Electricity

Why I Made This Kit

Curator Tibby W. 

Curator Tibby W. 

Electricity is a great place to start exploring science because it has the wow-factor. It’s pretty impressive rubbing a balloon on your head and having all your hair stand straight up from the static electricity! And how about making a battery from some basic supplies around the house? Electricity is all around us and often it’s something kids are curious about. While it can seem dangerous to study (please don’t put any forks in electrical sockets!), there are plenty of safe ways to explore how electricity works. So if you’re looking to learn or even create something for the school science fair, check out this guide. 


Books

Electricity written by Paul Steve Parker (DK Eyewitness Series)

DK’s Eyewitness series is always a great place to turn with nonfiction topics. The books are packed full of interesting information, pictures, and facts. Written in short sections they are also easy for busy kids to pick up and put down. The Electricity book covers basics of how electricity works, early history all the way into modern times and famous experiments. It also gets into some more complex electrical concepts, putting them into easily understandable language for kids.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind written by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer, illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon 

This is an incredible story about a determined kid in Malawi. When a terrible drought struck the country many people, including William’s family, had nothing to eat or sell. As a result William had to leave school. But he wanted to learn so he turned to a library where he struggled through books about alternative power sources. From this he decided to make a windmill that could power his house. Using bits and bobs from junk piles he managed to do it and used the power he generated to pump water. A great story about using wind power to create electricity and how useful having electricity can be. This version is the picture book and is shorter than the following.

OR

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind written by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer, illustrated by Anna Hymas (Penguin Young Readers Edition) 

This is the young reader’s edition for those who are more interested in William’s story. There is a lot more detail about his life and his windmill.

Electrical Wizard: How Nikola Tesla Lit Up the World written by Elizabeth Rusch, illustrated by Oliver Dominguez 

Tesla was one of the major figures in electricity development, but he isn’t well known. This is a fascinating story about Tesla and his electrical experiments. Picture book biographies are great for upper elementary readers to dip into a subject and see if they want to learn more by picking up a longer book. The nonfiction information covered in the end is incredible and incredibly interesting.

Nikola Tesla and the Taming of Electricity written by Lisa J. Aldrich 

If you enjoyed Electrical Wizard or are interested in Tesla, one of the fathers of electricity, then try this fascinating, short biography of the man. It covers his early life up until his death and discusses many of his ideas and inventions. It also introduces many famous and important people that Tesla worked with throughout his life.

Who Really Discovered Electricity written by Amie Jane Leavitt 

This book looks at the contributions of three men who studied electricity as early as the late 1500s: Benjamin Franklin, Dr. William Gilbert, and Stephen Gray. All were curious about science and the natural world and conducted experiments trying to understand electricity and magnetism. Who can really be credited with discovering electricity? You’ll have to read this to find out. The book covers the various questions and experiments the men had and explored with to learn about electricity.

How a Solar-Powered Home Works written by Robyn Hardyman 

Solar power is becoming quite popular and many neighborhoods have at least one home with panels installed on their roof. This book is full of information about electricity, solar power, the power grid, and ultimately how solar power arrays can power homes. For kids who are really interested in alternative sources of electricity and are curious about those panels they may be seeing around their neighborhoods.

The Magic School Bus and the Electrical Field Trip written by Joanna Cole, illustrated by Bruce Degen

The Friz is at it again. After a storm knocks out power to the school she piles everyone into the Magic School Bus for a trip to the power plant- and down the power lines! A book about power for kids who love a lot to look at and a little fun. Lots of sidebars, asides and tons of information packed into this story which makes it great for upper elementary readers.


Media

Electricity, Electricity: Schoolhouse Rock! 

A classic song that many parents may remember. It’s still a great one for understanding how electricity works and is generated. Don’t be surprised if you catch your child or yourself humming this! Listen here

Electricity Introduction 

A five minute video all about the basics of electricity. It may not be the slickest production, but it’s does a wonderful job of defining electrical terms and showing how circuits work. It also touches on safety with electricity and explains why it can be dangerous.

 

Electrical Circuits- Series and Parallel 


Apps

Below are several apps that will allow you to play around with electrical concepts and learn more. Several of these apps mirror some of the concepts that are explored in the activities section.

Exploriments: Electricity- Simple Electrical Circuits in Series, Parallel, and Combination

Overview:  An app that allows you to play around with making different types of circuits, adding in parts such as lights, fans, switches and a lot more.

Inside Scoop: This app is a lot like the toy Snap Circuits for the iPad, but doesn’t require lots of little pieces that can get lost. There are three ways to play. You can choose a type of circuit you want to create (series, parallel or combination as the name of the app suggests), a board is given to you and you select the elements you want in the circuit. Alternatively, you can choose a setup where you are given a picture and have to recreate it on the board. Finally you can create your own circuit and set up- free play. The app is well worth the $1.99 if you want to play around with circuits, see how they work and have some fun. The pieces snap to the grid so there isn’t any tedious coordination needed and there is an auto finish button that you can use once all the elements are in place.

Exploriments: Electricity- Voltage Measurement in Series and Parallel Electrical Circuits OR Exploriments: Electricity- Current and Charge

Overview: Ready for the next concept in circuit design? Try out one or both of these apps from Exploriments that allows you to explore voltage measurement or current and charge.

Inside Scoop: This app cost a little more than the basic circuitry app at $2.99 each, but if you’ve mastered circuits then you might want to try out something more complex. They function in the same way as the circuitry app, but have new components and explore different concepts. These apps include questions and activities that will walk you through the concepts and help you understand the material.

Also by Exploriments: 

Electricity - Voltage Measurement in Series and Parallel Electrical Circuits

and

Electricity - Current and Charge, Measurement of Current in Series and Parallel Electrical Circuits

By: IL&FS Education and Technology Services Ltd.

Building Parallel Circuits (LITE)

Overview: Another circuit construction app, this one free, that walks you through building the circuits.

Inside Scoop: This is another app that allows you to play around with circuitry. This one walks you through building the circuits with audio instructions and has more of a tutorial feel. It may be better if you are looking to understand the science behind the concepts a little better. It also has you place the components of the circuit onto a board, but shows what the technical drawing would look like on a blackboard in the background. It will also short circuit what you’re doing if you don’t place the elements correctly and will explain what you have done wrong. The lite version is free. For $0.99 you can get the full version. There is also a complementary app for serial circuits available in lite for free or in full for $0.99.

Electricity by Kids Discover

Overview: A digital version of the Kids Discover magazine that focuses on electricity. Includes history and science sections.

Inside Scoop: This is a great digital adaptation of Kids Discover magazine. Scroll through and flip the pages or move through the sections by sliding the pages. Most of the articles are interactive and allow you to click on things to open new sections or interact with the pictures. Some have animations. Includes activities to play with electricity concepts and more resources if you want to go further with an idea or concept. The app costs $3.99.

Tesla Town

Overview: An app developed by the University of Illinois that explores different types of electricity around an imaginary town.

Inside Scoop: This app introduces various different types of electricity generation, from hydroelectric to nuclear. You enter the map of Tesla Town and can click around to the different parts of town to read about how each of them generates electricity. The app is free.


Activities

Several of these activities require using batteries. They have been marked as family activities because they may best be done with the help of an adult. With these experiments, be careful when connecting batteries to wires. They can heat up and burn you or the surface you are working on. Never leave the experiments unattended.

Lemon Battery

Why This Activity

This is a classic experiment in electricity and can be made with simple supplies, many or all of which are probably lying around your house. Once you try the experiment, watch this video for an excellent explanation of what is happening: https://youtu.be/GhbuhT1GDpI.  

This video is a little on the long side at seven minutes, but it does a really good job of explaining about electrical circuits. It tackles terminology and the types circuits. It also shows how scientists draw circuits and then uses this to illustrate the circuits they make.

Tip: After watching this video try out the game next on the list.

Electricity Circuits

Once your child has an idea about how circuits work, try this game. It will give them a few challenges (like making the lightbulb burn brighter), then allows them to play with the circuit trying out different combinations and pieces. It also switches between the electrical diagram and model.

Tiny Dancer (A Homopolar Motor)

Grab a few things from around your house and the hardware store and try out this awesome project that makes a little wire dancer twirl around a battery. The blog post includes instructions, troubleshooting and a basic description of what is going on with the battery and magnets.

What is a Transformer? 

Getting electricity to power a light or TV is easy, right? Just plug it into the wall. But how does the electricity get into your wall? Read this daily wonder from Wonderopolis that explains how electricity gets from the power plant to your house.

What Are LEDs?

Ever wondered about LEDs? What are they and why are they so popular? Read about them on the daily wonder from Wonderopolis. The brief article explains a lot about them. It also includes some follow up activities including a suggested field trip.

Exploratorium Science Snacks: Electricity and Magnetism

For a bunch of great experiments with electricity check out this page from the Exploratorium, a fantastic science museum in San Francisco. The experiments include video demonstrations, detailed instructions, explanations of what is happening, and ideas for going further.  

Electricity Facts

Have a kid who loves facts? Here’s a fun list of facts about electricity. It’s a mix of basic knowledge, history, and interesting tidbits. There are also links to more information about other types of energy like wind and solar.

What You’ll Need

  • lemon
  • small length of copper wire
  • galvanized nail (zinc coated) or steel paperclip

What To Do

  1. Roll the lemon on a table or flat surface while pressing on it with your palm. This breaks up some of the juice cells inside the lemon.
  2. Poke the wire into the side of the lemon leaving a few inches sticking out.
  3. Poke the nail or paperclip into the lemon an inch or so away from the copper wire.
  4. Now moisten your tongue and press it against both the wire and the nail or paperclip. Do you notice a metallic taste or slight tingle?
  5. Try pressing your tongue to just the wire or just the nail. Do you notice anything? How does this compare to when you touched both at the same time?
  6. If you have a voltmeter or voltage tester, try touching that to the wire and nail.

Make Lightning

Why This Activity

This is another really basic experiment with electricity (this time static electricity), but it can have some cool results. Especially if you try this in a dark or semi-dark room. Be forewarned, you will get a little shock from this experiment.

What You’ll Need

  • rubber glove
  • plastic fork
  • aluminum foil
  • styrofoam plate
  • wooden or plastic cutting board or placemat

What To Do

  1. Wrap the tines of the fork with aluminum foil.
  2. Put the glove on one of your hands and then using that hand rub the plate on your head. Place it on the cutting board.
  3. Using your gloved hand pick up the foil-wrapped fork and hold it on the plate so the foil is touching the plate.
  4. With your other, ungloved hand, touch the foil.
  5. What happens? Can you see the spark when the room is dark? What if you try touching the foil with a gloved hand? What if you just touch the plate after it has been rubbed on your head? Does it still spark?
  6. After touching the foil to the plate, then your ungloved hand, lift the fork up and touch it with your ungloved hand again. What happens?

Fluorescent Light

Why This Activity

This is another great experiment that doesn’t require much and doesn’t involve batteries making it perfect to do on your own. A fluorescent tube normally gets an electrical current from wires in its light fixture, but by rubbing it with different materials you are creating a static charge in the tube that can weakly power the bulb.

What You’ll Need

  • an old fluorescent tube
  • piece of plastic wrap
  • several types of fabrics: cotton, wool, faux fur

What To Do

  1. Darken the room you are in as much as possible.
  2. Holding the fluorescent tube, rub the plastic wrap vigorously up and down it.
  3. What happens?
  4. Now try rubbing it with the different fabrics. Does one work better than another?

Family Activity: Conductor or Insulator  

Why This Activity

This experiment teaches about open and closed circuits. Some materials allow electrons (and therefore electricity) to flow freely through them. These are called conductors. Some materials do not easily allow electrons to flow and these are called insulators. Placing a conductor or insulator into a circuit may open or close the circuit.

What You’ll Need

  • plastic coated electrical wire with alligator clips on each end (your local hardware store should have some for fairly cheap)
  • D battery
  • small nightlight-sized light bulb
  • various objects from around the house to test: penny, dime, toothpick or small wood scrap, birthday candle, soda can, paperclip, lemon, etc.

What To Do

  1. Create a closed circuit: Clip one end of one wire to the positive end of the battery. Clip the other end to the bottom tip of the light bulb. Take another wire and using a small piece of masking tape connect it to the negative end of the battery. Clip or attach the other end of this wire to the threading on the light bulb. The bulb should light up.
  2. Break the circuit: Remove the wire from the positive end of the battery. Attach it to one of your objects. Attach another wire to the other side of your object and link it up to the battery so there is again a loop from battery to object, to bulb, and back to the battery.
  3. Insulator or conductor? If the light bulb lights up once an object is inserted into the circuit it is still a closed circuit and the object is a conductor. If the light does not light up the circuit is broken and the object is an insulator.
  4. Things to think about: Do you notice if any materials make better conductors or insulators? Why might this be important information to know?
  5. Variations: You can use a battery holder and light bulb holder if you have them or can find them. You can also use plastic coated wire with the ends stripped, but be very cautious with this as the point of contact between the battery and the wire can heat up and burn you. The benefit of the alligator clips is that they usually have plastic coating on them to prevent this from happening.

Family Activity: Series and Parallel Circuits

Why This Activity

This experiment is another simple one to pull together with things around the house and it illustrates how the two types of electrical circuits work.

What You’ll Need

  • 9V battery
  • aluminum foil
  • tape
  • 2 small light bulbs (flashlight or nightlight bulbs)

What To Do

Cut four 8-inch strips of foil.

Make a series circuit:

  1. Tape one strip of foil to the positive terminal on the battery. Make sure the metal is touching the terminal.
  2. Wrap the other end of the strip around the threading of the light bulb.
  3. Take another strip of foil and tape it to the bottom of the light bulb. Make sure metal is touching metal. Wrap the other end of this strip around the threading of the second light bulb.
  4. Tape a third strip of foil to the negative terminal of the battery. Take the other end and tape it to the bottom of the light bulb. The bulbs should now light up.
  5. Be sure the foil strips are not touching each other and are touching only the part they should be. If they aren’t it will create a short circuit and the bulb will not light up.

Make a parallel circuit:

  1. Leave one strip of foil taped to the positive terminal of the battery and one strip taped to the negative, but remove all the others.
  2. Wrap one strip of foil around the threading of one bulb. Wrap another strip around the threading of the other bulb.
  3. Connect the ends of these strips to the foil strip that is taped to the positive battery terminal.
  4. Touch the bottoms of the bulbs to the strip of foil that is taped to the negative terminal of the battery.

Things to think about:

  • Are the bulbs brighter in one type of circuit than the other?
  • If you disconnect one bulb in the series circuit, what happens? Why do you think that is?
  • If you disconnect one bulb in the parallel circuit, what happens? Is it different from what happens in the series circuit? Why do you think that is?

Family Activity: Faraday’s Experiment

Why This Activity

This activity may require some supplies that you’ll have to find outside the home, but it’s pretty awesome and well worth it. Nothing should be too hard to find. The principles in this experiment, namely electromagnetism, are the same that allow some motors and generators to work and is is how the Northern and Southern Lights are created.

What You’ll Need

  • bar magnet
  • insulated copper wire
  • galvanometer
  • paper towel or toilet paper tube

What To Do

  1. Wrap the copper wire around the paper tube. Leave a trailing end on either end.
  2. Wrap one end of the wire around the positive terminal of the galvanometer. Wrap the other end around the negative terminal.
  3. Switch the galvanometer on and begin to move the bar magnet in the paper tube.

What happens?

Does it matter if you move the magnet in a circular motion or back and forth?

Try moving it slower and faster. Does that change the amount of current generated?

Try reducing or increasing the number of times the wire coils around the tube and run the experiment again. What happens now? Is is different from the first time?

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