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Technology-Enhanced Inquiry of Light and Optics Concepts: Teachers’ Professional Development

Jennifer Maeng, Richard A. Lindgren, Jesse T Senechal


The Developing Science Teachers’ Understanding of Light and Optics Professional Development (PD) provided an integrated approach to teaching science through inquiry and educational technology for upper elementary, middle, and high school teachers with the goal of increasing their content and pedagogical knowledge for teaching physical science. Below, we describe the PD model employed as well as teacher and student outcomes. Results indicated teacher’s understandings of light and optics content and their pedagogical knowledge for teaching through inquiry and technology improved following participation in the PD. These results have implications for the implementation of PD that supports middle and high school teachers’ understanding of light and optics content. Products of the PD include teacher-generated lesson plans.


The Developing Science Teachers’ Understanding of Light and Optics Professional Development (PD) provided an integrated approach to teaching science through inquiry and educational technology. This MSP project, led by Dr. Richard Lindgren, was a collaboration between the University of Virginia (UVa), Jefferson National Laboratory (JLab), the Virginia School University Partnership, Albemarle County Public Schools, Charlottesville City Schools, Newport News City Schools, and Hampton City Schools. 

Goals of the project were to (1) support upper elementary, middle, and high school teachers’ content knowledge and conceptual modeling instructional skills to effectively teach science content outlined in Virginia’s Science SOLs and (2) to support teachers in integrating technology-enhanced inquiry to improve student achievement in science. To accomplish these goals, the program held two summer institutes, one at UVa and one at JLab, during the summer of 2014. The summer institute focused on increasing teachers’ pedagogical knowledge for teaching science through technology-enhanced inquiry and light and optics content knowledge.

PD Model

Previous research has identified five components of PD likely to influence teacher quality and student achievement (e.g. Loucks-Horsley et al., 2010). These components include (1) immersing teachers in inquiry, questioning, and experimentation to model inquiry teaching, (2) engaging teachers in concrete teaching tasks based on their experiences with students, and (3) focusing on subject-matter knowledge and deepening teachers' content knowledge. Further, effective PD should be (4) intensive, long­ term, and coherent and (5) be grounded in a common set of PD standards in order to show teachers how to connect their work to specific learning standards for student performance (Loucks-Horsley et al., 2010). These components informed the Developing Science Teachers’ Understanding of Light and Optics PD.

POE Inquiry Model. Inquiry can be defined simply as “Students answering a research question through the analysis of data” (Bell, Smetana, & Binns, 2005). Several models of inquiry instruction exist. This PD taught light and optics content through a predict-observe-explain (POE) inquiry model (Haysom & Bowen, 2010). The POE model involves eliciting student ideas, discussing student predictions, students making observations and explaining their observations, and the teacher supporting students’ explanations with the scientific explanation.

Technology-enhanced inquiry. Research indicates integrating computer-based models into inquiry instruction promotes students’ conceptual understanding of scientific phenomena (NRC, 2011). The role of computer simulations is not to replace inquiry investigations but to provide students with supplemental contact with the variables tested in a real experiment or to visualize the process that occurs at sub-atomic scale (Luft, Gess-Newsome, & Bell, 2008). Research also indicates that computer simulations are useful for simulating labs that are impractical, expensive, or too dangerous to conduct in a school-based setting, contribute to conceptual change, and provide tools for scientific inquiry and problem solving (e.g. Maeng, Mulvey, Smetana, & Bell, 2013; NRC, 2011; Windschitl, 2000).

PD Context

Morning sessions during the summer institute involved teachers engaging in modeled hands-on activities to build their content knowledge and that they could easily modify to include in their own classroom instruction. Across the 10 days of the summer institute, teachers engaged in 43 different hands-on investigations of light and optics. Many of these investigations related to the reflection and refraction of light (e.g. VA SCIENCE SOL 5.3, 8.9, PH.8) and relied heavily on an understanding of angles (e.g. VA MATH SOL 3.15, 5.11, G.3, G.4). For example, teachers explored the ray model of light, in which light is represented as straight lines emanating from an object. Using a laser beam as a ray of light and a single plane mirror teachers investigated the Law of Reflection (the angle of incidence is equal to the angle of reflection). They also used multiple plane mirrors to track a ray of light over several reflections to locate the final image. Later, they used these same mirrors to understand how images are actually formed, which required additional math skills. Using protractors, they measured the angles of incidence and reflection and looked for patterns in how the angle of reflection varied with the angle of incidence (e.g. VA MATH SOL 3.19, 5.17, 7.13). Each activity teachers engaged in involved some combination of making measurements, performing calculations, creating and interpreting graphs, describing patterns, and made use of their knowledge of geometry and trigonometry.

Afternoon sessions addressed practical aspects of classroom implementation of light and optics content using a technology-enhanced POE model. During this time, teachers learned strategies to effectively integrate simulations and animations to support students’ scientific investigations through modeled lessons designed to reinforce the content they explored during morning investigations. For example, in one afternoon activity, teachers used a PHET simulation (https://phet.colorado.edu/en/simulation/bending-light) to explore the Law of Refraction. First, they predicted an answer to the question, “What happens to the speed of light as a light ray passes through different mediums (for example air into water)? Why? How might this affect what we see?” Teachers used the simulation to make observations by manipulating the media (i.e. water, air, glass) through which the light waves traveled and measured the angle of refraction and wavelength. They summarized patterns in their data to explain their observations, which resulted in a formal statement of Snell’s Law (i.e. the Law of Refraction). PHET Simulations, developed by UC-Boulder, are a repository of free, downloadable simulations that address a variety of math and science concepts. In a parallel morning activity, teachers used a plastic block, a laser beam and a protractor to measure angles and verify Snell’s Law (Figure 1). This activity required some knowledge of sines and cosines, but could have also been completed just by making use of the Pythagorean Theorem. Knowledge of sines and cosines has the potential to help teachers in other mathematical applications of science (e.g. determining the work done when pulling a cart along a road with a handle inclined at a 45° angle from the road).

Figure 1. A laser beam is used to illustrate how a ray of light incident on a glass block is reflected from the block as a faint red ray and the main ray is refracted through the block. A protractor is used to measure the angles involved.

Teachers discussed the affordances and limitations of simulations and generated resource banks of simulations and animations to support their teaching of light and optics content. They also developed and received feedback on lesson plans that incorporated these strategies that they could directly implement into their classroom science instruction. Finally, they discussed how they could integrate the POE inquiry model and educational technology in cross curricular ways. For example, because the PHET simulation included a protractor to measure angles as the light rays passed through various media, teachers discussed ways in which they could reinforce students’ understanding of angles and protractor use to both science and mathematics content. 

For participating in the PD, teachers received physics graduate course credit, all materials needed to implement the modeled light and optics activities in their classrooms as well as generate new activities, feedback from peers and instructors through follow-up sessions, and the opportunity to attend and present lessons they developed through the project at the annual Virginia Association of Science Teachers Professional Development Institute.

Research Design

Participants included 24 teachers from 22 schools in 15 divisions. Twenty (80%) of the teachers taught in middle school, 28% of teachers had 5 or fewer years of experience and 64% held Master’s degrees in education.

The PD was evaluated through a quasi-experimental pre-/post-test design in which teacher and student pre-assessments served as their own control. The design assessed changes in teachers’ content and pedagogical knowledge, and their perceptions of the PD as well as their students’ science achievement. Teachers’ content knowledge was assessed on two light and optics content-knowledge assessments pre- and post-summer institute as well as year-end. Teachers also completed surveys related to pedagogical knowledge. Changes in their students’ science content knowledge were assessed at the beginning of the year and following light and optics instruction via a researcher-developed instrument.

Quantitative data were analyzed descriptively and inferentially and qualitative data were thematically analyzed. Two major limitations need to be considered when interpreting the results described below. First, all data related to pedagogical knowledge were self-reported by participants. Second, the research design did not employ a control group, therefore, causal inferences regarding the impact of the PD must be interpreted with caution.


Results suggested the PD positively influenced teachers’ knowledge related to light and optics content, pedagogical knowledge for teaching light and optics, and their students’ light and optics content knowledge. In addition, teachers had positive perceptions of the PD.

Content Knowledge

Results indicated teachers’ content knowledge significantly improved from pre- to post-instruction on both Light and Optics content assessments; assessment 1 pre (M = 10.3), post (M = 15.9) (t = 5.883, p < .001), assessment 2 pre (M = 28.8), post (M = 32.1) (t = 3.776, p = .001). These results suggest the PD positively influenced teachers’ understanding of physics content.

Themes in the qualitative data supported these findings. For example, teachers perceived their content knowledge to be limited prior to the PD and that the PD helped them develop a deeper understanding of the content. For example, one teacher noted, “I haven’t honestly had physics since college, so it was really good for me to refresh my memory of physics and my knowledge of physics and even go beyond what my students need.” They also perceived that the content of the PD went beyond what they needed to know to address grade-level physical science standards. For example, a teacher indicated, “There were some things that I won’t teach in eighth grade, like all the understanding of the distance of the lens from the focal point and all that. That’s high school and while I feel I need to know that, if it were professional development it goes beyond what I need.” Finally, developing their content knowledge through the PD appeared to provide teachers with confidence in their ability to explain physics ideas, answer questions, and design lesson plans. A teacher described how the PD supported her understanding the mathematics behind the physics involved in the content: “It taught me more of the physics and the mathematical part behind things so as I’m doing labs I’m not just following directions and getting through but I actually understand the reasoning behind some of the things that we’re doing.”

Pedagogical Knowledge

Teachers’ self-rated pedagogical knowledge was statistically significantly higher following participation in the PD for all assessed pedagogical skills (Tables 1 and 2). Qualitative data support these findings. As exemplified by the interview response below, many teachers noted the use of simulations was a novel instructional tool that they would use to support their physical science teaching. “I honestly have not used simulations in the past and so being able to find a wide variety of simulations as a result of that class was great.”

Others noted the use of the POE model supported their thinking about how to integrate inquiry into their physical science instruction:

When we talk about the predict, and then the observe and then the explain; when I do other lessons now I keep that in the back of my mind. Like, Ok, when they should predict something then they need to be the ones that actually observe it, and then we need to kind of regroup and explain and make sure we kind of revisit the predictions and make sure that they have the knowledge that they need before they more on and so that model has really been helpful with other lessons as well.

Student Achievement

A subset of teachers submitted pre/post student achievement data using a researcher-developed 14-item Light and Optics content instrument. The mean student score increased 17 points from pretest to posttest, from 53% (SD = 20%) correct to 70% (SD = 17%) correct. Paired samples t-test indicated this was a statistically significant gain, t (278) = -17.196, p < .001.

In interviews, teachers indicated they perceived that the POE instructional model, combined with their enhanced content knowledge facilitated their students’ learning. For example, one teacher indicated:

I think they seemed like they understood it, based on hearing their explanations of defending their answer with the initial prediction and trying to support it, and also just when they were explaining their reasoning for why they thought a certain way, they were able to support the answer.

Other teachers responded similarly, that the investigative nature through which they were able to teach the content had a positive impact on student learning.

Perceptions of the PD

Overall, the majority of teachers (95%) indicated the PD program met or exceeded their expectations. Further, 87% of participants said they would recommend or highly recommend the program to other teachers.

Most participants responded that the hands-on labs including the integration of technology, and the collaborative nature of the projects were the most effective components of the PD.  For example, one teacher wrote, “Getting all the hands-on experience in doing the labs. It made all the concepts ‘real’ for me, and I'm glad that we got to discover them on our own.” The “talented and knowledgeable professors” were also identified as a program strength. When asked to make suggestions for improvements, a number of teachers suggested more modeling prior to labs. For example, one teacher wrote, “Some of the lab activities were difficult to follow through just by reading the directions. Having the teacher model the procedure before more complicated activities would have been helpful. This would also model for the teachers how to model procedure for their students.”

Conclusions and Implications

Overall, results of this investigation suggest that PD that supports middle and high school teachers integrating technology through a POE model to teach light and optics content has the potential to positively influence middle and high school students’ understandings of these concepts. Teacher-generated lesson plans to teach light and optics, including alignment with Virginia SOLs, assessment plans, and associated student handouts, were the primary product generated through the UVa-JLab project. These lesson plans as well as PD materials from the summer institute (lab activities, PowerPointTM slides, instructional videos and photos) are available at: http://galileo.phys.virginia.edu/outreach/ProfessionalDevelopment/UVa-JLab/teacher_institute/2014-labs.html. These materials have the potential to support teachers in implementing light and optics content through a technology-enhanced POE model as well as facilitating teachers’ considering the potential to integrate science and mathematics content (e.g. patterns, data collection, angles).


Bell, R., Smetana, L. K., & Binns, I (2005). Simplifying inquiry instruction. The Science Teacher, 72, 30–34.

Haysom, J. and Bowen, M. (2010). Predict, observe, explain: Activities enhancing scientific understanding. NSTA Press: Arlington, VA.

Loucks-Horsley, S., Stiles, K.E., Mundry, S., Love, N., & Hewson, P. (2010) Designing professional development for teachers of mathematics and science. (3rd Ed.) Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Luft, J., Gess-Newsome, J. & Bell, R.L. (eds). (2008). Technology in the secondary science classroom. NSTA Press: Arlington, VA.

Maeng, J.L., Mulvey, B.K., Smetana, L.K., & Bell, R.L. (2013). Preservice teachers' TPACK: hgtechnology to support inquiry instruction. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 22, 838-857. DOI: 10.1007/s10956-013-9434-z National Research Council (NRC).  (2011). Learning science through computer games and simulations.  Washington, DC:  National Academy Press.

Windschitl, M.  (2000). Supporting the development of science inquiry skills with special classes of software. Educational Technology Research and Development, 48, 81-95.


Jennifer Maeng

Curry School of Education

University of Virginia


Richard A. Lindgren

Department of Physics

University of Virginia


Jesse T Senechal

MERC School of Education

Virginia Commonwealth University


Virginia Council of Teachers of Mathematics
PO Box 73593
Richmond, VA 23235

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