by Marianne Poniatowski
Circuit City is an interdisciplinary unit based on electricity concepts that has been very successful in my self-contained fourth grade classroom. We began the unit with basic circuit building and progressed to wiring a cardboard house. In between, the students worked on activities in language arts, math, writing, literature, and social studies. We first worked on basic static electricity activities. After the introduction, students experimented with bulbs, wires, switches and dry cells to construct a simple circuit and then series and parallel circuits.
Building on the basics
When we studied insulators and conductors, the students enjoyed going around the room to find materials that would light the bulb. Each pair of students used a nail, insulated wire, dry cell and paper clips to experiment with electromagnetism concepts. They changed variables and created an experiment to find out how many paper clips an electromagnet can hold by testing the number of wraps, the kinds of nails, kinds of wire, etc. Students used the computer to compile data and graph results. Each child constructed an Electro-Quiz board using aluminum foil, masking tape and cardboard. They used multiplication and Social Studies facts to find the matching circuits.
At my classroom Science Center, I had many resource books available for the children to look through. Each child was encouraged to find some kind of electrical activity to do at school, during free time in class, or at home. Some of the more popular activities were making an electroscope, light bulb, traffic lights, Galvanometer, burglar alarm, battery, and a robot with blinking eyes. There were also other simple activities such as using balloons to test static electricity, a spider puzzle circuit, and dimmer switch directions, the Electro-Quiz boards to test, and other circuit diagrams to read.
More than science
A bulletin board at the Center was created placing a construction paper dry cell in the center with light bulb cut-outs attached to aluminum strips which made a complete circuit. Language Arts, Math, Art, Literature and Writing activities were described on each light bulb. Students could pursue these activities at particular times during the week.
The class did several graphing and data collection activities for homework. In my favorite one, the students had to count the number of outlets in every room of their homes. Then they made a chart listing the kinds of electrical users in each room. They compiled the data on the computer to find out which room had the most electrical users. We also collected data to find out which battery size was used the most in their homes. Students wrote letters to various battery companies to find if their results matched our class results.
In literature, we read Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary in which the main character invents a burglar alarm for a lunch box. Ive also used Ben and Me by Robert Lawson, which is the fictionalized account of Ben Franklin and his experiments told from the point of view of a mouse. One year we happened to be reading and writing fairy tales at the time the Circuit City unit began. The class came up with a short list of ways fairy tales and electricity are alike. Then each child wrote a common fairy tale in which electricity helps solve the problem.
Many local electricity providers offer free or low-cost brochures, pamphlets, activity packets and videos for teachers. My favorite was a pamphlet from ComEd in Illinois entitled Sources of Electricity. Students read a chart to find out what is the major source of electricity in each state. They use this information to color in a map of the United States showing these differences. Then they graph the results. These materials can be adapted for many grade levels. They cover safety issues, energy sources, experiments, environmental concerns, and many other topics related to electrical use. There are many web sites that also offer information and experiments geared to a students study of electricity (see resources).
Circuit City is built
The culminating activity of this unit was based on the National Science Resources Centers Science and Technology for Children program Electric Circuits. Working in co-operative groups of four, students had to wire a cardboard house so that a light bulb would turn on in each of four rooms when a switch was turned on. I was amazed at how enthusiastic the class became. Several students with behavioral problems became real leaders and problem solvers. Some of the quieter students worked together very diligently and after they completed the wiring began wallpapering and laying rugs on the floor. Soon everyone in the class wanted a little more time so they could cover the wires, make the bulbs into lamps and then decorate the house. The project took more time than I had anticipated but the groups really worked together to problem solve and decide where to put the battery packs and how to lay the wire. The groups wanted to leave the houses up in the classroom for a long time, thus my title, "Circuit City".
I created a simple checklist /rubric for the beginning hands-on activities. Several pencil and paper quizzes were given during the unit. A group rubric was created for the culminating activity. The students kept a journal and portfolio of all their Circuit City projects.
With a small investment of money for supplies (especially light bulbs) and a little ingenuity, this unit can become one of the most enjoyable and beneficial projects for both students and teachers. Theres no better way for a teacher to know if her students understand a concept than hearing an excited chorus of "I got the light bulb to light!"
AIMS Education Foundation, Electrical Connections, Fresno California, l991. (Good resource for basic activities. Write P.O. Box 8120, Fresno, California 93747)
National Science Resource Center/Science and Technology for Children, Electric Circuits, Carolina Biological Supply Company, 1991.
Delta Science Modules, Electrical Circuits and Electromagnetism, Delta Education, Nashua, New Hampshire, 1988 (Good resource for basics).
Marson, Ron, Global Tops, TOPS Learning System, Canby, Oregon, 1988 (Good resource for basics, how to use simple materials for projects).
Graf, Rudolf F., Safe and Simple Electrical Experiments, Dover Publications, New York, 1964.
Liem, Tik L., Invitations to Science Inquiry, Science Inquiry Enterprises, Chino Hills, California, 1981.
Smith, Robert W., Hands on Science Grade 3-4, Instructional Fair, 1989.
Zubrowski, Bernie, Blinkers and Buzzers, William Morrow & Co., New York, 1991.
http://www.cleco.com ( Kids section from Louisiana Power).
http://www.miamisci.org (Atoms Family site for kids).
http://www.mos.org (Museum of Science, Boston-virtual tour in Theater of Electricity).
- Marianne Poniatowski has been a fourth grade classroom teacher at Newberry Math and Science Academy in Chicago. She currently teaches fourth, fifth and sixth grade science at the school.