What is Static Electricity?
All matter is made up of tiny particles called atoms. The atoms themselves are composed of even smaller particles. Protons and electrons are two of the particles that make up atoms. Protons have a positive charge, and electrons have a negative charge. Usually, atoms have equal numbers of protons and electrons, so the positive and negative charges cancel each other out, and the atom has a neutral charge. But sometimes electrons can be removed from an atom, leaving it with an electrical charge. This is what causes static electricity. Since like charges repel and unlike charges attract, we can see evidence of static electricity when substances cling to or repel each other. Charged objects will also stick to neutral surfaces. This will last until the electrons move back to their original locations.
Ask students if they have ever gotten a shock from touching a doorknob or even touching another person. This is caused by static electricity. Other common examples of static electricity are when clothes stick to each other when you take them out of the dryer, or when your hair sticks to your comb, or when small pieces of Styrofoam stick to surfaces. Lightning is a dramatic example of static electricity in nature.
Static Electricity Experiments
These experiments will work best during the winter, when the air is dry, rather than when there is a high level of humidity in the air.
Something made of wool, such as a scarf or sweater
Have students blow up a balloon and tie a knot in the end, and then rub the inflated balloon on their hair. This will create a static charge on the balloon. The balloon will then stick to another surface such as a wall. Students can time how long the balloons remain stuck to the wall, and test variables such as if the number of times they rub the balloon on their hair affects how long the balloon sticks to the wall.
Tie a piece of thread around a Styrofoam peanut. Rub the plastic comb with the wool, and hang the Styrofoam peanut from the thread near the comb. It will be attracted to the charged comb and move toward it.
Tie a piece of thread to the ends of two blown up balloons. Hang the balloons next to each other by taping the thread to the edge of a desk, table or door frame. The should be close enough to touch. Rub each of the balloons with the wool. The balloons will move apart because they both have a similar charge, and like charges repel.
Cut tissue paper into small pieces and lay on the desk or table. After rubbing the comb with the wool, hold it above the pieces of tissue paper, and watch them jump up to attach themselves to the charged comb.