From Static to Circuits: Inquiry-Based STEM Explorations of Electricity
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STEM activities provide early childhood teachers with an avenue for increasing children’s knowledge and encouraging their creativity, collaboration, communication, and critical thinking. In this column, I share examples of guiding inquiry about electricity in classrooms of 3- and 4-year-olds—but these ideas can be implemented with older children as well. I also explain approaches for engaging students in inquiry-based scientific, technological, engineering, and mathematical (STEM) experiences (National Research Council 2011).
As a professor of science education, I often provide professional development for teachers; the preschool examples discussed here emerged from my work with several teachers on inquiry-based lessons introducing electricity. We drew on elements from the 5E (engage, explore, explain, elaborate, and evaluate) model for inquiry-based instruction (Bybee 2015) to design two lessons, and we encouraged children’s ownership of their learning experiences. Because we were exploring electricity concepts, we also reinforced safety rules.
Playing with static electricity
In a classroom of fourteen 3-year-olds, two teachers and I used elements of play and inquiry to introduce static electricity. One goal of our lesson was for children to observe, make predictions, and then test those predictions. Another goal was for the children to notice similarities among science concepts (e.g., attraction and repulsion with static electricity and with magnets). As we questioned children to assess their knowledge of static electricity and prompted them to make and test predictions, we engaged them in science and engineering practices and helped them identify crosscutting concepts (National Research Council 2012).
Assessing prior knowledge
Each child was given, and asked to care for, a fully inflated balloon. To reinforce science safety, we asked them how they should treat their balloons. Children commented, “Not pop it” and “Be gentle.” We inquired if they had played with balloons before, what they knew about balloons, and what they could do with their balloons. One popular response was that they could toss the balloons into the air and catch them.
Making observations and drawing inferences
When it was my turn to share my knowledge, I used my balloon to rub my head while pretending to think about tricks I could do with my balloon. When I pulled the balloon away from my head, the children noticed that my hair reacted. Comments such as “Your hair is sticking up silly” and “You have stick hair” were shared through giggles. Asking, “What does my hair look like?,” we prompted children to make observations. We also asked them why they thought my hair looked the way it did. The children explained, “The balloon made your hair stick up.”
To see if the same thing would happen to them, many children immediately rubbed their balloons on their heads. Some laughed as their friends’ hair stood up, and they asked each other, “Is my hair silly?” We encouraged the children to describe what each other’s hair looked like by modeling observations: “Her hair is standing up” or “The hair near the balloon is sticking out straight.” We also provided mirrors so children could see their own hair.
Making and testing predictions
After giving the children time to rub their heads (and mine) many times, I held up a few pieces of tissue paper and asked them what would happen if they rubbed the balloons on their heads, then put the balloons near the tissue paper. Several children said that it would make the tissue paper stick up. We put small squares of tissue paper on the carpet, and we encouraged the children to test their predictions. After rubbing their heads, the children slowly brought the balloons near the tissue paper. As the balloons got closer, the paper floated up and stuck to the balloons.
The children became excited and started yelling, “It stuck to my balloon!” When they tried to brush the tissue off the balloons with their hands, they noticed it would move around on the balloons but did not come off easily. While the teachers, the children, and I, picked the paper off the balloons, we had the children help us count the squares of tissue paper that had stuck to their balloons. After we removed all of the squares, we asked the children to try the activity again. As they repeated the experiment, we introduced the terms static electricity and attract to describe what was happening and why.
The teachers and I asked the children whether both the tissue paper and their hair reacted to the balloons in the same manner. Teachers reminded them about a magnet activity they had done the previous day. Through conversations about playing with magnets, the teachers helped the children see similarities between the ways the balloons reacted with their hair and the tissue paper, and the ways magnetic poles interact with each other. The class talked about the magnets “sticking together” and “moving away” from each other, and the teachers introduced the terms attract and repel.
To show them that static electricity can sometimes cause objects to repel other objects, I passed around a FunFly Stick. The stick, which looks like a large wand, contains a small battery-powered motor that creates a negative charge when a button is pushed. While I demonstrated using the FunFly Stick by making tinsel float above it, we asked the children to tell us what was happening. Many of them commented, “It is Flying” and “It doesn’t stick.”
We talked about how both magnets and electricity can attract and repel objects. To reinforce the vocabulary and ensure understanding, we intentionally used attract, stick together, repel, and move away from throughout the demonstration. We passed around the FunFly Stick and tinsel and had the children see if they could make their balloons attract and repel the tinsel. We also encouraged the children to explore how other things in the room reacted when touched by their balloons (after being rubbed on their heads). We asked them to count the items that stuck to their balloons. Throughout their investigations, we helped children make and share observations.
In a similar collaborative effort, I worked with a teacher and her assistant in a classroom of 4-year-olds to facilitate an activity about electricity. Instead of focusing on static electricity, the goal of our lesson was to examine a circuit and discuss what it is and how to create one. As we did this, we encouraged students to share their knowledge and experiences with electricity, make observations, make and test predictions, and communicate their understanding with others.
Engaging the students
To get students excited about creating circuits, I first read them Eric Carle's The Very Lonely Firefly. On the last page of the board book, the fireflies actually light up. After finishing the story, we asked the children whether they wanted to make their own light-up fireflies, which caused great excitement. (Rather than discussing the chemical process that causes real fireflies to glow, we focused on the electricity that lit up the illustrations of fireflies in the board book.) We explained that while the fireflies in the book and real fireflies both produce light, the process inside real fireflies is different. We were going to focus on how the fireflies light in the book works, and the children had to help figure out what materials we needed.
I opened the book to the last page again and asked students to share what they thought made the fireflies light up. The students replied, “Batteries,” “Electric,” “Electricity,” and “Bulbs.” We told them that they were correct in thinking that electricity made the light bulbs light up and that batteries and bulbs were essential parts of this process. We then asked what the batteries and bulbs do. Hearing answers such as, “Batteries make toys work” and “Bulbs make light,” we told them that we would use bulbs and batteries, along with another item, to figure out how to light a bulb.
To explore circuits in a way that is safe for young children, we gave groups of three or four students magnetic circuit blocks representing wires, batteries, and light bulbs from LightUp Edison Kits. Each type of block looks different and has magnets on the ends to make connections, so children can easily move and explore the parts of a circuit (e.g., wires, bulb, and battery).
For the first activity, each group received two wire blocks, a battery block, and a light bulb block (see “Light Circuit,” Figure 1). We told them the name of each block and asked them to turn their battery on using the switch. Instead of turning the rechargeable battery blocks on and off, we wanted our 4-year-olds to focus on completing the circuit so they could immediately see the light bulb glow once they placed the blocks in the right order. As students connected blocks, they began to discuss where they thought the different pieces should go. We reminded them to make sure that the magnets on both sides of each block were touching another block.
One group connected the pieces correctly right away, which made them very excited. Since they did not have prior experience with the blocks, the students did not know why their design worked. We encouraged them to make observations about how the pieces were put together. Next, I had them move the blocks into different positions to see what would happen. Throughout this investigation, the teachers and I encouraged all of the children to take turns sharing ideas about how to connect the blocks. As groups successfully made their bulbs light up, we asked them for their observations about their circuits.
After each group figured out how to light their bulb, we asked them to share what they did with the class. This provided an opportunity for the children to explain their thinking and for us to reinforce the purpose of each type of block. When asked what was the same about each group’s designs, they noted, “They were all stuck together,” “The battery was on,” and “It looked like a square because they were stuck together.”
We then introduced the term circuit and told them that they created a circuit when they connected the pieces correctly. We asked students to turn off the battery without moving anything else. When they did that, many children said their light wasn’t working. We talked about how the battery provided energy for the bulb to light up and the switch on the battery was used to turn the light off and on.
Elaborating on the idea of electricity
The teachers and I used centers to encourage students to apply what they learned about circuits. Small groups of students cycled through three centers.
One center contained Energy Sticks, which are toys that produce sound and light when certain parts of the stick are touched at the same time. The stick simulates an open circuit that can be closed (resulting in sounds and lights) by holding the metal on both sides of the stick. Students were prompted to close the circuit on their own by using their hands and to see if they could close it by using their hands together with their group members’ hands.
In the second center, we provided students with more magnetic circuit blocks. Instead of the light bulb blocks, students were given blocks for assembling a buzzer. We asked questions to review the roles of the battery and battery switch in their light bulb circuits. As they played with the new blocks and made the buzzer sound (see “Sound Circuit,” Figure 1), we reinforced the idea that they completed a circuit similar to the one they made with the light bulb.
In the last center, we helped students make their own battery-powered fireflies. (This activity requires hands-on assistance by adults who understand electrical circuits, so it may be difficult to implement in classrooms without a low child-to-teacher ratio.) Each student received a small piece of paper with an image of a firefly on it. The firefly had a small hole punch at the bottom of its body. After having an opportunity to color their firefly, each child was given one AA battery and a small section of a light strand that contained one bulb with two wires (see Figure 2). We asked them to describe the light bulb circuit they had built with the blocks earlier and to try to make this light bulb work using the battery. With a little exploration, the children lit their bulbs. We helped them tape the light through the back of the paper along with the battery. Finally, as a culminating activity, we asked the children if they could turn the light off and on. We asked them to share what they did and explain how it was the same as the switch on the battery. (For step-by-step instructions to do similar activities with a flashlight bulb, battery, wires, and optional switch, see sciencing.com/light-bulb-work-battery-4798212.html.)
Using an inquiry-based approach to introduce electricity helped children build an understanding of basic science concepts, increase their vocabulary, and reinforce skills related to communication, critical thinking, and collaboration. These tools for teaming are necessary for personal and academic success (P21 2015). By exploring core scientific concepts, engaging in engineering, and applying mathematics, our activities also encouraged STEM literacy as defined by the National Research Council (2011, 2012). Most important, these activities and discussions supported children's budding understanding of complex topics in ways that were meaningful to them. This introduction to electricity will serve them well in later grades as they develop deeper background knowledge.
Bybee, R.W. 2015. The BSCS 5E Instructional Model: Creating Teachable Moments. NSTA Press: Arlington, VA
National Research Council. 2011. Successful K–12 STEM Education: Identifying Effective Approaches in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
National Research Council. 2012. A Famework for K–12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
P21 (Partnership for 21st Century Learning). 2015. “Framework for 21st Century Learning.” Washington, DC: P21. www.p21.org/about-us/p21-framework.
Sandra M. Linder, PhD, is an associate professor of early childhood mathematics education at Clemson University. Her research centers on supporting teacher practices and student understandings related to early childhood mathematics. firstname.lastname@example.org
Angela Eckhoff, PhD, is an associate professor of teaching and learning in the early childhood education program and codirector of the Virginia Early Childhood Policy Center at Old Dominion University. Her areas of specialization include creativity and inquiry-based pedagogical practices in early childhood.