The National Curriculum for Science requires primary teachers in England and Wales to teach pupils about electricity and provide lessons that cover subjects including batteries, wires, bulbs and other components. Education Scotland's “Forces, electricity and waves” science curriculum strand and Northern Ireland’s science and technology modules outline similar requirements. Potato light bulb experiments are a great way to get kids thinking about how electricity works.
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Potato light bulb experiments lend themselves well to an investigative style of learning. Pupils get the chance to explore and test things out using a range of equipment, such as batteries, bulbs, crocodile clips, switches and wires. With a little guidance from a teacher, pupils can work out how to connect the components to make a working circuit, causing the bulb to light up.
Replacing the battery
Some pupils are initially sceptical when a teacher replaces a battery with a potato. However, a potato will complete an electrical circuit, especially if you replace the light bulb with a light emitting diode, which requires less power to illuminate. Press the stripped end of a copper wire with red sheathing into a potato to create a positive terminal. Press a steel nail into the potato to create the negative terminal, close to the copper wire but not touching it. Wrap the stripped end of a piece of wire with black sheathing around the head of the nail. Connect the other ends of the red and black wires to the “legs” of an LED. The longer leg of the LED is positive, so you need to connect the red wire to this. The shorter leg is negative, so you need to connect the black wire to this. The LED should light up.
Two or more potatoes
If one potato fails to illuminate the LED, try using a larger one or several potatoes connected together with wires. If this fails to work, it’s possible that one of your pairs of terminals is touching and has shorted the system. Current will not flow in this case. Check the terminals and make adjustments where necessary. Withdraw them slightly or stick them somewhere else in the potato, making sure they are close together but do not actually touch.
You can make your potato light bulb circuit even more fun with the introduction of a switch. Connect the switch between the first potato and the LED. This way, you will be able to turn the LED on and off. When the switch is closed, it will stop the flow of electrons to the LED. Turn the switch on, and the circuit will be complete again and the LED should light up.
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