Electricity is a terrific unit to prompt the kinds of discovery we want our students to engage in. Science isn't memorizing facts and spitting them out, and the processes at work in electricity bring this to the fore. Here, students can have a sense of what it's like to explore as a scientist, and think about why some things they have set up work well while others don't at all. Our approach has not been to dwell on vocabulary and fact memorization, but we have found that through their explorations the students have still picked up on many of the important concepts and vocabulary.
This unit gives students the chance to investigate and play with bulbs, wires, batteries, among other electrical items, and to explore the topics of power supply, circuit types, and conductors and insulators. One successful activity was having students make their own filaments and actually watching them burn. Another favorite to watch was when our students linked a long chain of batteries together in order to light a large bulb. Something we have found to be consistently true with these experiments is that the students have found many more solutions than we had ever imagined for the problems and issues we posed.
In a wrap-up activity, the students have the opportunity to use what they know about circuits by making their own model houses and wiring them for lighting. Like many others in the unit, this activity allows the students to cross over to other disciplines, such as math through measurement, and art in decorating the model houses. Other interdisciplinary extensions include graphing for math, story writing and literature for language arts, and making a quiz board that helps students to learn state capitals for social studies. Through hands-on activities in science, and with extensions to other subjects, we have found that even students who don't usually do well in school have a chance to shine.
Beyond exploring electricity through experimentation, we felt it important to include an emphasis on energy conservation in our unit. The sense of "hands-on" shifts here to a more broad scale: the students read electricity bills and meters from the school and their homes, compare usage, and discuss ways to save electrical energy.
While at the beginning of developing our unit neither of us felt confident with the topic of electricity, our hours and hours of searching and writing time have taught us a great deal that we would be happy to share with you. If you would like further information, or would like to respond to our ideas, please e-mail Shelley.