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Content Benchmark P.8.C.1
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Students know visible light is a narrow band within the electromagnetic spectrum.  I/S

Light is everywhere in our world. We need light to see everything in our world.  Seeing colors and shapes is automatic to us, yet light is a complex topic when we study it more closely.

Scientists call the light we see visible light.  They also call light, electromagnetic radiation.  Visible light is only a small portion of the electromagnetic spectrum.  Light from all portions of the electromagnetic spectrum are used by us every day.  For example, dentists and doctors use X-rays to help treat their patients, lasers are used to perform surgeries, radio waves are used in cellular communication devices, and infrared rays are used in remote controls.  

Light comes from many sources, the main one being our sun, and it provides us with the energy needed for life. Light is one way that radiant energy may be transferred from one place to another. Scientists now recognize that light sometimes behaves like waves and, at other times, like particles.

To learn more about light as waves and particles, go to

Electromagnetic Spectrum
The electromagnetic spectrum is more familiar than you might think. The microwave you use to heat your food, the T.V. that you watch, and the cell phones you use are all using parts of the electromagnetic radiation spectrum (EMR spectrum).  

Diagram of the electromagnetic spectrum showing the relationship of wavelengths from radio to gamma waves.

Figure 1. The electromagnetic spectrum showing the lengths
of the different types of light

Visible light is only a small portion of the EMR spectrum.  Visible light waves are the only electromagnetic waves we can see, and are also the portion of the spectrum that allows us to see things in our world.  This visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum consists of the colors that we see in a rainbow - from reds and oranges, through blues and purples. 

To learn more about the electromagnetic spectrum go to

Light and Its Properties

Each color has a different wavelength. Red has the longest wavelength and violet has the shortest. When all the waves are seen together, they make white light. Red, green and blue are known as the primary colors of light, because when they are added together, white light is formed. 

Figure 2. White light refracted through a prism to show the
different wavelengths of visible light.


Brightness is defined as the amount of light over a given coverage area.  For example, thinking about the lights in your house or classroom, some lights can brighten an entire room, while others only cover a small area around them.  Brightness decreases quickly as the distance from the light source increases.  Watts is the measure of the amount of light, so brightness is measured as Watts per square meter.

To learn more about brightness as the amount of light over a given area, go to

The brightness of light is also related to the amount of light an object emits or reflects.  This depends on the light wave amplitude (the height of light waves).  Brightness is also somewhat influenced by wave length.  For example, yellow light tends to look brighter than reds or blues. 

To learn more about brightness in relation to color, go to

When thought of as a wave, light is composed of vibrating electric and magnetic fields, where the vibrations are perpendicular (at right angles) to the direction of light energy transfer. With vibrations perpendicular to the energy motion, all light waves are transverse (see Figure 3 below).


Figure 3. Diagram showing how wavelength is measured
from crest to crest or trough to trough.

In a transverse wave, the size of a wave is measured as its wavelength, which is the distance between any two corresponding points on successive waves, usually peak-to-peak or trough-to-trough.  The unit given to the wavelength depends on what type of wave is being measured and what area of science it is being used in. 

Wavelength measurements include microns, photons, angstroms, and nanometers.  For visible light, angstroms or nanometers are used. One angstrom is equal to 10-10 meter.  The SI unit for visible light is the nanometer, which is equal to 10-9 meter.  Visible light band is between 400 to 800 nanometers. 

For more information on the measurement units for wavelength, go to

The frequency is the number of wave peaks (or troughs) that pass a point in space during any time interval, usually one second. It is measured in units of cycles per second, or Hertz (Hz).


Figure 4. The electromagnetic spectrum showing the relationship between the different types of light, their wavelengths, frequencies, and photon energy.

All electromagnetic radiation travels at the speed of light which is 300,000 kilometers per second or 186,000 miles per second, in a vacuum.  Because light travels at a constant speed in a vacuum, frequency is directly related to wavelength.  As wavelength increases, frequency decreases.  For example, in the visible spectrum, red has the longest wavelength, which means is has the lowest frequency. On the other hand, blue light has the shortest wavelength and the greatest frequency.

For more information on the relationship between wavelength and frequency, go to


Figure 5. Diagram of light reflecting off a smooth surface.

On a flat, smooth surface, light hitting the surface at some angle is reflected off the surface at an equal angle. Mirrors, which are flat, smooth surfaces, work the way they do, based on this principle.  For rough surfaces, the light is reflected in many different directions.

Reflection also is what allows us to see things that don’t provide their own source of light.  For example, when we see an object painted blue, all of the wavelengths are being absorbed by the object except blue, which is being reflected into our eyes.  Our eyes then interpret the color and object using the brain. 

Figure 6. Diagram of how light being reflected off a blue object.


The bending of light as it passes from one medium or material to another is called refraction. Depending on the new medium, the light will travel faster or slower.  When white light shines through a prism, the white light is refracted, or bent into the colors of the visible light spectrum. Water vapor in the atmosphere can also break apart wavelengths creating a rainbow. 

For more information about light refraction and rainbows, go to

Refraction is also used to explain why objects appear bent when they are partially in water.  For example, if you place a pencil in a beaker that is filled with water, the pencil will seem bent because the speed of light is changing from the air to the water and the light angle is bent.

Figure 7. Angles of light traveling through air and water.


Diffraction is the slight bending of light as it passes around the edge of an object. The amount of bending depends on the relative size of the wavelength of light compared to the size of the opening. If the opening is much larger than the light's wavelength, the bending will be almost unnoticeable. However, if the two are closer in size or equal, the amount of bending is easily seen. 

Figure 8. Light being diffracted through cloud droplets.

To learn more about light diffraction, go to

Temperature and Radiation
All objects above the temperature of absolute zero radiate energy in the form of electromagnetic waves. As the temperature of an object increases, the frequency of electromagnetic radiation emitted by that object also increases. For example, the average temperature of the universe is about 2.7 K, and therefore, ubiquitous microwave light is emitted throughout the universe (called the cosmic microwave background). Most of the planets in our Solar System have surface temperatures that are around 100 K up to about 1000 K, and therefore, predominantly emit infrared. Our Sun and most stars predominantly emit visible light because their photospheres are around a few thousand degrees to tens of thousands of degrees. Even hotter objects, such as white dwarf stars and black holes predominantly emit ultraviolet and X-rays.

Figure 9.  The relationship between temperature of an object, the predominant kind of light it emits, and the wavelength of light.

 Although the temperature determines the predominant frequency of light emitted by an object, it turns out the objects truly emit all parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, even if the amount of some types of light is very, very small. The profile of the quantity of different types of light emitted and the object’s temperature is called the black body curve. A black body is a hypothetical condition showing ideal conditions for radiation emitted at a particular temperature.

Figure 9. Blackbody radiation curves for objects at three temperatures.

For more information on the relationship between temperature, electromagnetic radiation, and black bodies, go to

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Content Benchmark P.8.C.1

Students know visible light is a narrow band within the electromagnetic spectrum.  I/S

Common misconceptions associated with this benchmark

 1. Students inaccurately assume that we see because light shines on things and brightens them.

What we see when we are looking at an object is the light reflecting off it.  The eye converts that light into nerve impulses and our brain tells us what we are seeing by interpreting those signals.  Students tend to think that light is shining into our eyes and that is what allows us to see objects.  They struggle to understand that we are seeing light being reflected off an object to our eyes.  They assume that we cannot see in the dark because there is no light hitting our eyes rather than knowing that there is not light hitting the objects in the dark.   

For more information on how we see, go to

2. Students have difficulty understanding how we see colors. 

When an object appears green, it is actually absorbing all colors of light, except green.  That is the color being reflected to our eyes which is why we see it as green.  Students tend to think that white light is illuminating the object so that our eyes can see the color the object is.  They need to understand that white light is made of all the visible colors and that objects absorbing and reflecting certain wavelengths allows us to see color.  Using prisms to refract color and discussing how a black shirt feels warmer helps students move past this misconception. 

For more information on how we see colors, go to

3. Students incorrectly believe that visible light is the only type of light

Light has been used to describe light bulbs, flash lights, day light, and neon light.  However, light is not what we say when we refer to radio waves, ultraviolet, or X-rays. Students are lead toward this misconception because visible light is such a frequent item in their lives and it is the only radiation referred to as “light” during daily conversation.   By discussing microwaves and infrared as light and talking about sunburns being caused by ultraviolet light, students begin to understand that visible light is only a small part of the electromagnetic radiation spectrum. 

To learn more about this and other misconceptions about light, go to:

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Content Benchmark P.8.C.1

Students know visible light is a narrow band within the electromagnetic spectrum.  I/S

Sample Test Questions

1st Item Specification: Know visible light is a small segment of the entire electromagnetic spectrum.

Depth Of Knowledge Level 1

  1. What part of the electromagnetic spectrum can be seen by humans?
    1. Visible light
    2. Microwaves
    3. Ultraviolet
    4. Infrared
  1. The electromagnetic spectrum is made up of bands of waves with different
    1. velocities.
    2. frequencies.
    3. reflections.
    4. focal points.
  1. The diagram below illustrates the electromagnetic spectrum. Use this diagram to answer the following question.

Diagram of the electromagnetic spectrum showing the relationship of wavelengths from radio to gamma waves.

Which type of electromagnetic wave has the greatest frequency?

    1. Radio waves
    2. Infrared
    3. Gamma rays
    4. Microwaves
  1. The diagram below illustrates the electromagnetic spectrum. Use this diagram to answer the following question.

Diagram of the electromagnetic spectrum showing the relationship of wavelengths from radio to gamma waves.

Which type of electromagnetic wave has the longest wavelength?

    1. Visible light
    2. Radio waves
    3. Ultraviolet
    4. Gamma rays

2nd Item Specification: Recognize and identify the properties of light (e.g., color, brightness, wavelength, frequency, reflection, refraction, and diffraction). 

Depth Of Knowledge Level 1

  1. Which property of light causes a rainbow to form?
    1. Reflection
    2. Absorption
    3. Refraction
    4. Diffraction
  1. The figure below represents how light can travel. Use this figure to answer the following question.


This diagram best represents

    1. reflection.
    2. refraction.
    3. absorption.
    4. diffusion.

Depth Of Knowledge Level 2

  1. Use the image below to answer the next question.


When a pencil is placed in a glass of water, the pencil appears broken at the surface of the water because the speed of light

    1. is increasing.
    2. stops immediately.
    3. is decreasing.
    4. remains the same.
  1. What is happening when a person sees a red apple?
    1. Red light is being reflected off the apple to the eye.
    2. Red light is emitted from the apple to the eye.
    3. White light is reflecting off the eye onto the apple. 
    4. White light is emitted from the apple to the eye. 

3rd Item Specification:
Understand the relationship between the electromagnetic radiation emitted by an object and the object’s temperature.

Depth Of Knowledge Level 1

  1. Which colored flame is at a higher temperature?
    1. red
    2. orange
    3. yellow
    4. blue

  2. Why does a light bulb emit visible light?
    1. The bulb’s filament wire is a made of material which causes electrons to spark.
    2. The bulb’s filament wire is around 3000 degrees Celsius and visibly glows.
    3. The bulb’s filament wire is very thin and you can see the electrical current.
    4. The bulb’s filament wire vibrates very rapidly and produces light waves.

Depth Of Knowledge Level 2

  1. An astronomer has observed two nebulae in space that stationary relative to Earth. The Nebula A emits strongly in infrared light. The Nebula B emits strongly in ultraviolet. Which is the BEST explanation of the observation?
    1. Nebula A has the same average temperature as Nebula B because temperature does not depend on the light emitted.
    2. Nebula A has the same average temperature as Nebula B, but Nebula A is farther away, shifting the light emitted.
    3. Nebula A has a greater average temperature than Nebula B because hotter objects will emit strongly in infrared light.
    4. Nebula A has a lower average temperature than Nebula A because cooler objects will emit strongly in infrared light.
  1. There are two bright stars in a constellation. One of the stars appears blue. The other star appears red. Which of the following is the BEST explanation for the difference in the stars’ color?
    1. The blue star must have a smaller mass compared to the red star.
    2. The blue star must have a larger size compared to the red star
    3. The blue star must have a greater surface temperature compared to the red star.
    4. The blue star must be moving toward the Earth and the red star away from Earth. 

Constructed Response P.8.C.1

1. You and your friend are outside playing a game of one-on-one basketball. Your friend asks you about light and why we see that the basketball has an orange color.

  1. Draw and label a diagram to show the path of light that allows a person to see a basketball outside.
  1. Using your diagram, explain how and why you and your friend see that basketball is orange. 

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Content Benchmark P.8.C.1

Students know visible light is a narrow band within the electromagnetic spectrum.  I/S

Answers to Sample Test Questions

  1. A, DOK level 1
  2. B, DOK level 1
  3. C, DOK level 1
  4. B, DOK level 1
  5. C, DOK level 1
  6. A, DOK level 1
  7. C, DOK level 2
  8. A, DOK level 2
  9. D, DOK level 1
  10. B, DOK level 1
  11. D, DOK level 2
  12. C, DOK level 2


Constructed Response 3-point Answer and Score Rubric:

 3 points

Response addresses all parts of the question clearly and correctly.
Student draws a diagram that includes the sun, a ball, and an eye.  Light is emitted from the sun onto the basketball. The light is then reflected off of the basketball into the eye. The person sees the basketball as orange because the ball is absorbing all the colors of light from the sun except orange, which it is reflecting to the eye.

2 points

Response addresses all parts of the question and includes only minor errors.

1 point

Response does not address all parts of the question.

0 points

Response is totally incorrect or no response provided.

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Content Benchmark P.8.C.1

Students know visible light is a narrow band within the electromagnetic spectrum.  I/S

Intervention Strategies and Resources

The following is a list of intervention strategies and resources that will facilitate student understanding of this benchmark.

1. Interactive Simulations

Interactive on-line simulations allow students the opportunity to see how light behaves without using expensive equipment. For example, the University of Colorado has created a site which allows students to experiment with mixing different colors of light, as well as different pigments. Students can then contrast how these light and pigments are different.

To see the way light colors and pigments interact, go to

Another website allows students to place mirrors at different angles and locations to see how light reflects.  Then it has a multiple choice quiz for students to take.

To try this activity, go to

2. Online Quizzes

Interactive quizzes allow students to practice what they know and realize what they need to study.  These sites have multiple choice quizzes that students can take and then see their results along with the correct answers.  It also includes tutorials and online labs to use. 

For an online quiz about the electromagnetic spectrum, go to

To study light and its properties, go to

3.  Puzzles and Flash Cards

On-line crossword puzzles and flash cards are great ways for students to practice vocabulary and concepts.  Both of these sites allow students to match vocabulary to the definitions and check to make sure they are correct.  They also have tutorials the students can go back to if they need to study more. 

A crossword puzzle on light is found at

A concentration game on waves is found at

4. Lesson Plans about the Electromagnetic Spectrum.

NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory has an education website with lessons that are classroom ready.  The site includes introductory material, reinforcement activities and labs, and performance assessment activities.

To see and download these lessons, go to

The Discover Education site includes a lesson plan that incorporates the electromagnetic radiation spectrum with an extension activity that debates whether or not the government should be able to control radio and television frequencies. 

To access this lesson and others, go to

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Support Pages

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Sample Questions:
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Intervention Strategies & Resources:
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Benchmark Related Vocabulary