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Fun science: Electricity

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By John StringerPrimary Advisor at Philip Harris

Generate a buzz of excitement as your class learn the magic of making and using electricity

Child investigating circuits

Use Philip Harris’ simple circuits to help young children investigate electricity in a safe and fun way

Electricity – children love it but teachers dread its unreliability. However, electricity experiments can be exciting and educational, and can help to teach some common-sense safety ideas. Children get great delight from working with electricity and applying it in a context. But, it’s important to remember a few practical safety facts:

  • Electricity from torch batteries is perfectly safe.
  • Always use good insulated wire – very thin wire can get warm.
  • Match bulbs to batteries (1.5V bulb to 1.5V battery).
  • If something doesn’t work, check the connections first. You can only push electricity through conductor materials. These are mostly metals; however, make the push big enough, and water, air and even the human body will conduct electricity – especially when wet. Remember to end each lesson on electricity with a reminder never to play with sockets and plugs.

Science educational resource provider, Philip Harris, partnered up with Year 1 and 2 teacher, Helen Woolfenden at Holden Clough Community Primary School in Ashton-under-Lyne, to help her class explore the wonders of electricity.

Activities

  1. Simple circuits
  2. Lighting up
  3. Spinning around
  4. Making electricity

1. Simple circuits

Aim: To begin to learn about circuits and what is needed for them to work.

Resources: A range of small electrical components; low-voltage batteries in battery boxes and connecting wires with crocodile clips (alternatively, use selected components from a circuit board like ‘Electronic Snap’n’Fix’ that guarantees positive connections).

Note: Make sure that the voltage of the bulbs either matches or exceeds that of the battery. A 3V bulb, for example, will light with a 1.5V battery but less brightly than it would with a 3V battery. It’s helpful to notice that the glass bead in the centre of the bulb holding the filament wires is a different colour with each voltage.

Activity case study

Helen Woolfenden, Year 1 and 2 teacher at Holden Clough Community Primary School in Ashton-under-Lyne, introduced and named the electrical components that the children were going to use. She explained that the battery pushes electricity around the circuit and that the circuit must be complete for the electricity to flow. She also demonstrated that all the components are needed for the circuit to light.

Helen split the class into pairs, gave each pair a circuit and helped them to light their bulbs. The children were asked to look closely at their light bulb while Helen explained that the wire filament inside it is part of the circuit and that the electricity flows right through the bulb. The children were then challenged to light the bulb again with one battery and only one wire. To do this, they had to hold the button terminal on the end of the bulb against one battery terminal and link the other terminal to the metal side of the bulb with the wire (this takes three hands!). Finally, the children were invited to explore other components in the circuit and each pair of children was given a motor, buzzer or bell.

Note: Buzzers are polarised – they only work when the current flows in one direction through them. If they don’t work, ask the children to reverse the wires.

Helen’s verdict

‘This was a real hands-on experiment that the class enjoyed from start to finish. The idea that a full circuit is needed for electricity to flow and that two wires are needed for a full circuit was learned in a fun and informative way.’

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2. Lighting up

Aim: To develop an understanding of how simple circuits can be applied to practical uses.

Resources: Switches and thick card with ready punched holes (alternatively, use a kit such as ‘Simple Circuits’).

Activity case study

Before the lesson began, Helen drew a picture of a clown on a piece of A3 card, asked the children to colour it in and then punched two holes through the clown’s eyes.

Building on from the children’s understanding of full circuits and lighting bulbs, Helen talked them through making a model that lights up. Two children were chosen to demonstrate how this was done. The bulbs were inserted from the front of the image and the bulb holders were screwed up from the back. A circuit for each eye was added behind the card, so they could light up independently.

Helen’s verdict

‘This was a great follow-on from the previous activity (see left) as it added to the children’s understanding and encouraged them to consider the practical uses of simple circuits. I’d definitely recommend this as a follow-on from initial circuit experiments.’

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3. Spinning around

Aim: To continue to learn about circuits and their uses, consolidating and expanding understanding.

Resources: Switches; electric motors and the clown picture from ‘Lighting up’ or a new version of the clown (alternatively, use a kit such as ‘Simple Circuits’).

Activity case study

Helen secured a loose bowtie to the clown (from ‘Lighting up’) and inserted motors, instead of bulbs, through the card. Many small electric motors fit in pipe-clips (the plastic clips that hold piping to the wall). These can be glued (by an adult using a glue gun) to the card to secure the motor. The bowtie will spin with the motor if it fits tightly on the motor spindle. If the connections are reversed, the motor will spin in the opposite direction. After the demonstration, the children tried out the activity in pairs.

Helen’s verdict

‘The children easily grasped this experiment as it built on ‘Simple circuits’ and ‘Lighting up’. It’s fascinating to watch children as they gain a growing understanding. Importantly, they always seem to be having fun and taking a real interest in what they are learning.’

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4. Making electricity

Aim: To understand the simple principle that moving a magnet (in a generator) generates electricity.

Resources: Motor; low-voltage bulb in a holder; two wires; metre lengths of thin, strong button thread; hand generator set.

Activity case study

Helen took a motor, two thin wires and a bulb and joined them up in a circuit, so that the motor took the place of the battery. Taking a thin, strong thread, she wound it once around the pulley on the motor. The she held the motor firmly and pulled the short end of the thread sharply to spin the motor, always watching the bulb, which then lit up. This was to demonstrate that the motor became a generator. The idea is that you are moving the magnets in the motor and generating electricity.

Helen chose two children from the class to explore this conversion of movement energy into electricity with a hand generator. The hand generator was connected to the bulb and was wound up until the bulb was lit.

Helen’s verdict

‘Understanding the simple principle that moving a magnet in a generator generates electricity, is an important concept for children to learn. They felt very clever once they’d managed to light up the bulb! The whole class found this fascinating to learn about.’

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