Unit Sound and Light

Two images illustrate light and sound: (top) An animation of a continuous beam of light being dispersed by a prism. The white beam represents many wavelengths of visible light, of which 7 are shown, as they travel through a vacuum. (bottom) A circa 1960 black-and-white image shows the visible pattern of sound waves emitting from a horn.
Students investigate sound and light waves
Copyright © Lucas V. Barbosa; Woods Hole Science Center, U.S. Geolotical Survey https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Light_dispersion_conceptual_waves.gif http://woodshole.er.usgs.gov/operations/sfmapping/soundhist.htm


Students are provided with an understanding of sound and light waves through a "sunken treasure" theme—a continuous storyline throughout the lessons. In the first five lessons, students learn about sound, and in the rest of the lessons, they explore light concepts. To begin, students are introduced to the concepts of longitudinal and transverse waves. Then they learn about wavelength and amplitude in transverse waves. In the third lesson, students learn about sound through the introduction of frequency and how it applies to musical sounds. Next, they learn all about echolocation—what it is and how engineers use it to "see" things in the dark or deep underwater. The last of the five sound lessons introduces acoustics; students learn how different materials reflect and absorb sound.
This engineering curriculum aligns to Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

Engineers create new things for the benefit of society; they apply their understanding of the science of sound and light waves to the invention and evolution of many devices and products used daily for improved living, safety or prevention of harm. Sonar, reading glasses, light bulbs, stereo equipment and lasers, are just a few of the many items that engineers are involved in designing. To develop the technologies necessary to create these items, engineers must thoroughly understand how sound and light waves work, as well as wavelengths and amplitudes of waves. For example, engineers design vessels that travel on ocean waves and tsunami detection devices to warn people of approaching danger.

Engineers apply their understanding of frequencies to design many commonly used items such as lights, televisions and even traffic signals. Frequency is an important aspect of music; notes with different frequencies make different sounds. Acoustic engineers help to design theatres and auditoriums in order to optimize the sounds produced on stage for the benefit of the audience.

Being able to see is crucial for many everyday tasks. Engineers have developed electricity and lighting to help us see in the dark. Lighting engineers design the lighting systems where we live and work, customizing them for specific needs and conditions.

The list of how engineers apply their understanding of waves goes on and on, such as the use of electromagnetic waves in gamma radiation emitted by fuel rods in nuclear power plants, x-rays to peer inside our bodies, ultraviolet light for sanitation, microwaves for cooking, and radio waves to communicate over large distances.

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.

See individual lessons and activities for standards alignment.


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Unit Schedule

More Curriculum Like This

Upper Elementary Lesson
Making Music

Students learn about sound with an introduction to the concept of frequency and how it applies to musical sounds.

Upper Elementary Lesson
Visible Light and the Electromagnetic Spectrum

During this lesson, the electromagnetic spectrum is explained and students learn that visible light makes up only a portion of this wide spectrum. Students also learn that engineers use electromagnetic waves for many different applications.


© 2009 by Regents of the University of Colorado

Supporting Program

Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Colorado Boulder


The contents of this digital library curriculum were developed under grants from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), U.S. Department of Education, and the National Science Foundation (GK-12 grant no. 0338326). However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the Department of Education or National Science Foundation, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Last modified: April 12, 2020

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