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  • Writer's pictureAmy Wung Tsao

Science of Electricity

Updated: Feb 14

A Note from Amy

Hi, my name is Amy, and I’m an electrical engineer. But don’t ask me to re-wire anything in your house. Or my house for that matter.


Joking aside, I know a lot about electromagnetism. But no matter how much I know, it still feels magical.  Magnets can push (or pull) on something without even touching it! Same for electrical charges. 


I even wrote a silly story about a magic rabbit, and added a static electricity magic trick at the end of it. Maybe this magic trick, or some of the other activities here, will inspire you and your kids this month!


 

Electricity Science - From Static Electricity to Circuits!


“We will make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles.”

- Thomas Edison


"Electricity is really just organized lightning.” ~ comedian George Carlin



Close up photo of an incandescent light bulb, filament glowing bright yellow and orange against a black background.
Credit: Alessandro Bianchi (ale_s_bianchi) on UnSplash

Electricity! It’s the invisible force that lets me send you this email, and also lets you read it! It also sometimes shocks you at the bottom of the playground slide. (I hate when that happens.)


If you’re feeling a little daunted by this STEM topic, here’s my quick primer:

1. Everything is made from atoms. 


2. Atoms have both protons (those are positive charges) and electrons (those are negative charges), but the electrons can sometimes escape their atom and move freely.


3. You can charge up a balloon with extra negative charge - that’s called static electricity. And since opposites attract, that extra negative charge wants to stick to something with positive charges, making a static-y balloon feel sticky. 


4. When you feel a static shock, that’s the extra negative charge jumping through the air to reach the positive charges in you! 


5. When lots of electrons start moving together, like when they move along your charging cable to your smartphone battery, that’s an electric current


Now that you’ve got the basics down, here are my favorite resources about electricity. Perfect for preschoolers, kindergarteners, 1st graders and 2nd graders!  (Just a reminder - I am never paid to mention any of these resources; there are no affiliate links.)


 

Videos




From SciShow Kids (YouTube)


This short little video explains static electricity with the fun example of sticking a balloon onto the wall. Try it at home if you have a balloon on hand!




The Power of Circuits! from SciShow Kids (YouTube)


Now that you know about electric charges, this video is all about how charges travel from a battery, through wires and a switch, into a light bulb. Really makes you appreciate all the light switches in your home!


These short Scishow Kids videos make a great introduction, but if you’ve got a kid who really wants more, ScienceMax has a super fun 20 minute episode that covers similar ground but with way more examples. 




From MysteryScience (YouTube) 


I learned so much myself from this video! Mystery Doug takes you from a science experiment with frog legs to the invention of batteries.


 

Books



Illustration of a grey and white kitten smiling up at a bird talking to him from atop a fence post.

By Geoff Waring


Oops, Oscar the kitten accidentally turned on the windshield wipers on his farm’s tractor! Bird has lots of explanations about how the tractor battery powers the windshield wiper, and how electricity powers all sorts of other things in Oscar’s world. While the story isn’t the most compelling, this picture book had the clearest and simplest answers to lots of common questions about electricity.  




Cover illustration of a brown-skinned boy with close cropped hair and a blue and white t-shirt, looking up at a windmill made out of found materials, sitting on top of uneven wooden poles.

By William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer, illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon 


This inspiring true story was also the basis of Chiwetel Ejiofor’s gorgeous film of the same name.  While drought is devastating his Malawian village, 13-year-old William Kamkwamba uses junkyard scraps to build a windmill that generates electricity. He eventually  builds a windmill powerful enough to pump water year-round for his family’s farm.


 

Activities




Play with static electricity 


Static electricity experiments are great because once you’ve helped a kid get started, they’ll often find new ways to experiment with it on their own!  Start by rubbing a balloon in your hair, running a plastic comb through your hair, or rubbing a plastic spoon on a towel to charge it up. Once you have a charged up balloon, comb, or spoon, you can experiment with attracting sugar, pepper, confetti, and other small light things. You can even make running water bend like this guy! 




Fingers pinching the black handle on a mini red lightsaber that is glowing slightly against a white background.

from Science Buddies

If you’re ready to move on from static electricity to electric circuits, this is just about the simplest circuit you can make! This is not an activity that a kid can do independently, but it is pretty quick once you get the materials. All you need is a small button battery, an LED bulb (which you could possibly scavenge from a light-up toy, or are relatively cheap to buy), a plastic straw and some electrical tape. 




Make more complicated circuits with a kit, on paper, or with playdoh

If you really want to go deeper into the world of circuit building, there are a ton of options out there. If you're willing to spend money on a kit, SnapCircuits and CircuitBlox make the most popular circuit-building kits for kids. 


For a low cost DIY option, you can make paper circuits using aluminum foil and coin batteries. Or you can make low-cost squishy circuits like in this video, using playdoh as a conductor and modeling clay as an insulator.  I haven’t tried these myself, but I can see the playful appeal of combining circuits with sculpture!


 

That’s it for electricity, but next month we’re talking about its close cousin, magnetism!



Until next time, have fun lighting sparks of curiosity,

Amy Wung Tsao


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