11 Lessons to Teach Magnetism
Use these free STEM lessons and activities to explore magnetism, the strength of magnetic fields, and the real-world application of magnets.
When teaching about magnetism, hands-on learning opportunities enable students to actively observe and engage with principles of magnetism and magnetic fields. Experimenting with magnets, students quickly grasp the concept of magnetic poles and how magnets attract and repel. In early grades, students can expand exploration of the ways magnets push and pull with fun visual activities like making floating magnet columns. (The magnets will only float if each magnet is oriented the correct way.) Or, they might learn about the Earth's magnetic fields using a homemade compass. (Why does the needle of a compass point in the direction of North?) Learning about the physics of magnetism continues throughout the K-12 curriculum.
The free STEM lessons and activities below cover permanent magnets, electrogmagnets, ferromagnetic materials, ways to measure magnetic fields, exploration of variables related to the strength of magnetic fields, real-world solutions that use magnetism, and more. In these activities, students will learn about the Curie temperature, Lenz's law, magnetometers, Gauss units, magnetic linear accelerators, ferrofluids, and more.
Note: Science Buddies Lesson Plans contain materials to support educators leading hands-on STEM learning with students. Lesson Plans offer NGSS alignment, contain background materials to boost teacher confidence, even in areas that may be new to them, and include supplemental resources like worksheets, videos, discussion questions, and assessment materials. Activities are simplified explorations that can be used in the classroom or in informal learning environments. Student projects that appear below contain experiments that can be effectively adapted for use by educators for teaching about the topic.
Lesson Plans and Activities to Teach About Magnetism
In the Floating Magnets lesson, students learn about the poles of a magnet and explore how magnets interact. Using what they learn about magnetic poles, they create a stack of ring magnets that appear to float, without touching, around a marker used as a center column. Will they be able to arrange the magnets the right way to make their magnets float? It may look like magic, but it's actually a fun and accessible demonstration of magnetic forces and how magnets interact.
If you've ever used an old-fashioned magnetic compass for navigation, you may have seen the needle of the compass spin as the compass orients itself to the Earth's magnetic field. Ultimately, the needle points to "N" on the compass. Why? In the Make a Homemade Compass activity, students make a simple magnetic compass using a sewing needle, a piece of cork, and a cup of water and experiment to learn how a compass works.
Because the properties of materials may change in certain conditions, it is important for engineers and physicists to know how different materials work in extreme conditions. Developing equipment for use in space is just one example of a scenario in which knowing how materials react to extreme temperatures would be very important. In the How the Strength of a Magnet Varies with Temperature project, students experiment to see how a magnet performs in cold and hot temperatures. Extreme temperatures, like the temperature needed to test for a ferromagnetic material's Curie temperature (above which it is no longer magnetized), may not be possible for classroom demonstration, but students can experiment to see how a magnet's strength changes in freezing and boiling conditions. What happens to a magnet's strength at boiling temperatures? Why?
It is easy to make an electromagnet with a battery, a bolt, and wire, but what determines the strength of the electromagnet? In the What Factors Affect the Strength of an Electromagnet? lesson, students build a simple electromagnet and then experiment to find out how changes to different variables relate to the strength of the electromagnetic field. For example, what difference does the number of times the wire is wrapped about the bolt make? Does the size of the bolt matter? A stronger electromagnet will be able to attract more paper clips, so it is easy for students to observe changes in strength as variables are changed. (Tip! We have a number of resources related to electromagnetism. A dedicated page of lessons for teaching about electromagnetism is forthcoming.)
In the Build a Gauss Rifle! project, students use magnets and ball bearings to make a magnetic linear accelerator called a Gauss rifle. Despite the name, the Gauss rifle is not a weapon. With this simple setup, students can experiment to see how the distance a ball bearing will fly from a Gauss rifle relates to the number of magnetic acceleration stages. This is an engaging demonstration that helps students visualize concepts related to magnetic forces, acceleration, momentum, and the conservation of momentum. (Tip! This can be fun to capture with slow-motion video!)
How does a magnetic levitation (maglev) train work? In the Build a Floating Maglev Train project, students build a model maglev train and experiment to find out how magnetic forces levitate the train and then continue to experiment to see what affect additional weight has. As an extension, students can also investigate the use of magnetism as a braking system for maglev trains. How will the number of magnets (or strength of the magnetic field) affect how long it takes the train to stop?
Magnetism can be used in a variety of ways. In the Build a Recycling-Sorting Machine lesson, students investigate how magnetism might be used to help separate materials in single-stream recycling operations. As part of their exploration of this real-world problem, students build their own recycling sorting machines to test different methods for separating materials. Understanding the physics behind the strength of magnetic fields will be important in thinking about how such a machine might work!
In the Abracadabra! Levitating with Eddy Currents! project, students learn more about the science behind maglev trains as they explore Lenz's law and the formation of eddy currents when magnets interact with a conductor. With a hands-on test dropping magnets through different kinds of pipes, students will be able to observe these concepts in action. How will the magnet fall through a copper pipe compared to PVC pipe?
In the Mag-nificent Breakfast Cereal project, students use the power of magnetism to put nutritional labels to the test. Using a blender, water, cereal, and a magnet, students can extract the iron in cereal to visualize and compare how much iron has been added to different brands and types of cereal.
At a certain distance, two magnets may not appear to interact, but if they are brought closer together, they will eventually attract or repel. What happens to the strength of the magnetic field as the distance between magnets increases? If you can't see it, how can you measure or detect the strength of a magnetic field? In the Measuring Magnetic Fields project, students explore the Hall effect and build a circuit that works as a magnetic field detector so they can measure the strength of a magnetic field and see how the strength of the field changes with distance. (Tip! A device that measures the strength of a magnetic field is a magnetometer, or a gaussmeter (if the unit of measurement is gauss).)
In the Magnetic Fluids lesson, students explore ferrofluids, fluids whose shape can be changed by magnetic fields. After learning about ferrofluids, magnetism, surfactants, and nanotechnology, students make and write with magnetic ink and then experiment with a permanent magnet to change the shape of what was written.
The Electricity, Magnetism, & Electromagnetism Tutorial resource is a good place to start when introducing magnetism to students. For older students, the resource can be a helpful refresher. The video above (also located on the "Magnetism" tab) offers an overview of magnetism. (Tip! Google Classroom teachers can use the Google Classroom button to assign this resource to students.)
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