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Pinhole cameras, build-your-own telescope kits teach students the fundamentals of optics

Nicole da Silva and Jailton Nunes make a self-portrait with a pinhole camera during
the Mão na Lata workshop. Photo by Fagner França, courtesy of Tatiana Altberg.

Science projects that utilize the field of optics – from pinhole cameras to build-your-own telescopes – are an accessible way for educators worldwide to engage students in science by teaching them basic concepts about light.

The New York Times Lens Blog recently highlighted one such project in Rio De Janeiro, called Mão na Lata (Hand in the Can), where photographer Tatiana Altberg has held pinhole photography workshops with local NGO Redes de Desenvolvimento da Maré for the past 10 years to teach children the fundamentals of optics.

Mão na Lata melds classes on photography with literature, self-exploration and local narratives for young people in Maré, a Rio De Janiero favela. 

Ruan Torquato, left, uses a pinhole camera to take a photo in Lapa. Yasmin Lopes, 
right, takes a photo in Maré. Photos by Fagner França, courtesy of Tatiana Altberg.

Altberg originally planned to use pinhole cameras to teach photography fundamentals before moving on to traditional cameras. But she told the New York Times she realized the simplicity, low cost and slow process of using a pinhole camera made it an ideal teaching instrument.

The students use recycled cans to build the cameras. They are asked to create self-portraits, and because pinhole cameras rely on long exposure to capture an image, they are forced to be introspective, considering both their mood and the environment before putting in the effort to take a photograph. 

"The challenge of working with pinhole photography is to make the self-portrait a process of reflection about one’s self — a product of an intention," Altberg told the New York Times. "The idea is not to take photos in an automatic way, with poses and gestures that are seen in the pictures teenagers take with their cellphones and digital cameras. It’s necessary to pay attention to the surroundings and think before making an image. Pinhole is a slow process of creation that demands a lot of thought."

Build-your-own telescope kits

Telescope kits provided by SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics, are also helping students in many parts of the world gain a better understanding of optics.

Beginning in 2009, in conjunction with the 400th anniversary of the telescope, the nonprofit began distributing kits to SPIE student chapters and SPIE members around the world who were engaged in community outreach. 

The students and members receive a training booklet filled with activities as well as the telescope kits so they can host events at local schools. The hands-on activity helps young students understand the basic concepts of refraction and geometric optics.

More than 1,500 telescope kits have been given away to date. 

Students participate in a telescope workshop in 2013 at University of Pacific in
Stockton, California, as part of Expanding Your Horizons, a national program that
provides STEM role models and hands-on activities for middle and high school girls.
Photo courtesy Stacie Manuel, EYH volunteer

The build-your-own telescope kits help demonstrate basic optics principles through hands-on experience in constructing a 16X refracting telescope. While the telescope components are simple two cardboard tubes, some foam, plastic end caps, and two small plano-convex plastic lenses the telescopes they create are surprisingly effective.

"Building a telescope is an excellent and very accessible way to teach the principles of optics, and to help draw awareness to optics and photonics technologies," says Barbara Darnell, Chair of the SPIE Education Committee. SPIE is committed "to introducing students to career possibilities in science, engineering, technology, and mathematics and to inspiring and informing the next generation of problem-solvers, inventors, and creators of better ways of living."


 The SPIE Student Chapter at University of Texas-Austin hosted a "Fun with Optics" event
in 2009 using the telescope kits to explore properties of light with local students.


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