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Hair-raising Science (Static Electricity)

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  • Have you ever walked across a carpet and gotten a shock when you touched a doorknob? Or perhaps after pulling a sweater over your head, you found that your hair just sort of stuck up in the air and wouldn't go down? Don't worry, it's not alien forces or magical powers, you've just entered "the static zone"! Static electricity is more than a nuisance, it's a force of nature that people have been trying to figure out for almost 3000 years. If you want to learn more about this "shocking phenomena," I've got a challenge for you!

    Here's what you'll need to play along:

    • A balloon
    • A clean head of hair
    • Some tiny bits of torn up newspaper
    • A sheet of aluminum foil about 1 foot long
    • A wool sweater or sock
    • A sheet of wax paper about 1 foot long
    • A sheet of cellophane wrap about 1 foot long

    Begin by blowing up the balloon and rubbing it on your head. What happens to your hair? Now lay the bits of paper out on a table in front of you. Bring the balloon near, but don't actually touch the paper. What happens? If you said the paper jumped up to the balloon, congratulations! You've just discovered static cling! When you rubbed the balloon on your head, you removed some electrons from you hair and stuck them on the balloon. It's these electrons that caused the paper to be attracted.

    Okay, so here's the challenge:

    Do all substances "give up" electrons when they are rubbed against the balloon?

    What you do:

    Begin by predicting which of the four materials (wool, cellophane, wax paper or aluminum foil) might cause an electron build-up when they are rubbed against the balloon. Make sure you explain WHY you think this might happen. After you've made your predictions, start rubbing the balloon with each material and test it with the paper bits. Do all materials create static cling? Try it and find out for yourself! Also, if you're in the mood to experiment, try rubbing the balloon on some other stuff like you dog, the sheets on your bed, and your pajamas. So get rubbing, and may the "static force" be with you!

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    Notes to Teachers

    Curriculum Focus: Science/Physics/Static Electricity

    Learning Outcomes:

    • Make a reasoned prediction about which of four materials might cause electron build-up when rubbed against a balloon.

    • Experiment with wool clothing, cellophane, wax paper, aluminum foil, bits of newspaper, and a balloon to find out which materials create static cling.

    • Understand that materials which are non-conductors (or insulators) tend to develop a static charge while conductors of electricity do not.

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    Web Links

    For more information about static electricity, try these Web sites:

    Middle Tennessee State University
    Middle Tennessee State University's Department of Physics and Astronomy brings you static electricity and magnetism experiments for grades K-6.

    The Museum of Science, Boston
    At the Museum's Theater of Electricity you can learn about sparks, lightning, and Ben Franklin's kite. Teachers can also find some fun activities for students.

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