Kids learn through play. The best way for kids to learn about electricity is by learning from a teacher or parent and then using that knowledge to perform experiments at home.
Whether you are using experiments to supplement a public school education, for homeschool, or to satisfy your child’s curiosity and learn more, there are several experiments that you can perform at home to learn about conductors and insulators.
What is Electricity?
Electrons are particles with a negative charge. When electrons move from one atom to the next, it creates electricity. Electrons are subatomic particles, which means that they are inside of atoms. A proton is a subatomic particle with a positive charge.
Since electrons have a negative charge and protons have a positive charge, they want to match up so they are neutral. Electrons float around the atom until they get enough energy to be pushed towards a proton. When you add electricity, that gives the electron energy to be pushed to the next atom.
What Are Circuits?
A circuit is a path that allows electricity to flow through it. If the path of electricity gets broken, it’s called an open circuit. In this instance, the electrons can not keep flowing from one atom to the next or from one object to the next one.
However, if the circuit is closed, or complete, the electrons can keep traveling from one atom or object to the next.
A circuit needs a power source. In your home, this is usually electricity coming from your home’s power supply. However, in a science experiment, the power usually comes from a batter. The electricity then flows through wires and other conductors to complete the circuit.
Electrons move from one atom to the next, and they can’t jump across atoms. For this reason, the objects must be touching in a circuit. Generally, you will use a piece of metal wire to connect objects in your circuit.
A circuit can have a switch. The switch allows you to open and close the circuit easily. In your home, a light switch is an example of a switch. When you turn on the switch, it allows electricity to flow through an open circuit. When you turn off the switch, it closes the circuit and the light bulb or appliance is turned off.
What are Insulators?
Insulators are materials that do not conduct electricity. They are made of materials that prevent electrons from flowing between atoms and between molecules.
This is due to the fact that these materials have electrons that are bound tightly, so the electrons are not free to move around and are not shared between other atoms. If there is a charge transferred to a material that is an insulator, then the charge will not pass through the insulator.
Although an insulator doesn’t transfer a charge from one material to another, it does serve a purpose in your electrical experiments. When you perform an experiment with electricity, you’ll want to use an insulator as a base so the electricity does not flow to the objects around it.
Using an insulator in an experiment also allows the child, or the teacher or parent, to manipulate objects in the experiment without touching the objects conducting electricity. This helps to keep everyone safe when performing an experiment.
Examples of Insulators
Some common insulators are:
What are Conductors?
Conductors, by contrast, are made of materials that allow electrons to freely move between atoms or between molecules. If an object is made of a material that is a conductor, then the electrical charge will transfer to the object very quickly at the point of contact. That charge will then be evenly distributed across the surface of the conductor.
The reason the charge distributes through the object is due to electrons moving from particle to particle in the object. The charge will continue to move through the conductor until repulsive forces minimize the movement of the electrons. If a conductor is charged, then it can transfer that charge to another object as long as that object is also a conductor.
Examples of Conductors
The following materials are conductors:
Conductors and Insulators: Resistance
When discussing electricity, the opposition to electrical flow in a circuit is called resistance. It is measured in ohms and symbolized omega (Ω) in the Greek alphabet. Resistance is a measure of the opposition to current flow in an electrical circuit.
All materials resist electrical flow to some degree, even if they are a conductor. An insulator allows more electricity to flow than an insulator, although a small amount of electricity does flow through an insulator.
The lower the flow of current through an object, the higher the resistance. If a conductor has high resistance, then the conductor could be burnt or have corrosion. By nature, a conductor gives off heat during the transfer of electrons, so overheating of a conductor is a fairly common reason for resistance.
For insulators, a low resistance means a higher flow of electrical current. This can happen when an insulator is damaged by overheating or from moisture or water.
Resistance is Measured in Ohms
Ohms are named after the German physicist Georg Simon Ohm who studied current, voltage and resistance. He created Ohm’s Law.
Resistance can’t be measured in a circuit, so you’ll have to use Ohm’s law to find it. The formula is:
E = l x R
Where E is volts, l is amps, and R is ohms. If you are trying to find resistance, then the formula is R = E/I or ohms is equal to volts divided by amps.
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How to Make a Circuit
If you are performing experiments at home with your child, there are several common objects that you can use to make a circuit. We’ve already shown how to make a circuit with a spoon or a fork.
You could also use a paperclip, nail, piece of wire, twist tie from bread, hair barrette, or anything that is made of metal.
Now that you know about insulators, conductors, and circuits, you can experiment with different materials to see which ones conduct electricity best.
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