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This content is taken from the National STEM Learning Centre's online course, Teaching Primary Science: Physics. Join the course to learn more.
3.3

What’s going on?

Electricity is a type of energy. This electrical energy can be converted into other forms of energy such as light, sound and movement.

To fully understand how electricity works we need to delve into the atomic level.

Here is an atom:

Atoms are the building blocks of matter. They are so small that there would be billions and billions in just one grain of sand! It is impossible to imagine just how many there would be on a whole beach!

There are three parts to an atom. Protons and neutrons are held together in the nuclei of the atom. Protons have a positive charge and neutrons are neutral. Electrons spin around the outside of an atom. They have a negative charge.

The word electricity comes from electrons. In an electrical conductor, such as the copper in a wire, electrons are free to move from one atom to another. This flow of electrons is an electric current. This is measured in amperes (amps).

Electrons move as they all have a negative charge. Think about magnets. If you have two magnets and try to put two of the same poles together, they repel each other. If one magnet moves forward, so does the other. This is forces working at a distance and it is the same concept for electrons.

But, what makes the electrons move in the first place?

For an electric current to happen there needs to be a circuit. This creates a pathway for the electrons to flow. The introduction of a power source (a cell or plugging into a wall socket) gives the electrons a push to start them moving.

The amount of electrical energy from a power source to push the electrons is called voltage.

Note the use of the word ‘cell’ rather than ‘battery’. The word battery is often misused in primary classrooms due to misconceptions from everyday life. We talk about changing a battery in a television remote control. However, a battery is two or more cells together.

A car battery is the perfect example. One car battery usually contains 6 or more cells.

List

Can you think of any misconceptions children might have about electricity? List your ideas below.