Curricular Unit: Waves: The Three Color Mystery

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Grade Level: 8 (8-10)

Choose From: 5 lessons and 1 activities

Subject Areas: Physical Science

Four glass bottles filled with colored liquids (red, yellow, green, cream) with a question mark shadow superimposed above the bottle caps.
Students design ways to help those who are color blind
Copyright © 2004 Microsoft Corporation, One Microsoft Way, Redmond, WA 98052-6399 USA. All rights reserved


Students are presented with a challenge question concerning color blindness and asked to use engineering principles to design devices to help people who are color blind. Using the legacy cycle as a model, this unit is comprised of five lessons designed to teach wave properties, the electromagnetic spectrum, and the anatomy of the human eye in an interactive format that introduces engineering applications and real-world references. It culminates with an activity in which student teams apply what they have learned to design devices that can aid people with colorblindness in distinguishing colors— as evidenced by their creation of brainstorming posters, descriptive brochures and short team presentations, as if they were engineers reporting to clients. Through this unit, students become more aware of the connections between the biology of the eye and the physical science concept of light, and gain an understanding of how those scientific concepts relate to the field of engineering.
This engineering curriculum aligns to Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

Engineers use the properties of waves in the design of everyday tools. Rearview mirrors, x-ray machines, and microwaves are examples of technologies that rely on an understanding of waves. When engineers work with ophthalmologists and optometrists to design eyeglasses, as another example, they apply their knowledge of light waves to the interactions light has with human eyes, so that they can customize solutions for individual deficiencies. Engineers of all disciplines employ the steps of the engineering design process in order to create innovative, effective and efficient solutions to human challenges.

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 (

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.

NGSS Performance Expectation

MS-ETS1-1. Define the criteria and constraints of a design problem with sufficient precision to ensure a successful solution, taking into account relevant scientific principles and potential impacts on people and the natural environment that may limit possible solutions. (Grades 6 - 8)

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This unit focuses on the following Three Dimensional Learning aspects of NGSS:
Science & Engineering Practices Disciplinary Core Ideas Crosscutting Concepts
Define a design problem that can be solved through the development of an object, tool, process or system and includes multiple criteria and constraints, including scientific knowledge that may limit possible solutions.

Alignment agreement:

The more precisely a design task's criteria and constraints can be defined, the more likely it is that the designed solution will be successful. Specification of constraints includes consideration of scientific principles and other relevant knowledge that is likely to limit possible solutions.

Alignment agreement:

All human activity draws on natural resources and has both short and long-term consequences, positive as well as negative, for the health of people and the natural environment.

Alignment agreement:

The uses of technologies and any limitations on their use are driven by individual or societal needs, desires, and values; by the findings of scientific research; and by differences in such factors as climate, natural resources, and economic conditions.

Alignment agreement:

  • Students will develop an understanding of the role of troubleshooting, research and development, invention and innovation, and experimentation in problem solving. (Grades K - 12) More Details

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Unit Schedule

Two columns: Estimated Time Required, Unit Schedule. Lesson 1: The Three Color Mystery (50 minutes), Lesson 2: Waves and Wave Properties (100 minutes), Lesson 3: Light Properties (150 minutes), Lesson 4: Exploring the Electromagnetic Spectrum (50 minutes), Lesson 5: Understanding the Structure of the Eye (30 minutes) and the concluding activity: Waves Go Public! (100 minutes).


© 2013 by Regents of the University of Colorado; original © 2010 Clemson University


Ellen Zielinski; Courtney Faber; Marissa H. Forbes, through Clemson University's "Engineering Fibers and Films Experience – EFF-X" Research Experience for Teachers Program, National Science Foundation grant no. EEC-0602040

Supporting Program

Research Experience for Teachers (RET) Program, Center of Advancement of Engineering Fibers and Films, Clemson University


This unit was developed through Clemson University's "Engineering Fibers and Films Experience – EFF-X" Research Experience for Teachers program, funded by National Science Foundation grant no. EEC-0602040. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the National Science Foundation, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Last modified: October 7, 2019


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