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published by the WGBH Educational Foundation
written by Pierre Sokolsky
This interactive activity features animations of wave motion and one simulation that allows students to explore how a wave moves through different mediums.  Users can adjust the density of the material and manipulate the direction of a wave disturbance. The water waves animation clearly depicts the movement of periodic waves, which can be difficult to learners to visualize.  This resource also includes background information, discussion questions, and links to related PBS Learning Media resources on waves.  

PBS Learning media is a growing collection of more than 10,000 free educational resources compiled by researchers and experienced teachers to promote the use of digital resources in the classroom.

Please note that this resource requires Flash.
Editor's Note: Appropriate for Grades 6-12.
Subjects Levels Resource Types
Education Practices
- Technology
= Multimedia
Oscillations & Waves
- Wave Motion
= Longitudinal Pulses and Waves
= Transverse Pulses and Waves
- Middle School
- High School
- Informal Education
- Instructional Material
= Activity
= Tutorial
- Audio/Visual
= Movie/Animation
Appropriate Courses Categories Ratings
- Physical Science
- Physics First
- Conceptual Physics
- Algebra-based Physics
- Activity
- New teachers
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Intended Users:
General Public
Access Rights:
Free access
© 2003 University of Utah, ASPIRE Lab
animation, longitudinal waves, mechanical waves, periodic waves, simulation, transverse waves, tutorial, water waves, wave energy, wave motion
Record Cloner:
Metadata instance created March 10, 2009 by Caroline Hall
Record Updated:
September 5, 2014 by Caroline Hall
Last Update
when Cataloged:
March 17, 2008

Next Generation Science Standards

Disciplinary Core Ideas (K-12)

Wave Properties (PS4.A)
  • A simple wave has a repeating pattern with a specific wavelength, frequency, and amplitude. (6-8)
  • The wavelength and frequency of a wave are related to one another by the speed of travel of the wave, which depends on the type of wave and the medium through which it is passing. (9-12)

NGSS Science and Engineering Practices (K-12)

Developing and Using Models (K-12)
  • Modeling in 9–12 builds on K–8 and progresses to using, synthesizing, and developing models to predict and show relationships among variables between systems and their components in the natural and designed worlds. (9-12)
    • Use a model to provide mechanistic accounts of phenomena. (9-12)

AAAS Benchmark Alignments (2008 Version)

4. The Physical Setting

4F. Motion
  • 6-8: 4F/M4. Vibrations in materials set up wavelike disturbances that spread away from the source. Sound and earthquake waves are examples. These and other waves move at different speeds in different materials.
  • 6-8: 4F/M7. Wave behavior can be described in terms of how fast the disturbance spreads, and in terms of the distance between successive peaks of the disturbance (the wavelength).

11. Common Themes

11B. Models
  • 3-5: 11B/E3. A model of something is similar to, but not exactly like, the thing being modeled. Some models are physically similar to what they are representing, but others are not.
  • 6-8: 11B/M2. Mathematical models can be displayed on a computer and then modified to see what happens.
  • 6-8: 11B/M4. Simulations are often useful in modeling events and processes.

NSES Content Standards

Con.B: Physical Science
  • 5-8: Transfer of Energy

This resource is part of a Physics Front Topical Unit.

Topic: Wave Energy
Unit Title: Types of Mechanical Waves

Mechanical waves can be modeled well through computer simulations that depict the motion of particles as the wave disturbance travels through a material.  This web-based tutorial for grades 6-12, developed by the University of Utah's ASPIRE Lab, is an excellent visualization tool for students.  Don't miss the water wave simulation.  It clearly shows the repeating pattern of a periodic wave, helping students understand that the particles oscillate but are not propelled forward by the wave.

Link to Unit:
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Record Link
AIP Format
P. Sokolsky, (WGBH Educational Foundation, Boston, 2003), WWW Document, (http://www.pbslearningmedia.org/resource/lsps07.sci.phys.energy.waves/what-is-a-wave/).
P. Sokolsky, PBS Learning Media: What Is a Wave?, (WGBH Educational Foundation, Boston, 2003), <http://www.pbslearningmedia.org/resource/lsps07.sci.phys.energy.waves/what-is-a-wave/>.
APA Format
Sokolsky, P. (2008, March 17). PBS Learning Media: What Is a Wave?. Retrieved October 22, 2017, from WGBH Educational Foundation: http://www.pbslearningmedia.org/resource/lsps07.sci.phys.energy.waves/what-is-a-wave/
Chicago Format
Sokolsky, Pierre. PBS Learning Media: What Is a Wave?. Boston: WGBH Educational Foundation, March 17, 2008. http://www.pbslearningmedia.org/resource/lsps07.sci.phys.energy.waves/what-is-a-wave/ (accessed 22 October 2017).
MLA Format
Sokolsky, Pierre. PBS Learning Media: What Is a Wave?. Boston: WGBH Educational Foundation, 2003. 17 Mar. 2008. 22 Oct. 2017 <http://www.pbslearningmedia.org/resource/lsps07.sci.phys.energy.waves/what-is-a-wave/>.
BibTeX Export Format
@misc{ Author = "Pierre Sokolsky", Title = {PBS Learning Media: What Is a Wave?}, Publisher = {WGBH Educational Foundation}, Volume = {2017}, Number = {22 October 2017}, Month = {March 17, 2008}, Year = {2003} }
Refer Export Format

%A Pierre Sokolsky
%T PBS Learning Media: What Is a Wave?
%D March 17, 2008
%I WGBH Educational Foundation
%C Boston
%U http://www.pbslearningmedia.org/resource/lsps07.sci.phys.energy.waves/what-is-a-wave/
%O application/flash

EndNote Export Format

%0 Electronic Source
%A Sokolsky, Pierre
%D March 17, 2008
%T PBS Learning Media: What Is a Wave?
%I WGBH Educational Foundation
%V 2017
%N 22 October 2017
%8 March 17, 2008
%9 application/flash
%U http://www.pbslearningmedia.org/resource/lsps07.sci.phys.energy.waves/what-is-a-wave/

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Citation Source Information

The AIP Style presented is based on information from the AIP Style Manual.

The APA Style presented is based on information from APA Style.org: Electronic References.

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PBS Learning Media: What Is a Wave?:

Is Part Of http://aspire.cosmic-ray.org/

This is a link to the full collection of interactive materials developed by the authors of ASPIRE, (Astrophysics Science Project Integrating Research and Education).

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