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From White Light to Rainbow Brite: Sir Isaac Newton and Optics


Newton's Color Wheel
Newton's Color Wheel


Lesson Plan


9  Physical Science


5 class periods (42 minute periods)

Content Benchmarks: 

Physical Science G,H

Content Standards:

Nature of Matter 18, 19, 20

Primary Source Documents:

A. Letter from Isaac Newton to the Royal Society. A Letter of Mr. Isaac Newton, Professor of the Mathematicks in the University of Cambridge, to the Royal Society, containing his New Theory about Light and Colors: sent by the Author to the Publisher from Cambridge, February 6. 1672 .
i. Source: The Newton Project.

Summary of Lesson:

Students will interpret primary source documents that depict what Isaac Newton did while experimenting with light.  From this, students will be able to understand where rainbows come from and how a rainbow is formed.  From this idea, students will be able to connect the ideas brought about by Newton with the electromagnetic spectrum. 

Steps to Implement Lesson


Day 1:

1. As students enter room, play the song “Somewhere over the Rainbow” and show students Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” cover artwork and ask them what it shows as part of their daily science question. (2-3 min)
2. Do K-W-L based on the question: “How were rainbows discovered?” – go over what students already know and what they want to know. (5 min)
3. In groups of three or four, students read Newton’s letter to the Royal Society – with this they will answer Spiral Questions to understand what the letter is about (20 min) 
4. When students are done, we will discuss what students found from reading the letter.  Teacher will tell students that tomorrow we will get a chance to see this experiment. (10 min)

Day 2:

1. Finish any discussion from the previous day
2. Give groups a picture of the engraving of Newton’s prism experiment and have them analyze the picture using the image analysis sheet.
3. As a class, discuss what the groups found in the picture
4. Next, half of the groups will receive Newton’s drawing of his experiment and the other half will receive the writing by Newton explaining his experiment.  The groups will analyze their resource by answering the question:  What does this source tell or show you about Newton’s prism experiment?  Groups will have to give a list of 5 things.  A worksheet for each source can be found below.

Day 3:

1. Finish any discussion from the previous day.
2. Give students a picture of the color wheel created by Newton with related Spiral Questions about what this image is of and how it would have been important at the time period. Here is a teaching note about the color wheel.
3. Students will then complete their own prism lab in class with their groups and answer questions about what they find when shooting a beam of light towards a prism.

Day 4:

1. Finish any lab items.
2. Students will refer back to their K-W-L and write what they learned about how rainbows were discovered.
3. Assign final project where students will create a comic strip of Newton’s prism experiment.  Each group member will be responsible for at least 2 slides and all together the group’s comic strip will depict Newton’s experiment and results.    Each student is also responsible for writing a paragraph summarizing the comic that their group created.  In the end this will show where rainbows come from!

Day 5:

1. Students will work on their comics and writings

Analysis of Primary Sources:

A. Students will use a combination of Spiral Questions and Document Analysis worksheets to help them understand each primary source. The worksheets can be downloaded from the list below. The Primary Sources are listed and accessible above.


A. Students, with their groups, will create a comic book or comic strip depicting the story of how rainbows were discovered.  Each student will be responsible for at least 2 slides of the book/strip and all combined will tell the story of Isaac Newton’s prism experiment.  
B. With the comic book/strip drawing, each student will also have to write a summary of Newton’s experiment that allowed him to discover what white light is made up of.  
C. Students will be graded on the comic and writing based on a rubric.

Post Assessment:

A.  The assessment will be that of the comic created by students and their group members as stated above.

Materials for Teacher:

A. Downloaded version of “Somewhere over the Rainbow”
B. Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” cover art
C. Primary sources: see above
D. Primary Source Analysis Sheets
E. Lab items:  prisms, light sources, white background, lab sheets

Materials for Students:

A. Possible craft items to create comic such as markers, paper, posterboard, etc...


A. After this lesson you could discuss the electromagnetic spectrum which will allow students to extend their thinking on Newton’s experiments
Created by Jackie Homan, Greenville High School, Ohio