MnSTEP Teaching Activity Collection > MnSTEP Activities > 4th Grade Students Investigate Electric Circuits Through Construction and Illustration

4th Grade Students Investigate Electric Circuits Through Construction and Illustration

Lorraine Aaland, Pine Island Elementary School, Pine Island, MN 55963
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In this physics lesson 4th grade students investigate electrical circuits in greater depth than the FOSS unit used in a prior grade in school. Students become familiar with a computer simulation allowing them greater choices of materials to "build" an electric circuit. The simulation also models the "schematics" which will help students with their diagrams.

Learning Goals

1. Students activate prior knowledge by building a simple series electric circuit and may test more elaborate models.
2. Students will diagram that electric circuit using Scnks "Electronic Circuits",
3. Students will be able to use computer technology to "build" more sophisticated electrical circuits than using materials commonly available in my classroom.

Context for Use

This activity will require use of a several 4th grade science periods. Pairs of students may require time on the computer outside of class. The sessions would not have to immediately follow one another.

Subject: Physics:Electricity & Magnetism
Resource Type: Activities:Lab Activity, Classroom Activity
Grade Level: Intermediate (3-5)

Description and Teaching Materials

Build, Diagram, Display understanding
Build : Presented with an assortment of wires, batteries, and lights introduced in the FOSS Magnetism and Electricity taught previously in our school, students are challenged, given the topic of energy, "What could be done with these materials?" Students assist one another in building a complete series circuit. Students journal observations in an "I See.../ I Wonder..." log page of their attempts.

Other challenges are offered. For example, attempt to complete the circuit using other conductors found in their desks, build a complete circuit using a battery, one uncut wire and a bulb. Observations are shared in small groups and whole group and questions are recorded on a class chart for future consideration.
Diagram: The next challenge is, "How could you send your electrical circuit model to an online pen-pal?" Using a completed model from the prior day, the teacher demonstrates how to use the SciLinks website simulation Electrical Circuits via projection or SMARTboard. Following this introduction, time in the computer lab gets pairs of students designing the illustration of a model circuit they've built. The groups may need time outside of class to work. The labeled illustration is printed or hand copied for inclusion in each student's journal. Emphasize the use of color to key the individual parts of this diagram, making it easier to remember and explain.
Processing the experience opens with pairs of students sharing, in turn, with 2 other pairs of students what they learned about using the computer simulation. What worked? What didn't? Class share of observations and work summaries.

Display understanding: Now the teacher presents a malfunctioning circuit, accompanied by its illustration, Student pairs are asked to explain what is wrong with the circuit and make at least 2 different suggestions of how to solve the problem. These ideas are shared and explained to other pairs or to the entire class.

Extension: I would encourage students to design other circuits to challenge the class, from time to time, as to whether or not they would work.

Teaching Notes and Tips

Personal experience has shown that many students, having previously completed guided inquiry about electrical circuits in third grade, do not yet remember enough about conductors and insulators at the beginning of our unit for energy conservation at fourth grade. Until now our grade level curriculum has not included electricity activities, but adding them could prove helpful, since there is conceptual overlap between electrical flow and heat energy conservation, which is in the curriculum. These activities give students one more opportunity to better understand important concepts before the 5th grade state testing.

There are advantages to pairing simulation to the hands-on work. Use of a simulation allows students to test ideas about conductors without the whole class seeing what didn't work unless a student wants to share that information. The simulation includes a greater variety of objects not commonly available in the classroom. During the simulation frustration with damaged electrical equipment lessens. To me the simulation is the "picture that's better than 1000 words". Also, wouldn't it be great if students really did e-mail their illustrations home? Time spent with the simulation is a benefit to students.

Prior to these lessons, the teacher will need to download the simulation lab:
PC Windows
1. Go to
2. Double click on the file Vlabs_Electricity_Setup.exe
3. When the prompt comes up, click "Save."
4. Choose the location where you want to save the file

1. Go to
2. Double click on the file Vlabs_Electricity_DL.bin
3. When the prompt comes up, click "Save."
4. Choose the location where you want to save the file

This lesson is written as the result of a summer class. It is subject to revision during the upcoming school year.


Because formal assessments always get down to print, it benefits students to show what they understand graphically and linguistically. Usually students help design the rubric to assess this type of work. Since assessment is backed up by data kept in their journals, I would anticipate the following to be included:
- Students will produce a labeled diagram for one of the electrical circuits they constructed. Included will be the size of the power source, the type of conductor/conductors used, and the item/items to be powered.
- Illustration should be neatly presented so the audience can understand
- Students can present a written or oral summary of why their model did/didn't work.
- Students will describe what their partner did to complete the project or how they know that their group stayed on task.


GR 4: II.C.1 & 3.

References and Resources