Investigation Sequence


Static Electricity

Written by:

Kerri Penne and Angie Willnerd                 Date


Focus Questions

What is static electricity? How does it work?


Content: Earth, Physical, & Life

Static electricity is the reaction of tiny particles called electrons.

Cross cutting concepts


Science Practice


Personal, Social, Technology, Nature of Science, History


Background information

When an object gains electrons it has a surplus of electrons and so it has a negative charge. When an object loses electrons, it has a shortage of electrons and so it has a positive charge. The reaction of the positive and negative charges between objects causes static electricity. *Note: When working with static electricity, one word of caution is needed. Weather conditions can have a major effect on experiments with such charges. The activities work best on cold winter days. additionalinfo

Activity Sequence

1. Toe Dancing Tinsel
2. The Great Electron Rip-off
3. The Mysterious Moving Ping-Pong Ball
4. Make a Balloon Ec-Static Today!
5. Pepper and Salt
6. Make the Paper Dance
7. Fill the Stocking

Activity Descriptions

Activity 1: Toe Dancing Tinsel
Materials: 4 strands of holiday tinsel, 1 pressed foam meat tray (clean and dry), 1 piece of notebook or typing paper, and blunt end scissors
1. Ask students if they can think of a way to move the tinsel without moving their hand.
2. Hold ends of the tinsel together in one hand. Trim the bottom of the tinsel so that the strands are all the same lengths.
3. Rub the meat tray back and forth with the piece of paper to charge the tray with static electricity.
4. Slowly lower the strands of tinsel until their tips come close the center of the tray. Slowly move the tinsel up and down and side to side over the tray. (Do not let the tinsel actually touch the tray). Ask students what they observe? How can you explain what you see?
5. Rub the tray again to recharge it. Predict what will happen if you hold the tray to the side or above the tinsel. Do it and see what happens. Move the tray around to see how the tinsel reacts.
6. Students should share with a partner if your predictions were close. Discuss why you think it happens.
7. Ask if students think different lengths of tinsel would make a difference. Let them try it.
8. Ask students where at home they would be able to see the same kinds of results (tinsel on Christmas tree, on a bow on a present, their hair may do the same thing).

Activity 2: The Great Electron Rip-off
Materials: 2 one-foot pieces of clear plastic tape
1. Ask students what will happen when two pieces of tape are put together.
2. Stick the length of each piece of tape to a smooth hard kitchen counter top. Allow about _ of each piece to hang over the end of the counter.
3. In each hand, grab one end of the pieces of tape and quickly rip it off the counter.
4. Allow the pieces of tape to dangle, but do not let them touch anything (or each other). Slowly bring the pieces of tape near each other. Ask what do you observe? Can you explain why this happens? (The name of the activity should give you a clue).
5. Try another one! Stick one of the pieces of tape to your work surface again. Although tape is sticky, rub the entire length of the other strip by pulling it between your thumb and index finger.
6. Now rip off the first piece of tape from the counter and let the two pieces hang near each other. Ask what happens? Do the pieces attract or repel? Do you think the pieces have like charges or opposite charges?
7. Ask what do you think would happen if both pieces were pulled between your finger and thumb and then hung next to each other? Try it and see!
8. Ask students where they could use what they learned.

Activity 3: The Mysterious Moving Ping-Pong Ball
Materials: 1 unbreakable or rubber comb, 1 Ping-Pong ball, and 1 tape measure, wool cloth (optional)
1. Ask students how they can move a ping-pong ball without touching it.
2. Place the Ping-Pong ball on a smooth flat surface. Run a comb through your hair about 10-15 times. Now the comb should be charged with static electricity. (If your hair is too short you can rub the comb with a wool cloth).
3. Bring the back of the comb near but not touching the side of the Ping-Pong ball. Slowly move the comb away from the ball. Ask what happens? Does the ball follow the comb? Do you think it would follow if you had not run the comb through your hair?
4. See how far you can make the Ping-Pong ball travel this way. Measure the distance with your tape measure.
5. Have a contest with your partner. Using separate combs, see who can make the Ping-Pong ball go the farthest. Ask why do you think that one went the farthest.
6. You can also have a race! Mark a finish line about 1 yard away from the starting line. Put both Ping-Pong balls on the starting line. Have another person say "GO!" When they say go, you and your partner should start combing your hair. Quickly use your comb to get the Ping-Pong ball to move. If your ball stops before the finish line, comb your hair again for some extra static electricity.
7. Ask students how many times they had to stop to comb their hair and why.
8. Ask them if they can think of other examples that would work like this.
**Try this: Make a very thin stream of water come out of your kitchen faucet. Comb your hair a few times and slowly bring the comb towards the water (but not touching). What happens? What would happen if the comb got wet?

Activity 4: Make a Balloon Ec-Static Today!
Materials: 2 round balloons (inflated and tied), 2 20" pieces of string, 1 wool or acrylic sock
1. Ask students what would happen when you rub a balloon on your hair and bring it near another object.
2. Tie a string to each of the balloons. Rub one of the balloons for about 15 second on your hair. Be sure to rub around the whole balloon. Ask students what happens to your hair? What will happen when you bring the balloons back near your hair?
3. Again rub the balloon on your hair and have a partner do so too. Hold the balloons by the strings and don’t let them touch anything. Ask what will happen if they bring the balloons close together? Try it. (Be careful not to touch the balloons – just the string!)
4. Ask students if they place their hand between the balloons what will happen? Try it.
5. Have students place a sock over their hand and rub one of the balloons. Ask what will happen when they bring the sock covered hand back near the balloon? Try it. Ask what happened?
6. Ask what would happen if they rubbed both balloons with the sock and then let them hang near each other? Try it and see. Ask do the balloons attract or repel each other?
7. Have students draw a picture of what happens in one of the above activities and then they will tell the class in pairs what happened and why.
8. Ask the students what other objects can be used to attract or repel the balloon.

Activity 5: Pepper and Salt
Materials: salt, pepper, 1 comb, 1 wool cloth, 1 sheet of paper
1. Have students sprinkle salt and pepper on a sheet of paper.
2. Ask if anyone can separate the two by using just the comb and wool cloth.
3. Listen to responses. Do not comment on accuracy. Let them try their ideas.
4. Then have students rub the comb with the wool cloth and observe what happens when the comb is brought near the salt and pepper. (The comb attracts both).
5. Ask students to predict what will happen if they slightly tap the comb. Record predictions on chalkboard.
6. Have students try it and observe what happens. (The salt drops off first because it is heavier than the pepper).
7. Have students share their results.
8. Ask students where they could use what they learned.

Activity 6: Make the Paper Dance
Materials: 1 thin pane of glass, 2 thin books (approx. _ to 1" thick), several bits of paper or tin foil, and 1 silk or nylon cloth
1. Place a pane of glass on top of two books that are lying flat like this . Have students place bits of paper and/or tin foil in the space under the glass. Ask students how they can make the bits of paper dance without touching them or blowing on them.
2. Listen to their answers and record the ideas on the board or a big piece of paper.
3. Have students predict what will happen if they rub the glass with the cloth. Record answers.
4. Allow students to do this and observe.
5. Have students draw a picture of what happened. Then share the drawings with the class and allow them to explain why they think it happened.
6. Ask students if they can think of other items they could make dance.
Warning: Make sure you properly check the glass for sharp corners and warn students about working with glass. Also if you think the students are not capable of working with the glass, you can use this activity as a demonstration. Plexi-glass could also be used in place of glass.

Activity 7: Fill the Stocking
Materials: 1 silk or nylon stocking, 1 polyethylene bag (you can tell if a plastic bag is polyethylene by it’s stretch. If it stretches easily it is probably polyethylene.)
1. Show students stocking. Ask them if they can think of a way to fill the stocking without putting anything in it. Write their ideas on the board.
2. Have students rub the stocking with the polyethylene bag and observe what happens (it fills out).
3. Ask students how to empty the stocking (run stocking between fingers).
4. Allow students to experiment with other materials to rub on the stocking.
5. Ask why the stocking fills up (caused by the repulsion of like charges).
6. Ask if they can think of a way they could use the results.

Dr. Robert Sweetland's notes