Welcome to practical physicsPracticle physics - practical activities designed for use in the classroom with 11 to 19 year olds
 

Teaching ray optics

Lenses

At introductory level, simple experiments can help students to realize that light travels in straight lines and that an object is seen when light from the object enters the eye. A lens bends light rays so that the rays pass through an image point and we think we see the object at that point. 
 
Treated as open-ended experiments they show students the way in which light behaves with real lenses in optical instruments. 

Most of the experiments described on this website are suitable for intermediate level courses. After completing them, students should be able to draw a diagram of light rays (not formal ray construction diagrams) showing the following. 

  • Rays travel out from an object point in all directions, going fainter as they go farther. 
  • All rays from a remote object point pass through an image point. 
  • Rays from a remote object point which pass through a lens and proceed to a real image point after the lens, continue straight on through that point. 
  • Rays from an object point which pass through a lens forming a virtual image emerge along lines that appear to come straight from the image point. 
  • Every ray aimed at a central point in a lens (called the optical centre) passes through undeviated.  

The real behaviour of rays falls short of the ideal of passing through images exactly. Students will see this and learn a little about correcting for that 'aberration'. 
 
The ray optics equipment suggested in these experiments looks simple, but some practical skill is needed to get the best out of it. Teaching notes provided with each experiment will help you ask the right questions of students struggling to get results. 
 
You will be better prepared for student questions if you try out the experiments carefully beforehand. It is also advisable to read traditional textbooks that go beyond what students need to know for examination purposes. For example, knowing that the minimum distance between object and image is four times the focal length of a converging lens will enable a teacher to choose a lens that suits the length of a demonstration bench. 
 
A well-organized 'cafeteria of equipment', under teacher control, will encourage students to do their own experimenting. In this way, extension work for faster students can be encouraged. 
 
At intermediate and advanced level, ripple tanks can be brought in when needed, to show reflection or refraction for example. Wave theory predicts that all parts of a wavefront starting from a small light source arrive in phase at the image. This requires all paths from the object to take the same time.