Simulating Charge Motion

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Students use online simulators to observe how charge is distributed on insulators and conductors.

Big Idea

Charge stays in place on an insulator and charge is free to move around on a conductor.

Context and Supplies

In this lesson, students use a PhET Simulator that models how charge behaves on an insulator and a conductor. This involves NGSS HS-ETS1-4: Use a computer simulation to model the impact of proposed solutions to a complex real-world problem with numerous criteria and constraints on interactions within and between systems relevant to the problem. It also involves NGSS Science Practice 2: Developing and using models and Science Practice 3: Planning and carrying out investigations

Then, students have to organize vocabulary words into a visual diagram and justify their grouping which is an application of NGSS Science Practice 8: Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information. The whole lesson is in the context of Performance Standard HS-PS2-4: Use mathematical representations of Newton’s Law of Gravitation and Coulomb’s Law to describe and predict the gravitational and electrostatic forces between objects.

Online Simulators to Observe Charge Move

30 minutes

I start the class with the Balloons and Static Electricity PhET simulator projected on the board. I tell the students that today they are to analyze the behavior of charge on insulators and conductors through observation of what happens on some online simulators. Each student gets their own Electrostatic PhET Activity handout. However, students work in groups of 2-3, with one computer per group. Ideally, I like to have all students complete this activity independently on their own computer, as the questions and concepts are not rigorous but are good to lay a foundation for future learning. However, I do not have the resources to do this. I hand out the activity sheet and students choose their partners, collect their computer and navigate to the PhET simulations Balloons and Static Electricity and John Travoltage.

The first simulation shows the charge distribution on a balloon and how charges transfer from a sweater to a balloon when the student rubs the balloon against the sweater. The worksheet has the student perform a series of activities and make observations on how the charges behave. Questions include students observation on how the balloon is charged, with what method is the balloon charged, what happens to the charged balloon when it is put near the sweater, among others.  These questions have students relate the charges to protons and electrons. 

For the second activity, students look at the charge distribution on a conductor and what happens when they ground the conductor. While students work on this activity, I circulate the room and give support where needed. When students finish the simulations, they move on to graphically organize the vocabulary words on the worksheet.

Students Organize Vocabulary Words

20 minutes

For this activity, students graphically group and organize the vocabulary words below in a way that makes sense to them. This is an open-ended activity where different groups develop different organization schemes.

  • Charge
  • Conduction
  • Conductor
  • Electron
  • Ground
  • Induction
  • Insulator
  • Negative
  • Net Charge
  • Neutron
  • Neutral
  • Polarization
  • Positive
  • Proton

Students do this in groups of 2 so they can talk through ideas on how they would like to organize their words which is done on a blank piece of 8 1/2 x 11 paper. They have seen or defined many of the words in the first few lessons of this unit, which include Atomic Charge and All Charged Up. If there is a word they do not know, I inform the students that they are to use a textbook to look up the word. They must justify their organization which means they must have an understanding of what the words mean. 

In the last few minutes of the class, I collect the charts that students make and display them with my document camera. I ask the students to justify their organization pattern and explain why they made the choices they made. The reflection has some examples of student work.