Static Electricity Science Experiment

We're kicking off our Chemistry Summer Camp week with some static electricity science! 

It's the perfect sort of science experiments for a DIY Summer Camp because it works for a mixed ages, is something kids can experiment with, uses every-day materials, and demonstrates a lot of fantastic chemistry topics!  It's also perfect for homeschool lessons and works in classrooms as an experiment the kids can do themselves!

To get started, you will need the following:

1- balloons (12-inch are my favorite!)
2- toilet paper or paper towels, torn in small pieces
3- cotton or wool towel or cloth (or someone willing to let you mess up their hair...)
5- optional: packing peanuts, styrofoam cups, metal tack, plastic grocery bag, any other very light-weight objects to experiment with that you want!

1- Start by reviewing the structure of an atom: protons and neutrons in the nucleus, electrons orbiting the nucleus. It helps to draw one while you talk or look at a picture like this one:

Ask your kids, "What would happen if you got a bunch of extra electrons in one spot, here?" (touch one spot on the outside of the atom)

2- Tell your kids that we are experimenting with that today!

3- Blow up a balloon and tell the kids that they can get a charge (of electrons) on it by rubbing it for a minute on the towel...or on their head, if they want to try! Once it is charged, they can experiment to see what will happen. I encourage them to try bringing it near other objects (like hair, the torn tissue, a wall, their finger, the tip of a metal tack, etc). They will need to re-charge the balloon each time they touch it with any object (or person!).

4- Discuss what happened! Hair usually stands up.  

When you touch it to your finger or the tack you can sometimes see the electrons "discharge" or jump from the balloon. 

What's going on? When you rub the balloon with the cloth or hair, the friction between the cloth and the balloon rubs electrons off their atoms, and those electrons build up on the balloon. When you bring the balloon to your hair, the protons in your hair is attracted to the electrons on the balloon and the hair rises towards the balloon. Torn tissues will also jump to the balloon. 

A "charged" balloon can also "stick" to a wall because the electrons on the balloon will push away electrons on the wall closest to the balloon (since electrons in the wall are repelled by electrons on the balloon). Once the electrons are pushed away from the balloon, protons left behind on the wall are close enough to be attracted to the electrons on the balloon. Since protons and electrons have opposite charges, the balloon will stick to the wall until the electrons dissipate (or spread back out more evenly). 

5- Stretch imaginations! How is this related to lightning in a thunderstorm? (Lightning streaks are massive streams of electrons that have built up because of friction in the they discharge, they can jump between clouds, from clouds to the ground, or from the ground to the clouds!)   How could this affect astronauts in space?  (Lots of ways! One concern with astronauts on the moon or Mars is that as they walk across large, dusty areas static electricity could build up on the astronauts and then discharge when they try to open an airlock to get back into a rocket or space station. A large discharge could create a lot of damage and/or injury...50 people die every year in the United States from lightning!) 

Older kids can also research these ways that static electricity can be formed: triboelectric effect (when electrons are exchanged between materials that touch, briefly discussed above), piezoelectric effect (specific crystals and ceramics can generate a charge after a force is applied), pyroelectric effect (specific materials can generate a charge when heated), and electrostatic induction (when like charges repel and opposite charges attract after a charged object is brought close to an uncharged object, also discussed briefly above).

Are you doing a DIY Summer Camp this summer with your homeschoolers? Or maybe with some friends? If so, you will want to check out these other chemistry camp activities and this collection of four different themes that kids love for summer camps!

And if you're looking for more homeschool unit studies, be sure to check out our growing collection here!

Happy Educating,
Carla & the kids who don't sit still!