Charging Up Students with Electromagnets

Electromagnets pose an absolutely perfect transition activity for students learning about energy and electricity in the elementary classroom. The inherent connection between electricity and magnetism is seen undeniably as soon as students touch the wires to the battery and start picking up paperclips all over their desks. Instant amazement. Instant connection.

Students increase the strength of their electromagnet by increasing the number of times the wire is wrapped around the nail. The wire creates what is known as a “solenoid” and magnetizes the nail when current flows through the wire.

This electromagnet activity is posed not as a demonstration or activity, but a “challenge.” How many paperclips can you pick up with your electromagnet? No step by step process, just an automatic assumption of success (yes, you can and will little scientists!) and a little competition to keep everyone focus.

Diagram courtesy of MCAS question resource bank

The activity is rife with plenty of lessons learned along the way. As students complete their first electromagnet, they will come to find that the battery begins to heat up (a result of the short circuit being formed by the wire to the battery nodes.) Surprise conversion of energy from electricity to heat! Some students may even feel a small pinch from their wiring if they are touching the live ends of the wire when a connection is made. (This tends to be less observable with smaller batteries, but a Heavy Duty 6V will leave an brief but uncomfortable feeling on the fingers. Be sure to remind student to stay safe and keep fingers away from exposed wire!) Students are also forced to examine a diagram so they may replicate the basic setup of an electromagnet, then practice and hone their fine-motor and engineering skills to physically construct the tool.

By adding a compass to the kit to better see the electromagnet, particularly around the poles where the needle will give up its interest in the Earth’s magnetic north pole and instead go for the more local north pole of the student’s electromagnet! Moving the compass away from the nail will cause it to resume pointing towards Earth’s magnetic north once again.

Attached here you will find a PDF outling a simple, step-by-step process through the activity that may be posted or adapted for an interactive whiteboard (I actually used SMART software to create this.)

A five question worksheet is also included here walking students through their own drawing of their electromagnet. Emphasis is placed on using appropriate scientific vocabulary such as electromagnet, battery, wire, electricity and so forth. In addition, questions will lead kids to ask why the nail is only magnetic at certain times, what happens when the circuit is disconnected, and so forth, pushing students to connect the current of electricity with the strength of the metal nail as a magnet.

About Sean Musselman

Teacher Dad and Burlington MA Schools K-5 Science and Social Studies Curriculum Coordinator. NSTA Professional Development facilitator and author of "Think Like a Scientist: Investigating Weather and Climate" NSTA Kids ebook.
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