Circuits: Making Connections with Hands-on Learning, Basic Materials, and Tools
Got some old festive tree lights laying around the house? Don’t throw them out. You can turn them into a curiosity center where students can explore the basics of electric current. They can be used for a variety of hands-on learning projects, like creating different types of circuits, light-up cards, or other projects.
You could also use them in a holiday party for your classroom, you could have your students create their own decorations for the party by experimenting and exploring how to create designs with the lights and circuits, or this could be a center/activity you plan to use during your holiday party. If you have parent volunteers helping out, give them a quick rundown of how to help the students by asking questions and providing guidance, without directly instructing the students (the students should be the ones creating, not their parents).
If you are new to circuits, don’t worry! We will walk you through the basics and tell you everything you need to know to teach this lesson/create this center in your classroom.
What is a Circuit?
To help your students understand the basic premise of how to create a circuit, they must understand that the current needs to flow from point A to an output (like a light or outlet) and then back to point B. This process is constantly repeated as energy flows through the circuit.
You can use analogies to explain this flow:
For pre-reading students, use an image or video of a Ferris wheel, roller coaster, or another carnival ride in which the rider starts at point A and must complete a loop or track in order to get back to point A and complete the ride. If you have a toy train/track in your classroom, you could put it together and use it as a physical example for your students. Ask your students what might happen if a piece of the track was removed? They will likely notice that the train would stop, and therefore, it would not complete the track. The same concept applies to a circuit, current must also flow in a circle/cycle/continuous track in order for the circuit to be complete.
For your readers, try having them look at the word Circuit to find part of another familiar word (circle.) This helps our beginning explorers to understand that current must flow in a sort of circle or cycle from a beginning to an end in order to create a circuit. When there is a break in the flow, the current stops and the circuit is incomplete.
There are a number of online resources to purchase materials to create circuits, but I would encourage your kids to create circuits from materials around your house/classroom. The only items you may need to purchase are batteries and battery housing as well as conductive copper or aluminum tape and electrical tape.
An essential list of circuit materials for this center might include these items:
- An old string of lights
- Wire strippers
- Needle-nosed Pliers
- Sewing Awl
- Various batteries and battery connectors (9V battery snaps,
- Large Paper clips
- Double sided scotch tape
- Electrical tape
- Soldering iron and lead-free solder
- Copper tape with conductive adhesive
- 3M aluminum foil tape with conductive adhesive
You will need to teach your students how to cut off the LED’s from the string lights and how to strip the coating off of the wire. You will want to explain that the wire is conductive, meaning it carries the current. The coating is insulation to prevent a short circuit.
A short circuit occurs when electricity/energy has a ‘shorter’ or easier path to follow, so it does not go through the correct circuit. If the wires are not insulated and touching each other, this could create other pathways and cause the electricity to flow incorrectly. You can explain this concept to your students and let them conclude whether or not it’s an issue as they create their circuits.
Next, teach them how to make various connections using the different tapes and wires available. Have them experiment with different ways to use conductive material (anything metal) to make a circuit. If your students are old enough and you have a quality soldering iron, show them how to solder. The video accompanying this blog will provide some tips on making those connections.
For older students, provide examples of simple circuits, circuits in a series, & parallel circuits. Have the students try making each of these.
Questions for Exploration
- Experiment with different batteries on a single simple circuit to see how the size of the battery affects the brightness of the light. Which battery creates the brightest light?
- Experiment with more lights in a series. How does this affect the brightness of the lights?
- How can you create a switch (on and off) for your circuit?
- Create a standup holiday display with one or two lights in it.
- What else might you do or create with your recycled light circuit?
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