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Electrifying Electromagnets

Students explore the relationship between electricity and magnetism. 

The electrons inside atoms spin, creating tiny magnetic fields. Most objects are not magnetic because their electrons spin in different, random directions, and cancel each other out.

Magnets are different. The molecules in magnets are arranged so that their electrons spin in the same direction. This arrangement of atoms creates 2 poles in a magnet, a North-seeking pole and a South-seeking pole.


  • Describe the effect of applying electricity to a magnetic object.


  • Per Student:
    Large iron nail (about 3 inches)
    3 feet of insulated copper wire
    A fresh D size battery
    Paper clips or other small magnetic objects

Key Questions

  • Is the nail itself a magnet?
  • What happens when a wire is coiled around the nail and connected to a battery?
  • What happens when you disconnect the wire?

What To Do

  1. ​Leave about 20 cm of wire loose at one end, wrap most of the rest of the wire around the nail, leaving about 20 cm of wire at the other end. Try not to overlap the wires.
  2. Cut the wire so that there is about another 20 cm loose at the other end too.
  3. Now remove about 2 cm of the plastic coating from both ends of the wire and attach the one wire to one end of a battery and the other wire to the other end of the battery. Use tape to connect the wires to the battery, but be careful! The wires can get quite hot!
  4. Now you have an electromagnet. Put the point of the nail near a few paper clips and it should pick them up!

Note: Making an electromagnet uses up the battery quickly, so disconnect the wires when you are done exploring. The quickly moving current turns electric energy into heat energy and the wire can get quite hot!


  • Electromagnetic: A core of magnetic material surrounded by a coil of wire through which an electric current is passed to magnetize the core.
  • Electromagnetism: A magnetic force caused by electric charges in motion; also, the relationship between magnetism and electricity where one can make the other.


  • Use a compass or a permanent magnet to determine the North and South poles of your electromagnet.
  • Try bringing two electromagnets together — do they attract or repel?
  • Why do the wires become hot when they’re connected to the battery?
  • Experiment with the wire: change the number of times you wrap the wire around the nail, etc.
  • Can you change the strength of your electromagnet so that it picks up more paperclips?