Last fall when the boys were brainstorming all the different types of things they would like to do in our Daring Boys Club, they brought up learning about electricity. Later I saw this fabulous experiment idea called Squishy Circuits from The University of St. Thomas on Pinterest and knew we had to give it a try with our boys.
Our boys were a little wild last week when we got together. It would have been a better day for relay races in the park or something given their mood, but given a 90% chance of rain and the soggy outdoors left from weeks and weeks worth of previous rainy days, I thought we’d better opt for another indoor activity. They had fun being together, but I question whether I did the right thing by proceeding with our science experiments when they were so rambunctious. Should I have just put it aside and switched gears mid-gathering? It wouldn’t have been such a bad thing. Lesson learned: Have an easy big-muscle outdoor back-up plan for when the sun unexpectedly comes out after long spells of rain. AND don’t be afraid to use it!
Anyhow, after our traditional opening circle, I showed the boys the two different kinds of play dough I had prepared and had them observe what was similar and different about each of them. One boy quickly deduced that one seemed like regular play dough and the other seemed more like cookie dough. Indeed, where the regular play dough is made with flour, cream of tartar, and salt, water, and oil, the “cookie dough” play dough uses flour, distilled water, sugar, and oil instead. (Get complete recipes for the dough on the UST website.) But before we could really understand conductive vs. insulating, we had to have a crash course in the basics of electricity (excuse our very elementary descriptions of the phenomenon):
- No, Neither Ben Franklin nor Thomas Edison “invented” electricity, though they are important for their inventions that furthered the understanding and use of it.
- Electricity is naturally occurring, though of course not in the 110 v socket arrangement.
- Electricity comes from the movement of energy in the form of electrons from one atom to another atom (atoms, being the smallest form of any given kind of element (the stuff everything is made from).
- Some materials conduct electricity better than others (conductive) and some are better at stopping the flow of energy (insulating).
After a little bit more explanation of circuits and what we were going to do, we put the boys in pairs and gave them the two kinds of dough, a battery pack, 4 AA batteries, and a handful of LED lights and set them off to see if they could make a circuit.
Here are the Electricity for Daring Boys handouts with information straight from UST (just reformatted).
I should have taken the itty bitty screws out of the battery packs before starting. That was a frustrating start with only one tiny screwdriver and five pairs and stripped (how?) screws. Then of course the Daring Toddler Brother had to choose that moment to wake up from his nap as well. Just putting the batteries in the 4-packs was good experience for the boys. Most didn’t know how to follow the directions for position the positive and negative sides. And we learned a new handy tip from Caitlin. How to unscrew a stripped screw? Stretch a wide rubber band between the screw and the screwdriver. She’s so clever!
It took the boys awhile to build a simple working circuit. They had to get the batteries in right, the positive and negative ends of the LEDs in the right play dough and the positive and negative ends of the battery pack in correctly too. It would have helped if they had looked at the pictures on the handouts, but they were too busy to bother with that (oh boys!).
I would recommend to anyone else trying to do this activity to go ahead and get the kit from the University of St. Thomas available on their squishy circuits site. I of course was preparing this too last-minute so I tried to purchase supplies myself from Radio Shack, thinking I could save a little money. I still spent over $50 and didn’t get motors that worked (even going back and exchanging after an initial experiment before the boys came). So we were not successful with getting our motors to work. They worked attached to the battery directly, just not through the conductive dough.
We gave up on the motors and worked on trying to build our own squishy battery by putting together alternating types of dough and using galvanized nails and copper wire. (Again, the directions are on the UST website.) We think we got a battery that measured about 1.2 volts. (The voltmeter was fluctuating all over the place, so it was really hard to tell if it measured anything at all.) We tried to add cells to the battery to bring it up to 1.9 volts, in hopes of lighting up the lowest voltage LED I could find, but it didn’t light up. I would like to try this one again with a little bit more of a precise touch that my 8 year-old-boys just didn’t have. It would be cool just to show them if I could get one to work.
We wrapped up the gathering with a brief discussion about volts, watts, and amperage (which thanks to my husband I finally understand fully for the first time in my life). Here’s how I explained it to the boys:
We talked about the difference in wattage between a spark of static electricity that shocks you and the electricity in a battery or 100 volt electrical outlet. It’s not just voltage alone that’s important, but amperage. That’s why the shock doesn’t do anything more than startle you despite being much higher voltage than an electrical socket. It’s like a grain of sand’s worth of electricity coming at you rather than a bowling ball or a mist vs. a flash flood.
I challenged the boys to report back to me with answer to two other questions, and if they did so, they’d win some small electricity-related prize:
- What’s the difference between a AA battery and a D cell battery?
- Why don’t batteries have the same danger of electrocution that outlets have?
Lastly, when I was at Radio Shack, I discovered that they have DIY great projects. There was a make you own flashlight recommended for kids ages 12 and up featured this month. Check out their website for other DIY projects. Unfortunately, it’s not sortable by age, so it might take awhile to find one right for your Daring Boy (or girl).