Toddlers with Lasers

My only real New Year’s resolution this year: restart the blog and post by the end of January. Well, it’s Groundhog’s Day. Better late than never?

I am back at work these days doing some engineering work for a local company, which is one of the reasons that I have let the blog slide, though I’ve missed this. A little while ago, my daughter wanted to pretend that one of her Little People was me and was driving around in a car, stopping to get gas and going to work. This is apparently what I do. She wanted to pretend that the Little Person was at my work so I decided to show her what I do at work.

Okay, most of what I do at work involves staring at a computer and would be pretty boring for a two year old. But, I do have some educational optics kits that are used to teach students about light so I went out to the garage and brought it in.

The result was amazing. Almost 30 minutes (an eternity to a two year old) of exploration.

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The kit consists of a laser source that shoots out 5 laser beams. These represent ‘rays’ of light. The idea is for students to then take some of the pieces of clear plastic that are molded into different shapes and see how the light travels through them. There are positive and negative lenses that bend light toward and away from their centers and blocks of glass for investigating.

Here is an example of a positive lens that my daughter put in the path of the light.

The main concept here is that when light hits something like glass or plastic, some it reflects off and some of it bends and travels through. How much reflects and how much travels through, as well as how much it bends, depends on the material. Mirrors reflect almost all the light, but glass only reflects a little and the rest travels through (making it a good window material!).

Here is a basic artistic view of what happens when the light hits a piece of glass:

If light inside the glass hits the surface with the air at a large enough angle, all the light will be reflected and none of it will be transmitted back into the air. This is called total internal reflection and can be used to make mirrors or trap light in things like fiber optics (that’s what brings my internet to my new house but more on that later).

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At one point, my daughter put a prism in the light at just the right angle so that a little traveled through (and bent a lot) and a lot of the light was reflected. She put the prism down and then said, “Whoa mommy!” Whoa, indeed. Total internal reflection is cool.

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Optics is cool, but I thought the best part of this experience was her exploration. Unlike my college students, she did not know what she was ‘supposed to do’ and did not care anyway. She tried putting all her toys in the laser beam – most of which did nothing at all but that did not phase her. She would just try something else – plastic Little People (every single one of them), Legos, teddy bears, books, and once she tried a little piece of foam packing material that turned about to be the coolest thing. The light bounced around the little piece of foam and it glowed bright red. She was so happy!

Her wonder gives me so much joy.

If you’re interested in the kit itself, I bought it at Arbor Scientific. You can find them there for $99. It is pretty basic but is a lot cheaper and in many ways just as good as the more expensive educational kits.

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