The Discovery Place does optics!

This post involves a little bit of boasting!  For the past month, the Discovery Place science museum in Charlotte has been displaying a small interactive optics exhibit targeted at 8-14 year-olds as part of their “Explore More Stuff” series.  The kicker is that I played a small part in the exhibit, suggesting an idea for one of the interactive “stations”!

The museum contacted our department a couple of months ago and a few faculty, including me, went to brainstorm with their staff for their exhibit.  They did a great job quickly turning the ideas that came out of the session into kid-resistant displays.  The exhibit gets phased out next week, but I stopped downtown this week to take a few quick pics!

One station allows kids to learn about the idea of refraction, and Snell’s law!  Plastic prisms filled with different liquids can be placed in the path of a laser beam, and from the angle of refraction the refractive index of the liquids can be deduced:

A second station gives kids the opportunity to study geometrical optics more generally, with a series of mirrors, prisms, and a ray box:

One can use convex mirrors to study the focusing of light, and concave mirrors to investigate diverging rays.

There were some six stations total, making for a nice collection of activities for kids:

I only want to discuss one more, though; the anamorphic imaging display!  Kids get to work with an “optical jigsaw puzzle”; if they place the different-sized pieces in the right positions relative to an observation point, they can see the undistorted whole image!  A picture of the setup is shown below:

On the left side are the components of a six-piece anamorphic puzzle, while on the right are the components of a beginner two-piece puzzle.

This was the idea I suggested, based on my anamorphic imaging blog post! (I even helped crunch the numbers and provided a familiar tyrannosaurus picture for the two-piece puzzle.)  I tried to take a picture of the anamorphic effect through the observation hole, but it was a little too small for my camera:

You can look at my previous anamorphic post to see a clearer picture of how the effect works.  These types of anamorphic images can be used to demonstrate the inherent two-dimensionality of our vision.

One thing you might notice is missing from the exhibit is wave optics, with effects such as interference and diffraction!  Though lasers are certainly easy enough to get these days, there are two problems with using them.  First, diffraction effects are very finicky and can be hard to set up, especially in a kid-proof and interactive way.  Second, lasers produce an eye hazard, and any use of them in an exhibit has to ensure that they can’t accidentally blind anyone!  Due to the relatively short time available to prepare the exhibit, diffraction of laser light didn’t make it in.  A ripple tank was used to demonstrate wave properties at first but, surprisingly, it wasn’t particularly popular!

I really enjoyed having the opportunity to help out with this exhibit.  It was really a challenge to try and think about optics education in a way that is not only entertaining for young kids, but also safe for them.  I’m hoping I’ll have more opportunities to assist the museum in the future.

In the meantime, if you happen to be in the Charlotte area, I can recommend the Discovery Place as a nice science museum to take your kids!  It’s worth noting that they recently did a complete renovation, so there’s lots new to see.

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