Scientist

Each child was asked to bring in a light bulb to begin our unit.  We often ask our classes to draw scientifically, usually this is from nature:  a whale bone, a pinecone, a mushroom.  We took this same approach of drawing scientifically, applying it this time to human invention.  Children throughout the grades participated in this exercise, honing skills of observation, coming to see the extraordinary in the commonplace.

Drawings of lightbulbs by Ellis, Abe and Omar.

Questions arose spontaneously in their minds as children studied what they were depicting.   As they held bulbs up to the light, they noted that some could be looked into, others not.  Many went on to make larger than life size paintings of light bulbs on our easels,  turning what began as a scientific drawing exercise into an expressive art project.

The Very Beginning Room displays paintings of lightbulbs created on the easel.

Thinking Both Philosophically and Scientifically

Soon after, teachers in the North Room and Big Room posed the provocative question,   “Was electricity invented or discovered?” nvent  This struck me as a wonderful question to put before children as it asked them to grapple with a complex topic about what is so readily taken as a commonplace in their lives.  They were able to articulate their thinking in a variety of ways, accessing prior knowledge. Children recorded their responses in their journals:

I think it is not an invention because it was there all along. We just did not know how to use it. I think how we use electricity was invented.

No, it is not invented because lightning is electricity in its natural state.  

Electricity is an invention because Thomas Edison made it and we would not have light.  

I don’t know whether electricity is an invention or a discovery.  I wonder if it is or not.  

Is electricity an invention?  Yes, because someone had to invent power lines or at least come up with the idea. I know someone invented the lightbulb, but not sure who. A lot of people helped with ideas. I wonder if maybe the scientists ever thought of keeping the light bulb to themselves.

Learning to Light a Light Bulb

Little houses lit up from below on the light table in the Big Room.

The  children set to work learning to light a small bulb with a battery and wire.  They were given time to experiment with various arrangements of wires and bulbs and to work with simple switches in order to turn circuits on and off.  Each child in the Upstairs Classrooms created a small cardboard house that they then powered with bulbs and batteries.  

Children cluster about as a wire lights the bulb.

Invention or Discovery?

The same question was then posed for the youngest children, after they had had exposure to working with the basics of circuitry:  Was electricity invented or discovered?

Responses were given out loud in front of classmates and recorded by the teacher on a large chart:

People found it out.  

I think it was invented.  

Invented, because I heard of a man who caught thunder with a kite.

Discovered, because my brother told me.

Invented, because my mom told me.

Discovered, because maybe if they saw lightning they could make light.

Discovered, because how could people make a lightning bolt?

The progression of the group’s thinking together is revealed as one answer furthers another.

A Timeline of Electrical Progress

We then went on to read” Ben Franklin’s Big Splash”.  He invented swimming fins, as a child.  

We read further about his discoveries with electricity.

 From there, we moved to reading about Thomas Edison’s work with the invention of the light bulb.

Vivienne Strickler presenting about her grandfather’s work in The Edison Labs.

Children in the Upstairs Classrooms were able to make an extraordinary connection to a family member of our school community who is related to a major player in the  development of electrical progress. During the above pictured presentation they connected what they had read and heard in their classroom studies to the fact that Keira’s great, great grandfather,  Max Loewenthal, worked in Edison’s laboratory in New Jersey and is credited with inventing the lightbulb socket.  Keira’s grandmother, Vivienne Strickler, Loewenthal’s grandchild, offered a history on Loewenthal’s work, exhibiting a prototype light bulb,  socket, and various patents, including his patent for the electric iron. Strickler told anecdotes of Loewenthal’s experiences working with Edison, including an account of Henry Ford visiting Edison to suggest designs for an electrical car. (This thought was downplayed by Edison as he knew that the storage life of a battery at the time would be an issue in how far such a vehicle could travel. According to the account, he suggested that Ford put his energies into development of the gasoline engine.)  Such an encounter with a close relative of a figure of historic importance brought the past into our setting in a very real way, allowing us the rarity of seeing primary source material firsthand.

Children in the Beginning Room will continue their work with major figures of electrical history, notably Nikola Tesla, making timelines of developments in electricity upon return to school from Winter Vacation. We will be inviting Strickler to visit the youngest children in the near future, so they, too, can learn of the work of an influential colleague of Edison’s.  Children in the Downstairs Classrooms will also learn about using electricity safely.

Cultural Aspects of Light Brought to Life in a Presentation

Beginning Room children arrived at school on December 15th with the classroom darkened, so that they could enjoy their lanterns as they walked about, shedding light.  Pictured are Olive, Kitzia and Yael, with Kim Martinson, who was involved in helping the children make their lanterns.

Let Your Light Shine, a school wide performance, was presented in the late afternoon of December 15th.  As Very Beginners and Beginners entered the Trike-Room-Turned-Theater holding homemade lanterns powered with LED candles, everyone joined in singing “I Walk With My Little Lantern”.  The closing number was a reprise of a poem recited near the beginning of the event.  In between, each child in the school was fully involved in a participatory program of “In the Round”--filled with song, and folktales dramatically interpreted and acted out with musical instruments for sound effect, and original stories told in Reader’s Theater or skit fashion, and dance,  as six of the Downstairs Children performed as stars in front of a  captivated audience.    Attendees and participants were each given a sugar cookie in the shape of a star, rolled out and cut by children during Choice Time and After Care, later dipped in chocolate frosting, as a parting gift, as they walked out into the night.

Rehearsal of “The Light Keeper’s Box”, a Venezuelan folk tale, by children in the Big Room, featuring the fire that North Room children made and lit with simple circuits.

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