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Physics First: "Static" Electricity Units

Characteristics of "static" electricity include: 1) The number of of positive and negative electric charges within a material may not be equal, 2) voltage is high and current is low, 3) electrical forces (attraction and repulsion) can reach  across great distances, and 4) electric fields (as opposed to magnetic fields) become very important. (Electric fields are also called "electrostatic fields" or "e-fields." Units are not listed in a prescribed order.

  Teaching About Electrostatics (9)

Lesson Plans:

This page links to five lesson plans in static electricity for beginning learners.  Designed for easy set-up, the lessons are intended to help beginners understand charge, electrostatic induction, and how transfer of electrons occurs.

Item Type: Hands-On Activities
Level: Grades 4-8

This lesson plan for beginners includes a creative update of the "Kissing Balloon", plus  three activities designed to enhance student understanding of electric charge, electron transfer, and polarization.  Try teaming it with Chasing Cheerios below.

Item Type: Lesson Plan
Level: Grades 8-9
Duration: 1-2 Class Periods

A Cheerio is suspended from a string and brought in contact with a charged plastic ruler, then neutralized by touching it.  This lesson illustrates both induction and conduction.  A second activity is included, with a printable student data sheet and reference materials.

Item Type: Lesson Plan
Level: Grades 6-9
Duration: 30 minutes

Using neon bulbs as a "test charge" for a current or for an electric field. this is a description for a lesson plan or activity.

Item Type: Lesson Plan
Level: Grades 8-9
Duration: One Class Period

References and Collections:

This unique resource integrates the scientific work of Ben Franklin with lab guides for replicating historic experiments in secondary classrooms. This introductory section describes the history of Franklin's work, and provides details of the equipment that will be used for the entire unit.

Item Type: Lab Experiments
Level: Grades 6-12

Content Support For Teachers:

Common misconceptions about the topic of electrostatics are fully explored in this resource for both teachers and learners.  The author debunks more than a dozen myths as he offers comprehensive explanations of related phenomena.

Item Type: Reference Material

The study of lightning is an exciting way to learn about electric field and charge. During a thunderstorm, separation of charge produces enormous electrical potential both within the cloud and between the cloud and ground. Eventually the electrical resistance in the air breaks down and a flash begins. This NASA resource is a complete "primer" on the subject of lightning -- it explains the lightning discharge process, modern data collection, and a brief history of the scientific study of lightning.

Item Type: Reference Material

Student Tutorials:

What happens when a charged object is brought near a neutral conducting object? This animation will help your students visualize the process of induction. It was developed by the author of The Physics Classroom tutorials for high school physics.

Item Type: Interactive Tutorial
Level: High School Physics

Assessment:

This is a teacher-made electrostatic quiz, not meant to be fully definitive, but as an example. It contains 29 questions in multiple choice and true/false format. Answers are provided.

Item Type: Online Quiz
Level: High School

  Electric Field (8)

Lesson Plans:

This outstanding resource integrates Java-based models of electrostatics with standards-based lesson plans and student worksheets. Your students will have fun moving charges around to investigate interaction of charged particles and watch as electric field lines are generated. The worksheets offer them structured guidance.

Item Type: Simulation-Based Module
Level: Grades 7-12

Activities:

The Exploratorium "snacks" are miniature versions of popular exhibits at the museum, all do-able with inexpensive materials. For electrostatics, click on "Charge and Carry", "Electroscope", and "Holding Charge".

Item Type: Classroom Experiments
Level: Grades 6-12

We can't see an electric field. It helps students to have a pictorial tool to visualize it as a region of space. This simulation lets them explore both the vector field concept and the field line model. Click anywhere within the field and a field line is automatically drawn. Color-coded vectors surround each charge to show the strength of field. Sign can be changed to view both attraction and repulsion.

Item Type: Interactive Simulation
Level: Grades 8-12

The concept of electric field can be very difficult for beginners. This package of Java simulations allows students to move charges around and see the force; observe the electric field generated by charge configurations; and observe the motion of test particles in electric fields. Includes instructor's guides and printable student worksheets. The package was created for use in middle school and 9th grade physical science, but can be adapted for high school conceptual physics.

Item Type: Model-Based Unit
Level: Grades 7-12
Duration: Multi-Day

Sometimes students ask, "So what happens when one negative charge interacts with one positive charge?" This simulation uses two oppositely-charged "point charges" to address this question. Just move them around on the screen. The electric field changes shape depending on the distance separating the two particles and also on the magnitude of their charge. A point charge is an idealized model of a particle that has electric charge. It is represented here as a mathematical point with no dimensions.

Item Type: Interactive Simulation
Level: Grades 7-8

Content Support For Teachers:

This educator's guide provides a conceptual explanation of electric field. It is framed as a side-by-side comparison of electrostatics and gravity, a solid analogy for understanding how charge interaction is described and quantified in physics.

Item Type: Content Support

Student Tutorials:

This chapter in an online educators' guide is devoted to a conceptual exploration of electric field.  It is framed as a side-by-side comparison of electrostatics and gravity, which helps beginners gain understanding of how charge interaction is described and calculated in physics.

Item Type: Student Tutorial
Level: High School Physics
Duration: 30 minutes

Assessment:

This is a multiple choice traditional online quiz (with hints) for electric fields.

Item Type: Online Quiz
Level: High School

  Electric Force (7)

Activities:

Inverse relationships are common in nature. In electrostatics, the electrical force between 2 charged objects is inversely related to the distance that separates them. This interactive tutorial from The Physics Classroom is the best we've found on the web for exploring and applying the inverse square law to electrostatics forces.

Item Type: Interactive Tutorial
Level: Grades 9-12

An outstanding, yet simple, simulation to help students visualize electric force as a vector with magnitude and direction. It features two particles with opposite charge. Change the position and magnitude of either charge and watch the electric field respond. The field can be viewed as "grass seeds", electric potential lines, or vector field.

Item Type: Interactive Simulation
Level: Grades 9-12

In this Java simulation, your students play with a replication of Coulomb's historic torsion balance -- a device used to measure electric force between charges. Coulomb's methodical measuring laid the foundation for Coulomb's Law, a fundamental principle of electricity and magnetism.

Item Type: Interactive Simulation
Level: Grades 8-12

Many students have difficulty understanding the interactions that cause an electric force between charges. It helps if they begin their investigation with a very simple 1-D representation of the electric force that one particle exerts on another. The user sets the amount of charge so that the particles can either attract or repel; then vector arrows appear to show the amount of force on each particle. One particle can be moved left or right along the line to see the effect of distance on the force. With one click, students can see a graph of the electric force as a function of position.

Item Type: Interactive Simulation
Level: High School

References and Collections:

This is a wonderful collection of materials on the scientific works of Benjamin Franklin, integrating historical background with descriptions of the actual lab experiments. The lab guides explain how to set up identical (or very similar) experiments in the classroom and provides video how-to's for several lessons.

Item Type: Digital Collection
Level: Grades 6-12

Student Tutorials:

This interactive tutorial, part of The Physics Classroom, does a first-rate job of explaining the concepts underlying Coulomb's Law.

Item Type: Interactive Tutorial
Level: High School
Duration: 30 minutes

This short biography on Charles-Augustin de Coulomb (1736-1806) gives background on the pioneer's work, which resulted in the fundamental physics law named after him. Coulomb's Law states: the electric force between charged objects inversely depends upon the distance between the objects. This tutorial helps students understand this relationship.

Item Type: Historical Background
Level: Grades 6-12

  Capacitors and their Effect on Electricity (6)

Lesson Plans:

This lesson plan explains how to make a simple electroscope, a device used to detect electric charge. It updates the classic "kissing balloon" activity with creative additions. It is standards-aligned and includes printable student data sheets.

Item Type: Lesson Plan
Level: Grades 8-12
Duration: One Class Period

Activities:

The classic demonstration of charging an aluminum pie plate by induction is depicted in this animation, with detailed text to explain grounding and separation of charge.

Item Type: Animation-Based Tutorial
Level: Grades 9-12

This item gives step-by-step animated depictions of charge interactions when a balloon is brought near a charge detecting device.

Item Type: Animation-Based Tutorial
Level: Grades 9-12

This is one of the best simulations we've seen to illustrate what happens at the particle level inside the two plates of a parallel capacitor. Students can set the number and magnitude of charges within each capacitor, then watch the charges distribute themselves along the outer edges of their enclosures. A great visualization of the Coulomb force in action.

Item Type: Interactive Simulation
Level: Grades 9-12

Content Support For Teachers:

This resource blends text with interactive java simulations to provide an excellent overview of the topic of capacitance.  It includes descriptions of how electric capacitors work and introduces simple calculations.

Item Type: Interactive Tutorial
Level: High School

Student Tutorials:

Capacitors are electrical devices designed to store electric charge.  In this interactive java tutorial, students explore factors affecting capacitance and gain understanding of how it is related to electrostatic force field.

Item Type: Online Tutorial
Level: High School

  Electric Charge (13)

Lesson Plans:

The Exploratorium "snacks" are miniature versions of popular exhibits at the museum, all do-able with inexpensive materials. For electrostatics, click on "Charge and Carry", "Electroscope", and "Holding Charge".

Item Type: Activity Collection
Level: Grades 6-12

A neon bulb is an object that can be lighted either by electric current or by static electricity.  This creative lesson, which requires no math,  helps students form an understanding of electron transfer.  Included is a printable student data sheet.

Item Type: Lesson Plan
Level: Grades 8-12
Duration: One Class Period

An exceptional internet-based module that blends computer modeling with traditional hands-on labs. The introductory video is guaranteed to "spark" attention: a car catches on fire during refueling. The driving questions for students to investigate: what caused the fire and how can we use a knowledge of electrostatics to prevent these accidents? (Developed by UC-Berkeley.)

Item Type: Project-Based Learning
Level: Grades 9-12
Duration: Multi-Day

Looking for a truly interactive lesson on electric field? This package was developed by an award-winning high school teacher to accompany the PhET simulation Electric Field Hockey. Students place electric charges on a simulated ice field, then use their understanding of charge interaction to guide a hockey puck into a goal. The lesson integrates the game with free-body diagrams and vector addition.

Item Type: Simulation-Based Lesson
Level: Grades 9-12

Activities:

This animation illustrates the effect when a negatively-charged balloon is brought near two neutral conducting spheres.

Item Type: Animation-Based Tutorial
Level: Grades 9-12

In this game-like environment, students  place positive and negative charges on a simulated ice field.  Getting the puck into the goal can be easy or complicated, depending upon the charge interaction. See "Lesson Plans" above for a great set of teacher-created materials that supplement this simulation -- student guide, clicker questions, and more.

Item Type: Interactive Simulation
Level: Grades 9-12

An outstanding, yet simple, simulation to help students visualize electric force as a vector with magnitude and direction. It features two particles with opposite charge. Change the position and magnitude of either charge and watch the electric field respond. The field can be viewed as "grass seeds", electric potential lines, or vector field.

Item Type: Interactive Simulation
Level: Grades 9-12

Explore static electricity by rubbing a virtual balloon on a sweater, then on an adjacent wall. The interactions among the sweater, balloon, and wall illustrate charge transfer and polarization. See "PhET Teacher Ideas" directly below for a step-by-step student guide to use with this simulation.

Item Type: Interactive Simulation
Level: Grades 6-12

This printable student guide was developed specifically for use with the PhET simulation "Balloons and Static Electricity". It gives explicit directions for set-up, plus open-ended questions to help kids explore charge interactions. See the item directly above for a link to the simulation, which must be open in a browser to complete this activity.

Item Type: Student Guide
Level: Grades 6-10
Duration: One Class Period

References and Collections:

The Van de Graaff generator, invented in 1929, is an example of a nearly ideal current source, as it can supply the same small current at almost any electric potential. This site offers information needed to understand the operation and maintenance of Van de Graaff generators.  The author includes helpful hints for classroom demonstrations.

Item Type: Reference Material

Content Support For Teachers:

What happens when a charged object is brought near a neutral conducting object?  Electrons in the conductor are forced (induced) to move about the sphere, as they are repelled by a negatively-charged tube. Once the ground is touched to the sphere, the electrons leave the sphere and move through the ground. Now, the sphere acquires a positive charge.

Item Type: Interactive Tutorial
Level: High School
Duration: 20 minutes

This NASA resource is a complete "primer" on the subject of lightning.  It includes an easily understood description of the lightning discharge process, modern data collection,and a brief history of the scientific study of lightning.

Item Type: Reference Material

Student Tutorials:

This multimedia resource from NOVA explores the electrostatic forces that cause lightning. It features a nine-minute Flash video, an interactive tutorial on varieties of lightning, an "Ask the Expert" question-answer session, and background information for teachers.

Item Type: Multimedia Package
Level: Grades 6-12
Duration: One Class Period

  Franklin and Electrostatics (7)

Activities:

Franklin's second letter about transfer of electrical fluid in Leyden jars is accompanied by descriptions for setting up the experiments in a classroom.

Item Type: Annotated Historical Lab
Level: Grades 9-12
Duration: One class period

This item highlights Benjamin Franklin's historic first letter about points and Leyden jar experiments, describing how to set up the labs in the classroom.

Item Type: Annotated Historical Lab
Level: Grades 9-12
Duration: One Class Period

This item integrates a third historic Franklin letter with directions on how to construct a flat-plate capacitor and an electrostatic motor.

Item Type: Annotated Historical Lab
Level: Grades 9-12
Duration: One Class Period

Franklin's theory of atmospheric electrification is highlighted, with diagrams and annotations to enhance student understanding.

Item Type: Annotated Historical Lab
Level: Grades 9-12
Duration: One Class Period

This item highlights Ben Franklin's proposal to experiment with the lightning rod.  Historic text is augmented with detailed diagrams, photos, and editorial explanations.

Item Type: Annotated Historical Lab
Level: Grades 9-12
Duration: One Class Period

References and Collections:

This is the introductory segment of materials by author Robert Morse on the scientific works of Benjamin Franklin. It integrates historical background and primary source documents alongside lesson plans for setting up identical (or very similar) experiments in the classroom. It includes a template for building a generator, plus video how-to's for several lessons.

Item Type: Digital Collection
Level: Grades 6-12

Content Support For Teachers:

This short tutorial provides a glimpse of the history behind electrostatics, including the contributions of Franklin and Coulomb.

Item Type: Tutorial
Level: Grades 9-12
Duration: 20-30 minutes

  Static Electricity for the Early Grades (3)

Activities:

This simulation is fun for teachers and students alike. Rub the virtual balloon against the sweater and watch the charge transfer from the wool to the balloon. Then move the balloon to an adjacent wall with neutral charge -- kids will see an interaction they probably won't expect. These interactions among the sweater, balloon, and wall will help students understand that opposites attract in charge interactions, while identical charges repel. Just as important, the model shows that charge is conserved.....the electrons are separated and transferred somewhere else.

Item Type: Interactive Simulation
Level: Grades 4-9
Duration: 20-30 minutes

Content Support For Teachers:

Looking for a refresher on the basics of electrostatics? This tutorial from The Physics Classroom does a solid job with explaining basic charge interactions, electric force and Coulomb's Law, electric field and action-at-a-distance, and methods of charging.

Item Type: Online Tutorial

Assessment:

This free 8-part video workshop addresses all aspects of science assessment: embedded and authentic assessment techniques, math/science integration, and information about assessment reform. It can be freely downloaded in a WMP format.

Item Type: Digital Workshop

  Electrostatic Induction (1)

Activities:

This Java simulation from MIT is one of our top choices to model the process of electrostatic induction. It breaks the process down into steps: charge separation within the conductor, grounding of charge, and ungrounding. It gives students an especially rich experience, as they can observe the changing electric field as "grass seeds", electric potential lines, or in a 3D view.

Item Type: Interactive Simulation
Level: High School
Duration: 20-30 minutes