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Spectroscope Image Build Your Own Spectroscope

Summary of Activity:
Students build a working spectroscope to study the nature of light. The curriculum includes study guides for various grade groups, PowerPoints to explain concepts, a comic describing spectroscopy, age-appropriate hands-on activities, and videos. Class sets of spectroscopes and gratings are available from Astronomers Without Borders.

Instructions for assembly come with the spectroscopes. A different version is also available: Spectroscope Assembly and Simple Lesson Plan

Curriculum Resources associated with this activity:

  • PowerPoint presentation/introduction to spectroscopy. The presentation was designed to introduce spectroscopy and accompany the Stanford spectroscopes, but could be used stand-alone. Grades 4-14.
  • Secrets in Sunlight Comic A comic targeted to grades 4-8 which explains spectroscopy in similar terms as the PowerPoint presentation above. Available in pdf and epub (for iPads and iBooks)
  • Colors of the Sun video. Shot at the Wilcox Solar Observatory on the Stanford campus, this 16 minute video explains spectroscopy and demonstrates that the observatory is nothing more than a giant spectrograph! Designed for grades 5-8 but suitable for older students as well.
  • Colors and Motions of the Sun Video. An introduction to solar science and how spectroscopy is used to study the Sun. Includes information about solar telescopes and spacecraft. Produced by Jay Pasachoff. (Second edition; 16 minutes; grades 9-12)
  • Fingerprints in Sunlight. An expanded version of the introductory Powerpoint presentation mentioned above, designed for grades 9-12. Includes more extensive demonstrations and activities to be used to introduce spectroscopy and the nature of the atom to high school students. Designed to accompany spectroscopes but could be used stand-alone.
  • Fingerprints in Starlight. A chemistry-related enchanced version of the Fingerprints in Sunlight presentation. Designed to introduce spectroscopy to an AP Chemistry high school class. Includes more in-depth understanding of the nature of the atom, a teacher's guide, additonal activities, and assessments.
  • Study guide for grades 2-4 (uses gratings only; does not require spectroscope)
  • Study guide for grades 5-8 (requires spectroscopes)

Duration of Activity:
60 minutes to build the spectroscope. 1 class period for each of the activities chosen.

Student Prerequisites:

  1. Have some prior exposure to the nature and topic of light.
  2. Have sufficient small motor skills to handle cutting and taping.


  • 1 poster and grating for each student (Available from the Stanford SOLAR Center).
  • Student work sheets from Study Guide
  • The movie "Colors of the Sun", produced by Stanford SOLAR Center (optional)
  • Access to various light sources such as incandescent and flourescent bulbs
  • The Study Guide (see below) gives additional materials needed for the various activities.

Teacher Preparation:
Initially build one of the spectroscopes to learn how to construct and use it.

View Completed Spectroscope

Study Guide and Work Sheets:

Students will:
  1. Build and learn how to use their own working spectroscope.
  2. Observe how white light can be refracted to form a color spectrum that gives distinctive information about its source.
  3. Learn what spectroscopic data can specifically tell astronomers about the Sun, planets, stars, and other objects far away.
  4. Observe that the visible spectrum is only a part of what our Sun, a star, emits within the electromagnetic spectrum.
  5. Determine that the distance of an object from an observer affects the apparent size of the object
  6. Understand how technological design can help scientists to better understand our Earth, our Sun, our solar system, and the universe around us.

Grade Level:
Grades 2-4, 5-12

Relationship to National Standards:

The study guide details steps for each activity. The activities are:

  1. Sizing up the Stars: Students observe that two objects of equal size can appear to be different sizes when placed at a greater or lesser distance from the observer. (Grades 2-8)
  2. A Rainbow Connection: Students observe how white light can be refracted to form a visible color sectrum that has a pattern. (Grades 2-4)
  3. From a Distance: Students utilize their abilities for technological design to perform science inquiry by proposing methods for obtaining information about a faraway object with being able to handle or get close to is. (Grades 5-8)
  4. Wavelength and Energy: A graphic demonstration of the relationship between energy and wavelength. Designed to initiate a discussion about the electromagnetic spectrum. (Grades 5-8)
  5. Resonance Rings: Introduces students to the concept of resonance and the absorption of energy by atoms or molecules when electromagnetic radiation enters the Earth's atmosphere. (Grades 5-8)
  6. Spectroscopic Observations: Students construct their own spectroscope, observe common light sources, record their spectra, and compare their findings with fellow classroom scientisits. (Grades 5-14)

Assessment information is included in the Study Guide.

A glossary is included in the Study Guide.

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