Hands-on Activity: Light Intensity Lab

Contributed by: VU Bioengineering RET Program, School of Engineering, Vanderbilt University

Optically transparent materials creating dichroic filters.
An ultraviolet interference filter created by transparent materials.
Copyright © 2007 Barr Associates, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA, Wikimedia Commons http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dichroic_filters.jpg


Students complete this Beer's law activity in class by examining the attenuation of various thicknesses of transparencies. From this activity, they come to understand that different substances absorb light differently. This concept is transferred to x-rays to explain that different substances absorb x-rays differently, hence the need for dual-energy analysis. In looking at Beer's law, students use the properties associated with natural logarithms. To conclude the activity, students complete a series of questions and calculations.
This engineering curriculum meets Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

Light attenuation and Beer's law are concepts that are very important to many engineers. Environmental engineers must understand these concepts when designing solar panels as a means of alternative energy. Biomedical engineers apply these concepts to bone mineral density measurements using x-ray machines, as well as other broader applications such as the design of biomaterials.

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • Derive the relationship between light and number of layer of attenuation.
  • Perform experiments to illustrate the concept of attenuation.

Educational Standards

Each TeachEngineering lesson or activity is correlated to one or more K-12 science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) educational standards.

All 100,000+ K-12 STEM standards covered in TeachEngineering are collected, maintained and packaged by the Achievement Standards Network (ASN), a project of D2L (www.achievementstandards.org).

In the ASN, standards are hierarchically structured: first by source; e.g., by state; within source by type; e.g., science or mathematics; within type by subtype, then by grade, etc.

  • Use mathematical representations to support a claim regarding relationships among the frequency, wavelength, and speed of waves traveling in various media. (Grades 9 - 12 ) More Details

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    This Performance Expectation focuses on the following Three Dimensional Learning aspects of NGSS:
    Science & Engineering Practices Disciplinary Core Ideas Crosscutting Concepts
    Use mathematical representations of phenomena or design solutions to describe and/or support claims and/or explanations.

    Alignment agreement:

    The wavelength and frequency of a wave are related to one another by the speed of travel of the wave, which depends on the type of wave and the medium through which it is passing.

    Alignment agreement:

    Empirical evidence is required to differentiate between cause and correlation and make claims about specific causes and effects.

    Alignment agreement:

  • Choose and produce an equivalent form of an expression to reveal and explain properties of the quantity represented by the expression. (Grades 9 - 12 ) More Details

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  • (+) Understand the inverse relationship between exponents and logarithms and use this relationship to solve problems involving logarithms and exponents. (Grades 9 - 12 ) More Details

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  • For exponential models, express as a logarithm the solution to abct = d where a, c, and d are numbers and the base b is 2, 10, or e; evaluate the logarithm using technology. (Grades 9 - 12 ) More Details

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  • Telemedicine reflects the convergence of technological advances in a number of fields, including medicine, telecommunications, virtual presence, computer engineering, informatics, artificial intelligence, robotics, materials science, and perceptual psychology. (Grades 9 - 12 ) More Details

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  • Technology transfer occurs when a new user applies an existing innovation developed for one purpose in a different function. (Grades 9 - 12 ) More Details

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  • (+) Understand the inverse relationship between exponents and logarithms and use this relationship to solve problems involving logarithms and exponents. (Grades 9 - 12 ) More Details

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Materials List

Each group needs:

  • lamp
  • incandescent 60 W bulb (not a halogen lamp)
  • aluminum foil, ~12 x 12 inch piece
  • clean transparencies
  • Light Attenuation Scale; individually print this light intensity scale because it loses the grayscale detail when photocopied
  • masking tape, ~12 inches
  • scissors
  • access to Microsoft Excel® computer software or a graphing calculator
  • Light Experiment Worksheet

Worksheets and Attachments

More Curriculum Like This

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Bone Mineral Density Math and Beer's Law

Students revisit the mathematics required to find bone mineral density, to which they were introduced in lesson 2 of this unit. They learn the equation to find intensity, Beer's law, and how to use it. Then they complete a sheet of practice problems that use the equation.

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High School Lesson

Pre-Req Knowledge

Students should be familiar with either Microsoft Excel® or the use of graphing calculators.


Now that you have been introduced to the equation used to calculate intensity and completed a few practice problems, you are ready to use it in a real-world application.

Today we will complete a lab dealing with measuring light intensity through different numbers of sheets of transparencies.

I am passing out the worksheet now. Please get into groups of three and I will explain further once everyone has all the materials.



  • Each group needs to be able to work at a table near a wall to shine the lamp onto and take intensity measurements.
  • Experiments must be performed with classroom lights out and shades drawn.
  • See additional comments on the Light Experiment Worksheet Answer Key

Before the Activity

With the Students

  1. Tape the light intensity scale to a wall and set up the lamp to shine on the scale (do not turn on the lamp yet).
  2. Cut a plastic transparency sheet into eight equal-sized sections.
  3. Cut a 5 mm-diameter hole in the center of a piece of foil.
  4. Cover the face of the lamp by wrapping the foil around it, making sure that the hole is in the center of the face of the lamp and that the foil does not cover up any vents in the back of the lamp.
  5. Darken the room, turn on the lamp apparatus, and hold a piece of plastic transparency a few inches from the wall to cast a shadow near the scale (but not on the scale).
  6. Match the intensity of the resulting shadow with a square on the scale, as shown in Figure 1. Tip: It is easier to distinguish the shade of gray in the shadow by stepping back to look at it.
  7. Record the intensity in worksheet Table 1.

Comparing the shadow to grayscale
Figure 1. Comparing the shadow to the grayscale and collecting the data.
Copyright © 2001-2004 VaNTH ERC

  1. Repeat the process with two sheets of the transparency stacked together, then three, and so on until the table is filled.
  2. Next, use Excel to plot the natural logarithm of the shadow's intensity versus the thickness of the attenuator.


Post-Activity Assessment: Collect and grade students' completed Light Experiment Worksheets. Review their answers and calculations to assess their depth of comprehension.

Safety Issues

Do not leave the lamp on for more than a minute at a time; the foil traps heat and can cause the bulb to burst.


Cynthia Paschal; Stacy Klein; Sean Brophy; Chris Garay; Hunt McKelvey; Stephen Schleicher; Rachael Shevin; Rebecca Zambon; Kristyn Shaffer; Megan Johnston


© 2013 by Regents of the University of Colorado; original © 2004 Vanderbilt University

Supporting Program

VU Bioengineering RET Program, School of Engineering, Vanderbilt University


The contents of this digital library curriculum were developed under National Science Foundation RET grant nos. 0338092 and 0742871. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the NSF, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Last modified: July 20, 2017