Mirrors and Mazes (and Maps!)

The classroom was shrouded in darkness except for beams of light criss-crossing the room. All around students were abuzz with excitement. “Aim the mirror this way! Put the flashlight over here! Do you think it will work backwards?” With students fully engaged, I knew I had a hit new science skills challenge on my hands!

“Mirrors and Mazes” (student handout attached here) puts students understanding of reflection and the straight path that light travels to the test. Given a flashlight, set of mirrors, obstacle “slats”, and a target, students are asked to create a light maze using the tools provided. To encourage thoughtful planning (and demonstration of knowledge) students first construct the maze without the flashlight, then test to determine if their maze was successful or if the course requires tweaking. Modeling clay is used to set the slats and target in place making adjustments and maneuvering easy.

Testing the maze and angle of reflection off the mirrors.

Once a successful maze has been formed students draw a map outlining the path of their light and the types of obstacle slats their light passed through. The map acts as practice for students creating technical diagrams with the need for attention to detail while creating an answer key for the next phase. After all teams have completed their mazes, the maze-makers remove the mirrors and leave them aside.  Another group then attempts to put the displaced mirrors back in their correct location!

Today was the first time of what I hope will be many opportunities to see Mirrors and Mazes in action. As a facilitator of the activity there was lots to take in, and plenty to keep in mind for next time. I’ve listed a few of the most important things to consider below for readers interested in making their own Mirrors and Mazes activity.

Eager to test the reflectivity of the mirrors.

Don’t hand out flashlights at the very beginning. Students were eager to test their mazes without fully considering its design. If time allows (at least 45 minutes) I would even have students first construct the model maze illustrated on the bottom of the handout. The practice will give the students a chance early on to handle and manipulate the tools provided to test how well they stand up before mixing in the creativity element. Closely examining the map will likely lead to better student work when it comes to drawing their own as well as map quality was admittedly lacking in this first go round (more on that later.)

Adding a third dimension requires taller mirrors!

Allow kids to get creative! A few groups bucked the original directions and attempted to add a third dimension to their mazes by tilting mirrors up and down or by dangling their flashlights from above instead of resting them on the table. While this presented additional challenges to mapping the maze one could easily argue that allowing students to explore the limits of their maze design and understanding of mirror reflection is more valuable.

Let the tempo of the class dictate your direction. While I am hopeful that future facilitation of this activity will lead to completing all the objectives in this lesson, on the first go-round I was unable to give students time to try other groups mazes. The reason for this was two-fold. One, some groups were extending their mazes into a third-dimension or tweaking their maze to illuminate more of the bulls-eye. Two, the spatial and illustrative skills necessary to make an accurate map, requiring re-draws and additional time.

Speaking of Maps… The maps generated by most students left something to be desired and  as they often did not accurately demonstrate students’ understanding of the light’s angle of reflection off mirrors nor how the light traveled through the holes in the slats. Most maps appeared to focus primarily on simply how many obstacles / mirrors were used. It is possible “top-view” maps such as these may be a first for third graders, which would explain the general low quality of these maps. Still, additional time focused on this skill and more attention to the model map provided on the handout I predict will likely lead to improved map construction.

Special Thanks to Francis Wyman Teacher, Anita Mason. As someone connected to plenty of elementary science blogs and professional resources it can sometimes be hard to filter through and identify what will work best in classrooms. Mirrors and Mazes was first brought to my attention by Anita who wanted to do the activity with her students but did not have the time or resources to pull it all together. As the school system’s science specialist this was a perfect opportunity for me to work collaboratively with one of the classroom teachers. Before making full classroom sets Anita was consulted to ensure what I produced was within the vision of what she was looking for. The result, I believe, is a better product than an activity I would have otherwise created alone and then “shopped out” to teachers as they introduced their own units on light down the road. Thank you, Anita!

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About MrMusselman

K-5 Science Specialist for the Burlington Public Schools of Burlington, MA.
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