Static Electricity--Thunder and Lightning

Annette Walen Hokanson, Edinbrook Elementary, Brooklyn Park, MN
(Adapted from Janice VanCleve's 200 Gooey, Slippery, Slimy, Weird & Fun , Experiments)
Author Profile


In this quick activity, students "create" lightning and thunder using plastic and wool. They make observations about the sights and sounds and develop hypotheses regarding why the sparks and crackles happen.

Learning Goals

This activity is designed to demonstrate how static charges produce sound. Students will observe, question, and generate possible reasons. Students will learn what static electricity is, how it relates to thunder and lightning, and what causes it. They will become acquainted with the words atom and electrons.

Context for Use

This can be done with a whole class.

Description and Teaching Materials

Snap! Physics

Objective: to demonstrate how static charges produce sound.

-Clear plastic sheet or plastic comb
-Scissors to cut plastic
-Ruler to measure plastic
-Modeling clay
-Large paper clip
-Piece of wool: scarf, coat, or sweater made of 100% wool


- Measure and cut a plastic strip about 1 inch X 8 inches (2.5 cm X 20 cm.)
- Use the clay to stand the paper clip upright on a table.
- Wrap the wool around the plastic strip and quickly pull the plastic through the cloth. Do this quickly at least three times.
- Immediately hold the plastic near the top of the paper clip.

Results: A snapping sound can be heard.

Why? Electrons are rubbed off the wool and onto the plastic. The electrons clump together until the total accumulation of their energy is great enough to move them across the span of air between the plastic and the metal clip. The movement of the electrons through the air produces sound waves, resulting in the snapping sound heard.

Teaching Notes and Tips

Introductions to sound waves and electrons are important components to this lesson, and should be done before the SNAP! activity.


Students will draw models of their beliefs of what happens to create the spark and snap. Students will explain their drawings and then either stick with their explanation or choose another student's explanation that they believe explains the cause better.


Grade 4
C. Energy Transformations
The student will understand basic electricity and its application in everyday life.

2. The student will investigate static electricity.

References and Resources