Close the Circuit ~ Hands On STEAM Challenge!

Challenge your students to restore electricity to their town using objects they find in the classroom!  This NGSS hands on exploration starts with a story that puts your students in the Mayor’s office during an electrical outage caused by a storm that is raging through your town (something they’ve probably experienced this winter!).

Due to unusual circumstances the Mayor is alone at Town Hall when the power goes out.  The roads are closed and the phones are not working.  The Mayor alone has to use a variety of everyday objects to close the circuit, turn on the light, and restore power to the town!

Kids love to imagine that they are in charge.  Couple this enthusiasm with a hands on electricity experiment and you will have a lesson they won’t forget!  The story leads them through a dark and stormy night at town hall and allows them to experiment until they find the materials that will close the circuit and light up the bulb.


After saving the day, students create a table listing their observations and categorizing materials as conductors or insulators.  This is a classic 4th grade exploration that prepares students for the performance section of the NYS science test in an engaging way.  With a little imagination, and time to explore, students will be full of questions and ready to learn more!


What do you need for this challenge?

“Can you Close the Circuit Story” (download here for free!), a “D” Battery in a holder, 3 Alligator clips, a bulb in holder, a rubber band, penny, paperclip, button, string, an eraser and a brass fastener.  

Hate collecting and testing all the bits and pieces needed for a successful exploration?   Order Science Takeout for electricity and get everything you need in a convenient take out container!

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Make an Electric Circuit – Science Takeout!

I love teaching my 4th grade students about electric circuits and watching their enthusiasm as they test conductors and insulators to see what will make the light bulb light up!  I hate collecting and testing all the bits and pieces needed for a successful exploration.  This year I finally did something about it and created Science Takeout for electricity!

The takeout box includes everything you and your students need to build and test electric circuits. Not only can students explore how to create a closed circuit that will light the bulb but they can also discover how to use a switch to stop the flow of electricity AND what materials are conductors and insulators.

I even included some BONUS materials for an exploration of Static Electricity!

Save time and money! Everything students need (including an extra light bulb) is packed individually in a Science Takeout box and ready to go! No more lost, missing or broken pieces.  The boxes stack and store for next year.

Kit includes: D battery in holder, light bulb in holder, 3 alligator clips, knife switch, pipe cleaner, string, marble, button, aluminum foil, paperclip, penny, tissue, Styrofoam and extra light bulb.

Click here for 4 FREE Electricity Explorations with Teacher Background and take all the hassle out of teaching electric circuits and keep all the fun in!

Stand Back and Watch Them “Light” Up!

One of the things that scared me the most about moving to 4th grade was teaching electricity.  I worried about using the correct terms, answering questions and explaining what exactly is in a battery.  Such is the struggle of an English/Education major.

Over the years I have boosted my knowledge about electricity to at least a 4th grade level (an accomplishment I feel proud of!) and now I look forward to our unit on electricity because, year after year, the kids get super excited to make that little light bulb shine!


But now the new NGSS standards (rolling out in states across the US) are making instruction a little easier by returning the learning to the students in the form of a challenge.  Instead of demonstrating how to make an electric circuit, teachers are encouraged to present students with a problem that needs to be solved.  In this case:  How can we make the light bulb light up?

Students are given time and material constraints and then turned loose with the materials to generate and compare possible solutions, design, test and refine ideas and make observations.  This is at the heart of the new science and engineering standards and, as it turns out, exactly what every kid wants to do because they are allowed to PLAY with the materials and tinker with their supplies until they are successful (without a boring lecture)!

This flips the direct instruction model on its head and gives students a chance to actively engage with their learning by exploring science with a hands on approach.

This doesn’t mean teachers can sit back and put their feet up, quite the opposite.  Now we are free to be learning coaches, to ask questions, offer encouragement, make observations and move around the room, truly differentiating the learning experiences for all the students in our classroom.  And when the work period is over, we have the chance to answer questions about what the students observed and do all the direct instruction we can handle.


You’ll find out that the students will ask exactly what you wanted them to learn:

What makes the light bulb shine?

The flow of electricity from the battery, along a closed circuit to the other side of the battery.  The wire is like a hose and must not have any breaks or gaps along its path.  The light bulb gets a dose of electricity as the electrons flow by and then it lights up.


Why doesn’t the bulb light up when only one wire is connected to it?

Electricity only flows in a closed circuit, from one end of the battery to the other.  It follows the wire path that leaves the battery on one end and isn’t closed, or completed, until it reaches the other end.


What’s in the battery?

A battery is a container for stored chemical energy.  The battery stores the energy and when it is connected to a closed circuit, the energy changes from chemical to electric energy.  You can also think of it changing from potential energy to kinetic energy!  This is why batteries don’t last forever, when the energy runs out they stop working and it’s time for a new one, or a recharge!


Why does the battery have a + and – side?

One side is the negative end (with the “-” symbol) and the other side is positive end (with the “+” symbol).  Electrons flow out of the negative side and into the positive side.  The electrical current works when there is a flow of electrons around the entire circuit.


How does an outlet work when you plug in a lamp or anything else electric?

A cord that plugs into the outlet in a wall is made of 2 pieces of wire protected by plastic.  The electricity can flow through the metal wire to the lamp, toaster, or tv and then back again to the wall.  The wires in the cord make a closed circuit when they are plugged into the energy source, which is the electrical wires that are in your wall!

After completing the  “Light Bulb Challenge” and Q & A session, I follow up with readings, video clips and vocabulary words.  Now the students have the background they need to make sense of what they are reading and they can hook their new words and understandings to their own experience and background knowledge.

What do you need for this challenge?

One “D” Battery in a holder, String, Pipe cleaners, Alligator clips, Bulb in holder

(I throw in the string and pipe cleaners as distractors to make things more interesting)


What NGSS standards were addressed in this challenge?

4-PS3-2 Make observations to provide evidence that energy can be transferred from place to place by sound, light, heat, and electric currents.
4-PS3-4 Apply scientific ideas to design, test, and refine a device that converts energy from one form to another.
3-5-ETS1-2  Generate and compare multiple possible solutions to a problem based on how well each is likely to meet the criteria and constraints of the problem.


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Invite Jack Frost into your Classroom!

Students can investigate how to change water vapor from gas to liquid to solid right before their eyes!  It’s safe, simple and easy enough to do in the classroom, yet your students will be fascinated by the change they witness.  This experiment fits perfectly into a unit on matter OR the water cycle and provides evidence that temperature changes matter from one phase to another and, in some cases, back again!  

So what is frost and where does it come from?  

(No, Jack Frost isn’t actually flying around nipping noses and making ice paintings)

Students may or may not understand that cold temperatures cause water vapor to freeze and make frost on their windows and trees in the morning (at least it does in Buffalo!).  But can the water vapor in the classroom be turned into frost without using a freezer?  Discuss what the kids think and come up with a hypotheses before investigating.  

To become Jack Frost, students need a metal soup can, ice and salt to create a model of the atmosphere.  

First add some salt to the bottom of the can and cover with ice.  Repeat until you reach the top and cover with more salt, leave some room in order to shake the ice and salt together.  

Now stand back and give those molecules a little time to react.  Have students complete the lab sheets while keeping an eye on their can (but not touching it!).  After 5 minutes the can will have a fine coating of frost that they can actually scrape off with their fingernail!  They will notice that the thin layer of frost formed on the coldest part of the can, the top of the can will also be cold, but not cold enough to make frost.


So, where did the frost come from?

Review the states of matter and remind students that when water vapor cools down it becomes liquid, like the water drops on the outside of a cold glass.  But when the container is really cold the water drops freeze and become frost, a solid.

Their frosted metal can is a model of what happens outside in the atmosphere.   Sleet, freezing rain and snow are all precipitation in the form of frozen water droplets or tiny ice crystals formed in the clouds.  So the next time those flakes start falling your students might just imagine that big metal soup can in the sky.

I discovered this experiment in an amazing FREE resource entitled, “Inquiry in Action:  Investigating Matter Through Inquiry” from the The American Chemical Society.  This book has enough hands on science to keep your kids learning for the whole year (if only we had the time)!  You can download the book for free (it is almost 500 pages!) or order a spiral bound copy from their store. The book includes background science for teachers, step by step directions and student lab sheets (this was Investigation 6.5 on page 372).

Need a great video to introduce States of Matter and the Water Cycle?  This is it.  Changing Water – States of Matter.

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Investigate Magnets with Rudolph!

magnetic rudolphYou know about Rudolph’s shiny nose but did you know he also has magnetic hooves?

“Dress Up” your magnets and send your students on a holiday magnet exploration they will love!  Students read a short text that reveals Santa’s problem.  He discovered a hole in his present sack and 10 presents have fallen out as they crossed the Arctic Ocean on a foggy Christmas Eve.  

The student’s challenge is to use a Rudolph magnet to see which presents are magnetic, and which are not, and record their findings.  Then they will design and test a solution to transport all the gifts across the room, using magnetism, and help Rudolph save the day.

Can your students help magnetic Rudolph deliver all the presents across the Arctic Ocean?

Elementary students love investigating magnets and exploring their properties with different materials.  They are always surprised to discover that not all metals are magnetic but all non metals are not magnetic.  They are fascinated to see paperclips jump onto their magnet thanks to magnetic force.  This hands on lab structures their investigation to help them make magnetic discoveries with a fun holiday twist.

Download the complete STEAM lesson plan with standards, student scientific method lab sheet, Rudolph’s story, vocabulary graphic organizer, magnetism mini-poster, assessment questions and links to background video, text passage/questions and teacher background information.

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5 Science Music Videos to be Thankful for…

Forget student learning…change the way your students’ brains work!  No, it’s not brain surgery, it’s music and movement.  This is old news to veteran teachers but now there is new neuroscience research to prove it.  An article by LARA N. DOTSON-RENTA in The Atlantic magazine quotes Professor Emily Cross:  

“New neuroscience research shows that active learning  “where the learner is doing, moving, acting, and interacting”—can change the way the brain works and can accelerate kids’ learning process. While passive learning may beboombox_linda_kim_01 easier to administer, she added, it doesn’t favor brain activity. Cross has found “very clear evidence that when learners are actively engaged with moving their own bodies to music, in time with avatars on the screen, their performance is vastly superior to when they’re asked to engage in passive learning … [There are] striking changes in brain activity when we combine dance and music in the learning context.”

And I thought the students just loved singing and dancing!  Teachers don’t need research to see how engaged and motivated kids are when we turn up the music and start moving, we just need the support to do it more often.  I am thankful so thankful for the creative educators that share their science music videos with us for FREE!    Try starting your next lesson or unit with one and watch the learning accelerate.

  1. Watch Me – by J. Ramirez

This teacher used the Whip/Nae Nae song (Watch Me by Silento) to help his students remember how the Earth rotates on its axis and revolves around the sun.

  1. The Water Cycle Rap (with Lyrics) by Infernite Raps

This rap has it all…detailed photographs, changing states of matter, advanced water cycle vocabulary and a beat that will get everyone moving.

  1. Adaptation by Polkadotplace

Yet another great rap.  This one about all the ways that one ‘cool’ Camel is adapted to survive and thrive in the desert.  Have the kids keep track of how many different adaptations camel have as they sing along.  Then challenge them to see if all animals are adapted to their environment in this many ways!

  1. Matter Chatter by Harry Kindergarten Music – Don’t even bother with a lesson to introduce matter to your students.  Spend 3 minutes tapping your toes to this interactive song that defines the 3 states of matter and even pauses to let your students come up with examples.
  1. Schoolhouse Rock Electricity – you might be old enough to remember the genius of “Schoolhouse Rock”.  These short animated music video were so far ahead of their time and taught me the Preamble of the Constitution and what a conjunction was.  Electricity will give your students an overview of where electricity comes from and how it is transferred.  This helps kids make a connection between the electricity they use everyday and the simple battery powered circuit we use in the classroom.

Nobody has time in their day for extended science lessons.  Think about adding some science music videos to your day as a quick, easy and effective way to captivate your students interest and curiosity about the world around them.