Exploring magnets was always a favorite pastime of mine as a child, and for good reason. From the humble alphabet fridge magnets to the more advanced magnetic building sticks, I’ve always loved tinkering with magnetism and discovering how they come together and pull apart, even before I knew about poles. Magnets seemed like magic!
Even once you understand the science behind them, magnet activities are always exciting, for both the student and the teacher. Students love engaging their curiosity through hands-on learning, while educators love watching their kiddos apply critical thinking skills and grow into little problem solvers!
Teaching students about magnets benefits you as an educator, too. The concept covers Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) on force and motion, and engaging upper elementary students in magnet activities is essential for teaching the science curriculum! With that in mind, I’ve collected several hands-on magnet activities that allow for student-led inquiry and are sure to light up your science classroom.
Can you feel the magnetic pull? Let’s take a look!
1. Magnetic Compass
Creating a magnetic compass is always a hit in the science classroom as far as magnet activities go! For this exercise, it’s best to break your classroom up into groups in order to facilitate teamwork and discussion. Any activity where you can encourage student exploration as well as building critical life skills is a certain win!
To create your compasses, you’ll need a magnet, a needle, cork, water, and a bowl for each group. As you distribute these materials, be sure to ask your students open-ended questions, such as “How do you think these materials will interact?” or “What do you think is the purpose of the cork/water/bowl?” Of course, since they’re in groups, students should be allowed to think-pair-share with these inquiries.
To begin the activity, have students rub the needle against the magnet in one direction several times in order to magnetize it. Then, float the cork in the bowl of water. Next, place the magnetized needle on top of the cork. If the steps are performed correctly, the needle should align with the Earth’s magnetic field, indicating the north and south directions! To better visualize these steps, here’s a helpful video from the World of Engineering channel on YouTube:
While this hands-on activity is an excellent way to engage students as well as encourage critical thinking, it also serves as an introduction to how magnets align with the Earth’s magnetic field in order to indicate direction. As a follow-up, discuss the use of magnetic compasses for navigation as well as the Earth’s magnetic poles.
Overall, this is one of many fantastic magnet activities that can be used to explain poles! The relatively few resources necessary to carry out this experiment makes it easy and simple to perform, too, which is helpful. However, if you’re ready to go all-out for your classroom’s magnet activities, no worries—read on!
2. Rube Goldberg Machines and Magnets
I know I suggested Rube Goldberg machines not too long ago when I wrote about simple machines, but I can’t help it—they’re just too impactful to pass up in the upper elementary science classroom! Rube Goldberg machines are one of my favorite endeavors (even when it comes to magnet activities!) not only due to the level of engagement they provide, but also because they encompass the engineering design process as well as simple machines.
Of course, the engineering design process is always an ongoing machine, so designs can be improved and refined again and again. Did someone say student-led inquiry? 😉
Back to the magnet activities at hand, though: Rube Goldberg devices use simple machines to create a chain reaction that achieves a specific goal, such as flipping a switch or pouring a glass of water. These chain reactions are generally needlessly complicated; for example, a ball could fall down a ramp, hit a system with a pulley, and then drop into a cup.
So how can you integrate magnet activities into a Rube Goldberg machine? Have your students identify specific points in the Rube Goldberg machine where magnets can activate or manipulate objects. For example, students can use magnets to release a ball, draw in a metal object, or even repel a magnetic obstacle!
Rube Goldberg machines are a spectrum: they can end up as a simple design over just a few days, or can be more complex through semester-long group projects. The possibilities are endless! Whatever you choose to do, you can rest easy knowing that these magnet activities are going to keep your kiddos engaged and excited about the alluring world of magnets.
3. Racing Magnet Activities!
Of course, if you want your students to buy into the magnet activities immediately, there’s one surefire way to do so: make it into a competition! Upper elementary students love games, especially when there’s competition involved.
Besides that, hosting a magnet race is a great opportunity to bring in childhood toys. A bit of nostalgia mixed with the spirit of competition is an excellent way to keep kiddos engaged! It’s important to let students play and have hands-on learning experiences with science, and magnetic races are perfect for this.
For this activity, you’ll need magnets, toy cars, cardboard tubes, and tape. Grab some bulk toy cars at a thrift store, garage sales, or Amazon, and you’re good to go! First, students should plan out their designs using the design engineering process, as mentioned above. Then, they can create a race track using carboard tubes, then attach magnets to the toy cars. Next, by placing magnets strategically along the track, they can propel the cars forward!
Finally, students can experiment with different magnet positions in order to vary the speed and direction of the cars. In the end, discuss how magnets create motion and kinetic energy. These class-wide discussions are key for making those real-world connections that encourage active learning!
Once your kiddos are done being pulled all around from the allure of magnetism, check for their understanding with these electricity and magnetism science writing tickets! This resource is just one of many ways to integrate writing into your science curriculum, which is a must-do in today’s busy classrooms!
With these challenging yet simple to implement activities, you and your students can have a ball in your science classroom. Engage your upper elementary students with these exciting magnet activities! Not only will your kiddos have fun, but they’ll also deepen their understanding of magnetism and the real-life applications in a hands-on, interactive way.
Which of these magnet activities are you going to try first? Let me know below!