MnSTEP Teaching Activity Collection > MnSTEP Activities > Investigating Magnetism: What are Magnets and Why Do They Attract or Repel?

Investigating Magnetism: What are Magnets and Why Do They Attract or Repel?

Sondra Tokarczyk, Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School, Bena, MN
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In this magnetism activity, students investigate why magnets attract certain objects and how the magnets can attract or repel each other by participating in a classroom activity. Students will observe, question, and investigate how the magnets interact with each other and the objects around them.

Learning Goals

This lesson is designed for students to participate in an activity that will allow them to see how a magnet works and how the poles of a magnet can affect its interaction with other magnets. Students will think critically while observing, developing questions, and investigating. They will also learn the vocabulary words "pole", "repel", "attract", and "magnetic field".

Context for Use

This lesson is designed for grade 4, but could also be used for others with some adjustment. It is designed to be used as part of a magnetism and electricity unit. Prior to the activity, some of the students may have some experience with magnets; however, it is not necessary, as the students will be investigating how the magnets work during this lesson. To determine prior knowledge about magnets, a KWHL chart can be used before starting the activity. The materials needed for the activity include: Several strong magnets, 2 cylindrical magnets, a variety of objects that can be picked up by magnets (paper clips, steel washers, nails, etc.), a variety of objects that cannot be picked up by magnets (rubber bands, paper, plastic, wood, etc.), and containers labeled "magnets pick up" and "magnets do not pick up".

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

Description and Teaching Materials

To start the activity, create a pile of a mixture of objects that can and cannot be picked up by magnets. Allow students to choose a magnet and several of the objects. Then have the students go to their spots and test how the magnet and the objects interact with each other. After the students have had time to investigate, discuss what they noticed about the magnets and the objects they had. Place the labeled containers in front of the class and have the students sort their objects into the correct containers. Ask the students why they think some of the objects stuck to the magnets and why others did not. Explain that objects that pull and hold iron and steel things are called magnets and that those magnets have poles. Each magnet has a north pole and a south pole. The poles are the places on the magnet that pick the objects up.

Let the students observe the poles of a magnet by placing a cylindrical bar magnet on the table. Bring a second cylindrical magnet near it. Have the students observe what happens. Reverse one of the magnets. Again, have the students observe what happens. Ask the students what they noticed when the second magnet was placed beside the first one and what happened when you turned one. Then discuss what they noticed when the magnets pulled together and pushed apart. Explain that the poles on the magnets cause this to happen. When two poles are different, they pull the magnets together, or attract, and when two poles are alike, they push apart, or repel. These poles are attracted or repelled in an area around the magnet called the magnetic field, which is made up of invisible lines of force. Allow the students to continue to investigate this concept by using different types of magnets. Then have them write and/or draw their discoveries to be shared during further class discussion.

Teaching Notes and Tips

This lesson was designed to be used with an electricity and magnetism unit. I have not taught this particular lesson before, but have created this lesson based on similar lessons I have taught in the past. This lesson will be followed by an activity focusing on how much magnets can pull. I will be working with my students beforehand to develop observation and questioning skills.


Assessment is done by observation during the activity and classroom discussions. Assessments will also be made by reading the students' written and/or drawn observations from the lesson.

Standards magnetism

References and Resources