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Summary

Grade Range
4th
Group Size
1-2 students
Active Time
45 minutes
Total Time
45 minutes
Area of Science
Physics
Key Concepts
Electricity, energy, circuit, conductor, insulator
Credits
Ben Finio, PhD, Science Buddies

This lesson plan was inspired by the Squishy Circuits project, developed by Dr. AnnMarie Thomas at the University of St. Thomas.

Model clay frog has two LEDs for eyes

Overview

If you love doing arts and crafts with your students, this lesson plan is for you! Teach them about energy, electricity, and circuits as they build light-up sculptures, using something they are all familiar with—play dough! Clear step-by-step instructions are provided and no previous experience with circuits is required.

Learning Objectives

NGSS Alignment

This lesson helps students prepare for these Next Generation Science Standards Performance Expectations:
This lesson focuses on these aspects of NGSS Three Dimensional Learning:

Science & Engineering Practices Disciplinary Core Ideas Crosscutting Concepts
Science & Engineering Practices Planning and Carrying Out Investigations. Make observations to produce data to serve as the basis for evidence for an explanation of a phenomenon or test a design solution.
Disciplinary Core Ideas PS3.A: Definitions of Energy. Energy can be moved from place to place by moving objects or through sound, light, or electric currents.

PS3.B: Conservation of Energy and Energy Transfer. Energy can also be transferred from place to place by electric currents, which can then be used locally to produce motion, sound, heat, or light. The currents may have been produced to begin with by transforming the energy of motion into electrical energy.
Crosscutting Concepts Energy and Matter. Energy can be transferred in various ways and between objects.

Materials

Four double A batteries, two cans of Play-Doh, a battery pack, insulating clay and five LEDs

For each group of students you will need:

Background Information for Teachers

This section contains a quick review for teachers of the science and concepts covered in this lesson.

We use battery-powered devices like cell phones every day. Batteries store electrical energy and allow us to make electronic devices portable, so they do not have to be plugged into a wall outlet all the time. Batteries can be connected to other electronic components to form a circuit. Circuits allow electricity from batteries to be converted to other forms of energy like light (a flashlight), sound (a speaker), and motion (a motor).

In this project, your students will build circuits with tiny lights called LEDs (which stands for light-emitting diode), as shown in Figure 1. The little blinking lights you see on many electronic devices like computers, TVs, and internet modems are LEDs. In this circuit, the electrical energy from the battery is converted to light energy from the LED.

A lit LED bridges two Play-Doh balls connected to a battery pack
Figure 1. Circuit with a battery pack, play dough, and an LED.

Circuits are made up of conductors, or materials that let electricity flow through them easily. Most metals are good conductors. You are protected from electric shocks when you touch an appliance by insulators, or materials that prevent electricity from flowing through them. Most plastics and rubbers are good insulators. Most circuits are made of wires, which have a metal core surrounded by plastic insulation. This allows us to touch the wires safely without getting shocked. In this project you will use conductive and insulating dough instead. This allows you to teach your students about circuits using art supplies instead of wires!

Electricity needs a complete path, or loop, to flow. In order to successfully build a circuit, you need to know the difference between open, closed, and short circuits (Figure 2).

  • In an open circuit, part of the circuit is disconnected, so the loop is broken and the LED will not light up.
  • In a closed circuit, there is a complete path for electricity to flow through the LED, so the LED will light up.
  • In a short circuit, there is a "shortcut" between the battery pack wires, so electricity can skip past the LED and it will not light up.
Diagram of an open, closed and short circuit using a battery pack, Play-Doh balls and an LED
Figure 2. From left to right: open, closed, and short circuits. Yellow arrows represent the flow of electricity.

One way to prevent short circuits is to use insulating dough or modeling clay, as shown in Figure 3. The insulating dough prevents the two balls of conductive dough from touching each other, thus preventing a short circuit.

Drawing of Play-Doh balls separated by insulating clay powering an LED
Figure 3. Circuit with insulating dough (yellow) used to prevent a short circuit between the two lumps of conductive dough (red and green).

In this lesson plan, you will walk your class through the concepts described above and then let them create their own light-up sculptures.

Prep Work (10 minutes)

Engage (5 minutes)

Explore (30 minutes)

Reflect (5 minutes)

Assess

Make Career Connections

Lesson Plan Variations

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