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Cling-On's: The Study of Static Electricity

Grades: 5-8
Author: Joyce Brumberger
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Module Description

As a result of the presenter-conducted module, participants will learn through design and implementation of their own experiments about static electricity and its relationship with various materials. Participants will design a lesson they can implement in their own classroom.


  • Participants will learn the definition of the term static electricity
  • Participants will identify how static electricity affects their daily lives
  • Participants will learn the conditions in which static electricity is increased
  • Participants will learn conditions that will reduce static electricity
  • Participants will be able to write a procedure for conducting experiments about reducing static electricity
  • Participants will be able to analyze data and draw conclusions from that data
  • Participants will produce a lesson plan to guide their own students in the design and implementation of an experiment about static electricity


  • 10" balloons - 1 per set of partners
  • Sink with running water
  • Rice puff cereal
  • Paper towels
  • Baskets or bins for materials
  • Paper plates
  • Van de Graaf generator (optional)
  • Film canisters or other small container for lotions, creams, oils, other liquids
  • Small spray bottles for water
  • Labels
  • Goggles
  • Fluorescent light bulb

Suggested list of materials below. Refer to the Triboelectric series chart to insure proper variety of materials. Collect objects made of:

  • Glass
  • Fur
  • Wool
  • Polyester cloth
  • Cotton cloth
  • Leather
  • Nylon
  • Silk
  • Aluminum - aluminum pans, cans
  • Steel - perhaps leg of a chair
  • Wood
  • Rubber
  • Paper
  • Styrofoam - cups, packing peanuts
  • Clear food wrap film (for example, Saran WrapTM)
  • Tape (for example, ScotchTM)
  • Polyethylene - Plastic grocery bags, dry cleaning bags
  • Polystyrene - clear take-out food containers
  • Polypropylene - #5 recycle plastic containers
  • PVC - pipes, vinyl floor tiles
  • Carpet remnants
  • Ceramic tiles
  • Lotions and creams (reduces static electricity)
  • Oil - vegetable, mineral, baby (reduces)
  • Febreze or other anti-cling spray product (reduces)
  • Fabric softener liquid and/or sheets (reduces)



  1. Rub a balloon several times across your hair or that of a volunteer participant.
  2. At a sink, run a thin stream of water from the tap. Bring the balloon near the stream of water. (The stream of water will bend toward the balloon.)
  3. Ask participants to describe their observations and suggest explanations for why the water bent towards the balloon. Accept all reasonable explanations.
  4. Rub the balloon again and bring it toward one end of a fluorescent light bulb. (The bulb will begin to glow)
  5. Ask participants to describe their observations and suggest explanations for why the bulb began to glow. Accept all reasonable explanations.

Assessment: Assessment is ongoing as participants orally present their observations and reasoning.


  1. Tell participants to get a paper plate with the rice puff cereal and place it on their workspace. In lieu of rice puffs, small bits of paper can be used. Hole punches from the copy machine is an easy source for this.
  2. Tell them to rub the balloon again on their head several times and then bring it close to the rice puffs.
  3. Tell them to count the number of rice puffs that went on the balloon.
  4. Ask participants to describe their observations and suggest explanations.
  5. Tell participants to use the various materials provided and charge them by friction (rubbing them against another object). Tell them to explore which ones tend to attract the rice puffs and which ones, if any, do not. In each case, they are to rub the material several times and count the number of rice puffs that were attracted to the material.
  6. Ask participants to describe their observations and suggest explanations.
  7. Ask participants to rub the balloon and explore various substances that could be used to reduce the balloon?s ability to pick up the rice puffs. Suggested substances are listed under the materials section.
  8. Continue to ask for descriptions of observations and suggested explanations.

Assessment: Assessment is ongoing as participants orally present their observations and reasoning


  1. What happens when a material is rubbed?

Answers will vary, but many will say that the material becomes charged. All matter is made up of atoms. Inside the nucleus of the atom are protons and neutrons. The nucleus is very difficult to break apart. Electrons are negatively charged particles that orbit around the nucleus and can easily move from atom to atom. When two things are rubbed together, one of the materials becomes negatively charged because it attracts the electrons and gathers them up. The other material becomes positively charged because its electrons are pulled off of it.

  1. Which materials tended to attract the rice puffs?

Answers will vary depending on the materials you use.Refer to the triboelectric series chart to determine which materials had the greater tendency to gain or lose electrons. Refer to this web site for the chart:

  1. Which materials tended to reduce the balloons ability to attract the rice puffs?

Answer will vary depending on the materials used. Lubricating materials such as oils, lotions, and water will tend to reduce static electricity. During the winter months, static electricity is more pronounced in northern climates due to the dry air inside a building as well as outside. In tropical climates, walking across a carpeted room and touching a door handle usually does not produce the transfer of static electricity in the summer or winter due to higher humidity. Warm air is capable of holding more moisture than cold air.

Assessment: Participants? responses to key concepts and their responses to additional examples.


Static electricity can be useful, but in everyday living it usually is something to avoid.

  1. Tell participants to compile a list of occasions when they have experienced static electricity in their everyday life. This may be done in small groups or as a whole group. Answers will vary, but examples may be walking across a carpeted floor and touching a door handle; brushing or combing ones hair; garments clinging to ones body; clothes clinging to each other after being removed from the dryer. Lightning and static on the radio are additional examples, but not ones in which experimentation can safely be conducted.
  2. Working in pairs, tell participants to select two different circumstances and list three or more possible solutions to reduce static electricity. Explain that one solution must be different than anything they have tested to date. The professional development provider may choose to assign groups the circumstances to insure all the suggestions are explored or have representatives from each group choose from a hat that has all the circumstances discussed by the group on strips of paper.
  3. Instruct participants to write a procedure for testing their solutions and provide a list of materials necessary to conduct an experiment. Accept all reasonable and safe solutions and materials.
  4. Instruct participants to conduct their experiments and record findings.
  5. Ask participants to share and discuss their findings to the group at large.


It is important to teach the science of everyday phenomena with correct information and dispel misconceptions that are based on false facts, myths and/or fueled emotion. With correct information, individuals can make better decisions and develop workable solutions to problems.

Many students in grades 5-8 are still concrete learners and the study of static electricity, like many other topics in science, is more conceptual. Students will likely have prior knowledge regarding the effects of static electricity, but ill-conceived notions of what it actually is. Therefore, when teachers have a clear understanding of the science they are better able to nurture their students’ understanding, as well as foster their conceptual thinking abilities.

Science Standards

NSES Standard A: Science as Inquiry: As a result of activities in grades 5-8, all students should develop abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry

  • Develop descriptions, explanations, predictions, and models using evidence.
  • Think critically and logically to make the relationships between evidence and explanations.
  • Recognize and analyze alternative explanations and predictions.
  • Communicate scientific procedures and explanations.

NSES Standard B: Physical Science: As a result of their activities in grades 5-8, all students should develop understanding of transfer of energy.

  • Energy is a property of many substances and is associated with heat, light, electricity, mechanical motion, sound, nuclei and the nature of a chemical. Energy is transferred in many ways.

NSES Standard G: History and Nature of Science: As a result of activities in grades 5-8, all students should develop understanding of Science as a human endeavor

  • Science requires different abilities, depending on such factors as the field of study and type of inquiry. Science is very much a human endeavor, and the work of science relies on basic human qualities, such as reasoning, insight, energy, skills, and creativity, as well as on scientific habits of minds, such as intellectual honesty, tolerance of ambiguity, skepticism, and openness to new ideas.

NSES PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT STANDARD A: Professional development for teachers of science requires learning essential science content through the perspectives and methods of inquiry. Science learning experiences for teachers must:

  • Involve teachers in actively investigating phenomena that can be studied scientifically, interpreting results, and making sense of findings consistent with currently accepted scientific understanding.
  • Address issues, events, problems, or topics significant in science and of interest to participants.
  • Introduce teachers to scientific literature, media, and technological resources that expand their science knowledge and their ability to access further knowledge.
  • Build on the teacher's current science understanding, ability, and attitudes.
  • Incorporate ongoing reflection on the process and outcomes of understanding science through inquiry.
  • Encourage and support teachers in efforts to collaborate.

NSES PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT STANDARD B: Professional development for teachers of science requires integrating knowledge of science, learning, pedagogy, and students; it also requires applying that knowledge to science teaching. Learning experiences for teachers of science must:

  • Connect and integrate all pertinent aspects of science and science education.

Best Teaching Practices

  • Learning Cycle
  • Inquiry
  • Science Process Skills

Time Frame

Two 40 minute sessions


Collect materials to create a sufficient number of sets for all the groups. Place materials in bins or baskets for each group to obtain and return materials. Lotions, creams, oils can be distributed in labeled film canisters or other small plastic containers. Provide paper towels for each group.


Paper towels with lotions and oils can safely be disposed of in the trash. Goggles should be worn to protect eyes if balloons should break.


Assessments are ongoing throughout the learning cycle.

Teachers convert a teacher directed science activity into an inquiry-based lesson plan for their students.

Explanation of Science

All matter is made up of small particles called atoms. Atoms are the smallest units of an element that still contain the properties of the element. But atoms themselves are made up of many smaller particles. Three subatomic particles to be identified here are the protons and neutrons, located in the nucleus of the atom, and the electron, which whizzes all around the outside of the nucleus.

Protons carry a positive charge, electrons carry a negative charge, and neutrons have no charge. They are neutral. The protons and neutrons remain in the nucleus. The forces holding them there are so strong that it would take a nuclear reaction to alter them in anyway. The electrons however are outside the nucleus and can transfer from one atom to another. Some elements tend to lose electrons easily while others tend to gain electrons easily.

All atoms are neutral because they have an equal number of protons (positive charges) and electrons (negative charges). Therefore, when an atom loses electrons (gives away negative charges) it becomes positive. When an atom gains electrons (collects more negative charges) it becomes negative. When two objects are rubbed together, one object will lose electrons and the other one will gain electrons. The build up of electrons will remain until there is an opportunity for them to transfer from the built up stockpile to another location. While they are in the stockpile, they are considered static (not moving by transfer). Electricity is not completely understood, but at the simplest level electricity results from a flow of electron. Static electricity then is a stockpile of electrons that is unnoticed until it flows to another object.

The Triboelectric series chart identifies materials that tend to gain or lose electrons and those that tend to remain neutral. Moisture tends to reduce the flow of static electricity.


None available for this module.


Provide the opportunity for participants to experience static electricity using a Van de Graaf generator. They are often available in middle school and high school science labs.

Research the problems of static electricity in various manufacturing industries and the methods used to decrease its occurrence.

Research why static electricity is important to the function of photocopiers and other important uses.

Research the work of Benjamin Franklin and his counterparts in Europe in their experiments with lightning.

Research weather and lightning.

Explore the conditions involving the various types of lightning such as ball lightning, sprites, blue jets, elves, rocket lightning, and many others.

Lesson Implementation Template

Download Lesson Implementation Template: Word Document or PDF File


Try to insure that all participants have participated and expressed their ideas either verbally or through written comments. When working in pairs or groups try to make the groups as heterogeneous as possible being sensitive to specific needs of individuals.


N/A for this module.

References (video) (video)