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Snap, Crackle, POP!

Students experiment with different materials to find the best combination for creating static charge.

Some atoms hold on to their electrons more tightly than others do. The triboelectric series is a list that ranks materials based on their tendency to hold on to or give away their electrons.

When a material gives up electrons it becomes positively charged. Therefore, if a material is more apt to give up electrons when in contact with another material, it is more positive in the triboelectric series. When a material gains electrons it becomes nevatively charged. Therefore, if a material is more apt to "capture" electrons when in contact with another material, it is more negative in the triboelectric series.

To get a really good static charge, you should combine a very positive material in the triboelectric series with a very negative material in the triboelectric series.

Objectives

  • Explain how static charge causes materials to attract or repel each other.

Materials

  • Per Class:
    Various items displayed on a table (4–5 samples of each):

    balloons
    plastic rulers
    plastic spoons
    paper plates
    wool scarf
    silk scarf
    rubber-soled shoes
    carpet
    socks
    sweater
    thread
    record
    comb
    cereal
    salt
    hula hoop
    sugar
    pepper
    ripped-up paper
    gelatin
    styrofoam packing peanuts

  • Per student:
    science notebook
    pencil/pen
    table of the triboelectric series

Key Questions

  • Which combinations of materials create charge?
  • Can you explain your results by looking at the ranking of your materials in the triboelectric series?
  • Do any of the material combinations result in crackling?
  • What is similar about the combinations that create charge? The combinations that do not create charge?

What To Do

Preparation

  1. Lay out a variety of materials on a table.
  2. On the board, create a table with the materials you have chosen along the top of the table and repeat them down the side of the table. This will be used to record the students’ results. Alternatively, you can ask the students to reproduce the table in their notebooks to record the results.

Exploration

  1. In teams of two, one of the team members comes to the table and chooses two materials to bring back to their desk.
  2. Rub the two materials together. Do they exhibit static cling?
  3. In your table, record “Yes” for creating a charge and “No” for not creating a charge.
  4. Bring back the samples to the table and choose another pair.
  5. Continue rubbing different combinations of materials together to see which ones create charge.
  6. Record the results as a class on the board.

​Teacher Tip:
For primary students who may not be confident with their writing skills, the following variation can be used to create an engaging activity. Instead of having each pair of students record their findings on paper, assign a “yes” side and “no” side to the classroom. Then, for each round of testing materials for static charge, have each pair move to the appropriate side of the classroom. Record the group’s answers on the blackboard and then review them as a class.

Extensions

  • Go on a static electricity hunt! Leave the classroom and expand your search area for material combinations that create static charge around your school, outside, at home etc.
  • Take your best combination, charge it up, turn the lights off and see if you can get a spark!
  • At home, try taking off an acrylic or polar fleece sweater in the dark. Can you see any sparks?