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5 Magnetism Activities for Middle School Students

5 Magnetism Activities for Middle School Students

Do you know a middle school student that loves science, engineering, or simply exploring? Here are 5 low budget activities that teach magnetism in a hands-on way. 

These activities build on each other, and are best to do in order.

Magnets and magnetic forces have been important to scientists from ancient times up until the present day.

From the first discovery of invisible forces that could move certain rocks around; to compasses that allowed explorers to travel beyond sight of the coastline; to modern magnets that can take 3-D pictures of your insides without touching you; to the Large Hadron Collider, which smashes atoms together to investigate the creation of the universe.

Here are five hands-on activities that will encourage middle school students to investigate and apply magnetic forces.

Activity #1 - Electrostatic Force vs. Magnetic Force

Students often confuse electrostatic force and magnetic force. Both forces are similar, in that the electrostatic force and the magnetic force can be attractive or repulsive and act at a distance.

However, electrostatic force is caused by the interaction between charged particles, while magnetic force is due to the spin of electrons. This molecular level difference may be more than students at a middle school level need to know, but it's important for students to discover which types of objects are attracted by static charge and which types of objects are attracted to a magnet.

Once the difference between these two forces has been investigated, students can go on to further study magnetic forces, fields and applications.

Materials:

Bar Magnet PH0786E (or similar)

Materials Collection Set PH0798C (or similar)

Sticky Tape

Directions:

Part A – Identify Magnetic Forces

1. Slowly move the bar magnet near each of the objects (1 at a time) in the materials collection set. Observe and record if each object is attracted, repelled, or does nothing in a data table:

Part B – Identify Electrostatic Forces

You are going to make a positively charged object, and a negatively charged object, out of sticky tape.

1. Place a 15 cm strip of sticky tape, sticky side down, on the table. This will be the surface tape used to place the top and bottom tape. (To make it easier to peel the tape off of the table, you can fold the end of the tape over so the two sticky sides touch and make a handle).

2. Place two more tapes on top of the surface tape, sticky side down. Label middle tape “bottom” and the top tape “top”.

3. Pull the bottom tape off of the table (leave the surface tape), taking the top tape with it. Then pull the top and bottom tape apart from each other. 

4. Bring the top tape near each of the objects in the materials kit, and record which materials attract, repel or do nothing in a data table. (Keep in mind that the charges can dissipate off of tape, so quickly test the materials and try to make contact with the materials and the tape as little as possible).

5. Repeat steps 2 to 4, but this time bring the bottom tape near the objects in the materials pieces kit, and record which materials attract, repel or do nothing in a data table.

Activity #2 - Identifying Poles and Pole Interaction

Many have heard the term “opposites attract”. This activity is a simple and clear way to experience the attraction and repulsion between magnetic poles, and then observe how a compass works to identify geographic poles. After this experience, students will be ready to move on and make predictions and inventions involving magnets.

Materials:

2 Bar Magnet PH0786E (or similar)

Compass PH0820ASPL (or similar)

Directions:

Part A – Observe how the north and south poles of bar magnets interact with one another

1. Notice The ends of the bar magnets are labeled with “N” and “S” to designate the north and south poles. Bring the ends of two bar magnets (magnets A and B) close to each other until you feel a force between them and describe the force as an attraction or repulsion.

BE CAREFUL NOT TO PINCH YOURSELF BETWEEN MAGNETS.

Now switch the orientation of magnet A, and describe the force as an attraction or repulsion.

You will find that the north end of magnet A attracted the south end of magnet B and the north end of magnet A repelled the north end of magnet B -OR- the south end of magnet A attracted the north end of magnet B and the south end of magnet A repelled the south end of magnet B. Opposite poles attract, same poles repel.

Part B – Observe how a compass works

1. Bring the compass close to the south end of 1 bar magnet. A compass is a magnet on a pin that is free to rotate. Observe what happens to the compass. 

2. Bring the compass close to the north end of 1 bar magnet. Observe what happens to the compass.

Activity #3 - Making a Compass

It is commonly known that objects containing iron are attracted to magnets. These iron containing objects can also be temporarily turned into magnets themselves, when placed in contact with a magnet. During this activity, learn how to turn a needle into a permanent magnet and then use it as a compass.

Materials:

Bar Magnet PH0786E (or similar)

Needle

Paper clip

Cork

Bowl of water

Compass PH0820ASPL (or similar)

Directions:

1. Grip the needle at the back (non-pointy) end, and rub or scrape the south pole of the bar magnet along the needle from the back end towards the pointy end. Rub the needle at least 20 times, all in the same direction (not back and forth), for as much of the length of the needle as possible.

2. Test to see if the needle is magnetized by touching the point of the needle to a paperclip. If the needle is not magnetized, rub the needle the same way 20 more times, and repeat until the needle can pick up the paperclip.

3. Identify the polarity of the pointy end of the magnetized needle by bringing the compass close to the needle point. Which end of the compass is attracted to the pointy end of your needle? It should be north - therefore, the polarity of the pointy end of your needle is south.

4. Float the cork in the middle of a bowl of water

5. Gently lay the needle on the cork and observe what happens. The pointy end of your needle, or the south pole of your needle should rotate and point towards geographic north. Congratulations, you’ve made a working compass!

Activity #4 – Visualizing Magnetic Field Lines

Observe and sketch the magnetic field lines that travel between the poles of a magnet. You will observe the differences in field lines between two like poles, two opposite poles, and how the orientation of a compass needle compares to magnetic field lines. When you are finished, sketch what you think the Earth's magnetic field lines look like!

Materials:

2 Bar Magnet PH0786E (or similar)

Compass PH0820ASPL (or similar)

Iron filings IS18033 (or similar)

White paper

Directions:

1. Place the bar magnet under a while piece of paper and sprinkle iron filings to cover an area over the magnet that is about 4 times the size of the magnet. Sketch the pattern that the iron filings form around the magnet.

2. Place both magnets under the paper and sprinkle iron fillings as in step 1. Sketch the pattern that the iron filings form between the two magnets. Do this twice, once with the same poles facing the middle, and once with opposite poles facing the middle.

3. Place the magnet on a piece of paper, and trace the outer edge of the magnet. Put the compass at the north end of the magnet. With a pencil, draw a dot at each end of the compass needle. Lift up the compass, and connect the two dots with a line.

Continue this line by sliding the compass until the south end of the compass needle points where you put the dot for the north compass needle. Continue the line until you reach the edge of the paper, or until you reach the south pole.

4. Make at least 5 more lines, starting at various positions around the north pole. How do these lines compare to the lines drawn in steps 1 and 2?

Activity #5 – Making an Electric Motor

Building a simple motor with these few simple materials is easy and sure to amaze! Take it a step further and use right hand rules to determine and select the direction of rotation for the motor. Make this a STEAM activity - get creative with the shape of your wire and turn your motor into spinning art!

Materials:

AA battery

Round Neodymium Magnet

Thick wire bent into a shape, so that it balances on the top of the battery with one lead touching the top of the magnet and one lead touching the bottom of the magnet. 

Compass PH0820ASPL (or similar)

Iron filings IS18033 (or similar)

Black permanent marker

WARNING: NEODYMIUM MAGNETS ARE VERY STRONG. MAKE SURE THEY DO NOT COME NEAR ANY METAL OBJECTS, OTHER MAGNETS OR NEAR SENSITIVE ELECTRONICS, CREDIT CARDS, TAPES, ETC.

Directions:

1. Make a simple motor by assembling the pieces of the motor as shown in the diagram below.

2. When looking at the positive end of the battery, does the wire turn clockwise or counterclockwise?

3. Flip the magnet upside down (so the top of the magnet is now sitting on the table), put the battery back on top of the magnet same as in step 1, and observe which way the wire moves. (It should be spinning in the opposite direction as in step 2).

4. Take the magnet off of the assembled motor and use the small compass to identify the north and south pole of the neodymium magnet. Draw a black dot on the north pole.

5. Place the magnet back under the battery, north side up. Use the right hand rules to predict which direction your wire will rotate. 

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