Photon Folks

Main content

Students will understand that visible light from the Sun is reflected, absorbed, and/or transmitted through certain objects on Earth and in the atmosphere.

Learning Objectives

  • Students will understand that energy from the Sun is reflected, absorbed, and/or transmitted through various objects on Earth and in the atmosphere and that different wavelengths within the electromagnetic spectrum behave differently.


  • Preparation time: About 10 minutes or more to blow up small beach balls if the activity will be an activity versus a demonstration. As an activity, students in pairs or groups each need one beach ball.
  • Class time: 5 - 10 minutes activity/demonstration time. Approximately 30 minutes or more discussion.

Educational Standards

Next Generation Science Standards

Disciplinary Core Ideas

Crosscutting Concept: Energy and Matter


  • As an activity, have one beach ball per pair of students – preferably in a solid primary color
  • As a demonstration, have 3 beach balls, one in red, green, and blue


Tell each pair of students that the beach ball represents a photon or particle of light that is traveling in wave motion toward Earth. Each photon is traveling at a single frequency (wavelength). When it enters Earth’s atmosphere, it will do one of three things:
  1. Have one student throw the “photon” to his/her partner. The partner catching the photon represents light absorption.
  2. Have the partner with the “photon” roll it between his/her partner’s legs. This represents light passing through an object, such as a glass window, which is referred to as transmission.
  3. Finally, ask the partner with the “photon” to throw it against the wall. This represents light reflecting off an object, much like the light you observe every time you see your reflection in a mirror.

Discussion and Assessment for Greater Understanding

Ask students the following questions:

  1. What happens to light after it is absorbed by a substance? (It is converted into heat energy and often raises the temperature of the object.)
  2. Once light reflects off of one object, can it reflect off of another, and/or be absorbed or transmitted through another object? (Reflected light can be absorbed, reflected, or pass through the next object it encounters).
  3. What can light pass through and what can’t it pass through from your experience?
  4. What typically reflects sunlight? Give examples.
  5. Does color play a part in reflection?
  6. What about the smoothness or roughness of a surface?


Since the time of the Greek philosophers in the 5th century BC, mankind has speculated about the nature of light. Today, physicists have learned through experimentation that light has a dual nature and behaves as a particle at times and as a wave at other times. Light particles are called photons and are different from particles of matter because they have no mass and always move at a constant speed of nearly 299,792 kilometers per second, or 186,281 miles per second through empty space. This makes light the fastest phenomenon known in the universe. Yet light is also a form of radiant energy, or energy that travels in waves, which only slows down when inside substances such as air, water, glass, or diamond.

In this activity, our photon was traveling in a single frequency or wavelength. Most often, however, light of many frequencies or even all frequencies travels toward the surface of objects. When this occurs, objects have a tendency to selectively absorb, reflect or transmit certain frequencies from the light. For example, one object might reflect red light while absorbing all other frequencies (colors) of visible light. The manner in which visible light interacts with an object is dependent upon the frequency of the light and the nature of the atoms of the object. The electrons of atoms have a natural frequency at which they tend to vibrate. If a light wave of a given frequency strikes a material with electrons having the same vibrational frequencies, then those electrons will absorb the energy of the light wave. Otherwise, they will reflect or transmit it.


Students learn in this activity that when light shines on an object, it is reflected, absorbed, or transmitted through the object, depending on the object’s material and the frequency (color) of the light. However, not all frequencies of energy found within the electromagnetic spectrum are reflected, absorbed, or transmitted similarly. Have students watch the NASA video on YouTube (or download it ahead of time), "More than Your Eyes Can See." Have students explore the behavior of other types of energy: x-rays, gamma rays, ultraviolet waves... as a precursor for more in-depth exploration of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Explore Related Activities from the UCAR Center for Science Education


  • This activity was developed by Teri Eastburn at the UCAR Center for Science Education.