Students have many everyday experiences related to electrical behaviour. Many of the devices they and their families use on a daily basis require current electricity to function, for example, lights, television, toaster, and so on. From a very early age children are instructed on the dangers of household electricity. Students will mostly be familiar with static electric effects of one sort or another, such as hair sticking up when rubbed, shocks from metal rails or cars, and sparks from nylon clothing. The activities in this topic show students the key idea that underpins many of the electrical effects they experience.

The activities in this topic are related to two areas in electricity: ‘electrostatics’ (or static electricity) and ‘current electricity’. Electrostatics relates to electrical phenomena where there has been a separation of electric charge (usually associated with electrons) within objects or between objects. Current electricity relates to electrical phenomena where there are moving electric charges (again, associated with electrons) that travel along wires and through electrical devices such as globes and buzzers.

Key concepts of electricity

The activities in this topic are designed to explore the following key concepts:


Early years

  • Friction can cause static electricity.
  • Objects can become electrically charged by rubbing them.
  • Charged objects can attract uncharged objects.
  • Charged objects may attract some charged objects and repel other charged objects.

Middle years

  • Electrons are part of all atoms that make up all substances.
  • Objects can be charged by rubbing.
  • Some materials are charged more easily than others.
  • An object becomes charged when it loses or gains electrons.
  • Objects can carry either a positive or negative charge, depending on what they are made of and what they are rubbed with.
  • A negatively charged object has gained electrons; a positively charged object has lost electrons.
  • Objects with the same electric charge repel each other; objects with opposite charge attract each other.
  • If electrons that are added to an object spread out all over the object, the object is called a ‘conductor’.
  • If electrons that are added to an object stay on the object where they were placed, the object is called an ‘insulator’.
  • Charged objects will attract uncharged objects.
  • Charged objects will discharge (lose their charge) over time as charge leaks to the atmosphere.
  • Sparks are the movement of electrons through the air from one object to another. Lightning is a sparking effect.
  • ‘Earthing’ is where charge is shared between a charged object and a large conductor (usually the ground).

Current electricity

Early years

  • Electricity can move or flow.
  • Electrical devices such as globes require two connections with wire to a battery to function.
  • The two connections provide a complete path, or loop, around which electricity can flow.
  • The strength of the electricity depends on the number of batteries (and their size in volts).
  • Electricity makes a lot of things work, for example, globes, televisions, toasters, etcetera.
  • Household electricity is dangerous.
  • Some materials allow electricity to pass through them and other materials do not. Those which do allow electricity to pass through them are called conductors.

Middle years

The concepts listed below were developed by Summers, Kruger and Mant (1997), who believe that such concepts can be acquired readily by primaryschool teachers and taught effectively to their students.

  • An electric circuit is a complete (unbroken) pathway.
  • Electricity is made up of electrons.
  • Electrons are very, very tiny particles.
  • An electric current consists of a flow of electrons.
  • Electrons are part of all atoms that make up all substances.
  • The electrons are in the wires all the time.
  • Conductors have free electrons, which can move.
  • The battery provides the push to move the electrons.
  • The battery voltage is a measure of the push.
  • A chemical reaction in the battery creates an electric field, which produces the push.
  • All the electrons move instantaneously.
  • The size of the current in a circuit depends on the resistance.
  • A series circuit has all the components in a line. There is only one pathway.
  • The current is the same all around a series circuit.
  • In a series circuit, adding more globes increases the resistance and decreases the current. The globes are dimmer and equally dim.
  • A parallel circuit has branches. There is more than one pathway.
  • Identical globes in parallel are as bright as one globe alone. The current in each branch is the same.
  • The current in the battery leads is the sum of the currents in the separate branches.
  • In a globe, moving electrons collide with fixed atoms in the filament, causing them to vibrate.
  • The vibrating atoms emit light and heat.
(Summers, M, Kruger, C & Mant, J 1997, Teaching electricity effectively: a research-based guide for primary science, Association for Science Education, Hatfield)

Students’ alternative conceptions of electricity

Research into students’ ideas about this topic has identified the following non-scientific conceptions:

  • The terms ‘electricity’, ‘current’, ‘power’ and ‘energy’ mean the same thing.
  • In a circuit that contains wires, a battery and a globe, the battery stores electricity/power/current which flows to the globe where it is consumed.
  • The globe in an electric circuit takes what it needs from the battery.
  • Energy is used up by a working globe.
  • The thing that gets used up in an electric circuit is current.
  • For a circuit that contains a battery and a globe, the globe lights up because:
    • the current from each end of the battery clashes in the globe to provide the light (clashing-currents model)
    • some of the current from one end of the battery is lost as it passes through the globe (consumption model)
    • current from one end of the battery is all used up in the globe, making the second wire unnecessary (source-sink model).
  • Batteries store a certain amount of electricity or charge.