Teaching electricity becomes more effective, engaging, and fun when you use hands-on electrical circuit activities. Try these simple energy labs to electrify your elementary physics unit.
Our favorite fourth grade teacher, Ms. Sneed, discussed teaching electricity with her colleague, Mr. Frank. “I want our kids to do science, not just read about it,” she said.
As usual, she hopped in front of her computer and began searching Teachers pay Teachers. “Hey, look at this electricity unit! Kids work in groups to conduct labs. They use inquiry and make generalizations.”
As she scrolled through the preview, Mr. Frank stopped her. “And the extensions are dynamite!” he exclaimed.
Ms. Sneed Begins Teaching Electricity with Batteries and Bulbs
The following week, Ms. Sneed began teaching electricity. “Today we’ll do a battery and bulb activity, she told her class. “Using a battery and a piece of aluminum foil, you and your partner will discover ways to light a bulb.”
After their teacher distributed the materials, the kids got busy. For a while, the classroom was quiet. Soon, however, cries of “This bulb doesn’t work!” could be heard.
“Don’t worry,” said Ms. Sneed. “I tested all of the batteries and bulbs this morning. They all work. Keep trying.”
Amid growing grumbles, the students kept trying. Finally, a few students called out, “We got it!”
“Great!” said Ms. Sneed. “Now try and find more ways to light the bulb. Remember to draw them on your lab report.”
The teacher circulated to give encouragement. Finally, all groups had at least one solution.
When all students had finished, Ms. Sneed called the class to attention. “Let’s record our solutions and display them for all to see,” she said. As students suggested configurations, Ms. Sneed called them to the front of the classroom. Each took a paper bulb and battery, glued them to a piece of construction paper, and used a marker to show how to position the foil. Their teacher arranged them on the classroom wall.
“Next, we’ll work together to write a generalization.” Students made suggestions from their lab sheets. Soon they had hung a classroom generalization on the wall too:
- One end of the foil must touch one end of the battery.
- The other end of the foil must touch the side or tip of the bulb.
- The side or tip of the battery that isn’t touching the foil must touch the other end of the battery.
Getting Started with Simple Circuits
The following day, Ms. Sneed introduced simple circuits. “Today you’ll use battery holders and bulb holders,” she told her class. “That makes building circuits easier. Just snap the batteries in like this. Since these bulb holders are new, they’re a little stiff. You may need to work at it, but the bulb screws into this hole.”
As Ms. Sneed handed out the lab reports, she directed the science groups. Ones, get two batteries from the table. Twos, grab a battery holder. Threes, take a bulb. Fours, get a bulb holder and two wires.”
Soon the students were busily constructing circuits. As each was completed, smiles lit up the group members’ faces.
Once Ms. Sneed noticed that groups were wrapping up their labs, she walked to the light switch on the classroom wall. She flicked it downward, and the lights turned off. The students looked around in surprise.
“Open or closed?” Ms. Sneed asked.
After a brief silence, a few brave souls tentatively said, “Open?”
Ms. Sneed smiled and flicked the switch upward. “Open or closed?” she asked.
A chorus of “closed” could be heard.
Exploring Conductors and Insulators
The next day, Ms. Sneed was ready with another lab for teaching electricity. “Today, each group will test 20 items to identify conductors and insulators. Listen as I give directions:
- Build a simple circuit.
- Add a wire and leave the connection open.
- Connect the wires to an object. If the bulb lights, it’s a conductor.
- List conductors and insulators on your lab sheet.”
Soon the students could be seen testing items from their baggies – as well as all kinds of stuff from their desks. “Hey, look!” called one student. “Even the table leg is a conductor.”
For this lab, groups easily generalized that metal objects conducted electricity.
Teaching Electricity with Series and Parallel Circuits
Finally, Ms. Sneed was ready to teach series and parallel circuits. To promote inquiry, she didn’t provide explicit directions. Instead, she simply directed students to create a series circuit with three wires and a parallel circuit with four.
“Hey, these series circuits are easy to build,” one student said. Ms. Sneed nodded and smiled.
Parallel circuits, however, were not as easy. “What are we supposed to do with this extra wire?” kids asked.
As with the first lab, their teacher just said, “Keep trying.” Eventually, most groups came up with solutions. For those who continued to struggle, Ms. Sneed provided guidance.
“Let’s do a fun follow-up to this lab,” Ms. Sneed said. “Grab your Chromebooks. Then use the link I sent you to access PhET Interactive Simulations.”
Students opened their devices and found the link. “I’d like you to create a series circuit first,” their teacher said. “Raise your hand when you’ve completed it, and I’ll mark you off on my checklist. Then you can try a parallel circuit.”
Awesome Extensions for Teaching Electricity
Ms. Sneed liked teaching with all the bells and whistles. In addition to the hands-on activities, she taught with websites, videos, books, and even a cool bulletin board. Oh yes, and she had a few more surprises up her sleeve.
As students entered the classroom the following week, they noticed six white boxes on the table. “What are these?” they asked.
“Snap Circuits®,” Ms. Sneed responded. “You’ll love them. The manual gives instructions for building 100 different circuits. You can use them when you’re finished with your other work – or during indoor recess.”
The kids couldn’t wait to play with the new kits. Ms. Sneed smiled secretly. She knew that Snap Circuits® did a great job of teaching electricity as kids played.
Ms. Sneed had one more fun activity up her sleeve. The following day, she arrived at school a little early. As she bustled around the room, she gathered supplies: tagboard, aluminum foil, masking tape, and paper punches. After arranging them on the side table, she pulled out batteries, battery holders, bulbs, bulb holders, and wires. By the time her students arrived, she was ready.
“Today,” she began, “you will build a light board.” Her students looked around in wonder. That sounded fun!
Their teacher distributed the materials and directions. Once again, her students became actively engaged in a science activity.
As Ms. Sneed walked around, she watched her little scientists – hard at work. This hands-on science unit engaged them like never before. And that satisfied teacher smile spread across her face. Teaching electricity sure was fun.
Over the course of her career, Ms. Sneed realized that there were 6 steps to enjoy teaching. In order to survive, she had to organize, plan, and simplify. Then, to thrive, Ms. Sneed needed to learn, engage, and finally – dive in! Follow the Fabulous Teaching Adventures of Ms. Sneed and learn how you can enjoy teaching too.