Curricular Unit: Put a Spark in It! - Electricity

Contributed by: Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder

Four images: Representative drawing of an atom with nucleus and three orbiting electrons, photo of a person's hand pushing a pronged-electrical cord into a wall socket, close-up photo shows etched lines and components of an integrated circuit board, photo of a woman and young girl each holding controllers and playing a videogame together.
Learn about energy, electrons, charge, electricity, current, circuits — and how important they are to our everyday activities.
Copyright © 2009 Denise W. Carlson. Used with permission (electrical outlet/switch), and © 2004 Microsoft Corporation, One Microsoft Way, Redmond, WA 98052-6399 USA. All rights reserved. (other three images).


Uncountable times every day—with the merest flick of a finger—each one of us calls on electricity to do our bidding. What would your life be like without electricity? Students begin learning about electricity with an introduction to the most basic unit in ordinary matter, the atom. Once the components of an atom are addressed and understood, students move into the world of electricity. First, they explore static electricity, followed by basic current electricity concepts such as voltage, resistance and open/closed circuits. Next, they learn about that wonderful can full of chemicals—the battery. Students may get a "charge" as they discover the difference between a conductor and an insulator. The unit concludes with lessons investigating simple circuits arranged "in series" and "in parallel," including the benefits and unique features associated with each. Through numerous hands-on activities, students move cereal and foam using charged combs, use balloons to explore electricity and charge polarization, build and use electroscopes to evaluate objects' charge intensities, construct simple switches using various materials in circuits that light bulbs, build and use simple conductivity testers to evaluate materials and solutions, build and experiment with simple series and parallel circuits, design and build their own series circuit flashlight, and draw circuits using symbols.

Engineering Connection

Electrification is FIRST on the list of the National Academy of Engineering's top 20 engineering achievements of the 20th century (see After Edison's 1879 invention of the light bulb, electrification boosted America's economic development and quality of life, soon becoming pervasive in both urban and rural communities to provide lighting, power for home appliances, and in later years, computers and communication devices, as well as the widespread production of goods and services.

If electricity is the workhorse of the modern world, then engineers hold the reins. Beginning with their understanding of atoms and electrons, engineers exploit scientific principles of voltage, current and resistance to create the circuitry and batteries found in electronic devices. They create circuit diagrams to communicate their designs to others. Over the years, and continuing today, engineers invent new equipment, tools and products that use electricity and provide capabilities for people, including electronics, radio, TV, household appliances, telephones, refrigeration, air conditioning, computers, internet, imaging, health technologies, laser and fiber optics, spacecraft.

We now demand so much electricity that engineers are asked to invent new ways to conserve it and generate it, for example, the invention of photovoltaic cells that use sunlight to make electricity. Through the smart use of materials, for their conductivity and insulating characteristics, engineers design devices and appliances that operate correctly, dependably and safely. Engineers are creative with their inventions; using static electricity, engineers devised industrial air filters that clean the air. The engineering design of integrated circuits combines thousands to millions of parallel and series circuits working together. The resulting central processing units (CPUs) have become essential in modern vehicles, video games, smoke detectors, DVD players, garage-door openers, cordless phones, clocks and calculators—useful devices and inventions that improve our lives.

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This lesson introduces the concept of electricity by asking students to imagine what their life would be like without electricity. Two main forms of electricity, static and current, are introduced. Students learn that electrons can move between atoms, leaving atoms in a charged state.

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Educational Standards

Each TeachEngineering lesson or activity is correlated to one or more K-12 science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) educational standards.

All 100,000+ K-12 STEM standards covered in TeachEngineering are collected, maintained and packaged by the Achievement Standards Network (ASN), a project of D2L (

In the ASN, standards are hierarchically structured: first by source; e.g., by state; within source by type; e.g., science or mathematics; within type by subtype, then by grade, etc.

  • Ask questions to determine cause and effect relationships of electric or magnetic interactions between two objects not in contact with each other. (Grade 3) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Define a simple design problem reflecting a need or a want that includes specified criteria for success and constraints on materials, time, or cost. (Grades 3 - 5) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Make observations to provide evidence that energy can be transferred from place to place by sound, light, heat, and electric currents. (Grade 4) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Draw a scaled picture graph and a scaled bar graph to represent a data set with several categories. Solve one- and two-step "how many more" and "how many less" problems using information presented in scaled bar graphs. (Grade 3) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Add, subtract, multiply, and divide decimals to hundredths, using concrete models or drawings and strategies based on place value, properties of operations, and/or the relationship between addition and subtraction; relate the strategy to a written method and explain the reasoning used. (Grade 5) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
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Unit Overview

Overview of topics by lesson: 1) introduction to electricity, both static and current, as well as electrons and atoms, 2) static electricity, including inducing electrical charge, repulsion and attraction, 3) current electricity, including voltage, current and resistance, 4) electrical conductors and insulators, including material properties, 5) series circuits, including resistance and circuit components, and 6) the composition and practical application of parallel circuits, including Ohm's law.

Unit Schedule


Pre-Unit Test: To conduct an overall pre/post content assessment of this curricular unit (six lessons, with associated activities), administer the attached Electricity and Magnetism Pre/Post Test to the class before beginning any discussion on electricity and magnetism. A Spanish version is also available: Electricidad y Manetismo Pre/Post Test. Then, after completion of the final lesson, administer the same (now post-unit) test to the same students and compare pre- to post- scores. In addition, this short test is suitable to administer to a control group of students who have not completed the unit, to comparatively test the impact of the curricular unit on learning. This test was developed by a TE user of this curricular unit.

Post-Unit Test: If you administered the pre-unit test before beginning this curricular unit, conclude the overall pre/post assessment of the unit (six lessons, with associated activities), by administering the Electricity and Magnetism Pre/Post Test to the class after concluding the final lesson and its activity. A Spanish version is also available: Electricidad y Manetismo Pre/Post Test. Compare pre- to post- scores to gauge the impact of the curricular unit on students' learning.



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© 2004 by Regents of the University of Colorado

Supporting Program

Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder


The contents of this digital library curriculum were developed under grants from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), U.S. Department of Education and the National Science Foundation (GK-12 grant no. 0338326). However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the Department of Education or National Science Foundation, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Last modified: April 26, 2017