Investigating Static Electricity: Creating Lightning on a much smaller scale

Kathy Ahrndt
Northside Elementary
Benson, MN 56215

The Science Mailbox, p. 61, Copyright 2006

MNSTEP Handouts on Static Electricity (1985 The Bakken)

Physics Education Technology. "Simulations". Balloons and Static Electricity, (14 August 2007)

Science Made Simple. "Static Electricity". Learn about Static Charge & Static Shocks, (14 August 2007)
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In this elementary science activity, students will experiment with static electricity using balloons. After investigating how balloons attract and repel various objects, students will watch a simulation of static electricity to help gain an understanding of the movement of the charged protons and electrons. Finally, students will observe how static electricity can create a spark of "lightning".

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications

Learning Goals

Students will investigate and record what attracts and repels the charged balloon.
Students will observe how like charges repel and opposite charges attract.
Students will discover how static electricity relates to lightning.

Static Electricity
Charged Particles

Context for Use

This lesson will be a part of a third grade science unit on weather. As students explore various storms, this lesson will bring understanding to what creates lightning. At third grade, students will not have had formal lessons on electricity. Providing some experience with static electricity will be a building block for later science standards on energy transformation.

Description and Teaching Materials

Part 1
Observing Static Electricity
Materials needed:
Balloons, string, tape, various materials to attract to balloons (paper scraps, empty aluminum cans, confetti, dry cereal, etc)

Before lesson, blow up several balloons so each group of three students has a balloon. Also, blow up two balloons and attach an equal amount of string to each one. Suspend these two balloons in a doorway or from a meter stick with some space between them.

To begin lesson, have students predict what will happen if you rub the two suspended balloons with a woolen cloth or on your head. (Balloons will repel away from one another) Next, place a sheet of paper between the two balloons and observe what happens. (The two balloons attract toward one another). Have students discuss with one another what just happened. Repeat experiment as many times as needed.

Explanation of Static Electricity-Kid friendly science definition given on website:

Part 2
On large screen projector, have students view the balloon and static electricity simulation found at (This site was used at MnSTEP Summer Physics Institute)

Follow this short demonstration with discussion of how opposite charges attract and similar charges repel.

Part 3
Allow students to work with static electricity.
Give each group of three students a balloon and a recording sheet. Have students rub a balloon and record items that attracted the balloon and items that repelled the balloon. You can give each group items such as dry cereal, paper scraps, rice, and empty pop cans, or you can have them search out items around the room. After some time of exploring, collect balloons and have students come together to discuss the data they collected. Together as a group, discuss the charge that each item must have had if it attracted the balloon or repelled the balloon.

Part 4
Making our own lightning
(Leyden Jar Activity was demonstrated at Summer MnSTEP Physics Institute: The Bakken Handout contains step by step picture guide to demonstration)

*Photo film canister with nail poked through the top and aluminum foil wrapped half way up the bottom. Fill canister half way with water.

*Stack in order
1.cardboard wrapped in foil
2. Styrofoam picnic plate taped onto foil cardboard
3. Aluminum pie tin
4. Styrofoam cup taped onto pie tin

Creating Charge:
1. Rub the Styrofoam plate with wool cloth or hair.
2. Set the pie tin down on the picnic plate. Be sure to hold it by the plastic cup.
3. Touch the foil wrapped cardboard and the pie tin at the same time. Then let go.
4. Hold the plastic cup and lift the pie tin. Touch the nail in the film canister with the pie tin.
5. The film canister can now be placed near a TV screen to witness a "spark" of electricity.

Explain to students that something similar happens in a thundercloud. The water droplets are colliding into one another at a fast rate creating charged particles. Lightning occurs when these separated charges flow toward each other, creating an electric spark.

Teaching Notes and Tips

These activities can be done in one day or divided into several days depending on the amount of time you have for science. Before taking the MNStep summer institute my students learned about lightening from the Scholastic Science Readers Book titled Thunder and Lightning. I am hoping the hands on activities build a deeper understanding of what causes lightning.

Before using this activity, be sure your school allows the use of balloons and that no child in your classroom has any allergies to latex. There are many ways to illustrate the basic properties of static electricity. Another option could be used in step 3. Depending on the weather in your area, this activity may be more effective if done during the winter months when static electricity is at a higher level.


Students will complete the record sheet listing items that attracted their balloon and items that repelled their balloon.

On the unit assessment, students will be able to identify what causes lightning.


Strand: III Earth and Space Science
Standard: The student will investigate weather conditions.

Strand: I History and Nature of Science
Sub-strand: Scientific World View
Standard: The student will understand the use of science as a tool to examine the natural world.

References and Resources