Teaching Electricity at Home

By Mark Julicher

Compared to language or mathematics, the study of electricity is very young; however, the subject of electricity is vast and still growing.  It may seem a daunting task to teach electricity in your homeschool, but take heart!  With a good starting point and some definite objectives, you can introduce this fascinating world to your students.

Can I teach my children about electricity?

Can I teach it safely and economically?

The answers are, “Of course, you can teach electricity”, and “Yes, you can do it safely and economically.”

So, what should be your objectives and where should you start?  An elementary student should be able to find out the important points about electricity: what it is, what are its properties, what makes it, and why is it dangerous.

Your older student will want to do and learn more about electricity, control, and measurement.  Electrical safety should be a major concern for your home as well.  Studying this topic from a text may yield a lot of facts, but will not impress upon your children the dangers of using electricity.  They will also need to learn about consuming electricity, conserving it and measuring, not to mention paying for it.  When taken all together, you now have a list including safety issues, some theory, and practical consumer objectives; all that is necessary to become an informed user.

A good place to begin your study of electricity is its history. Some of the classic experiments done by Tesla, Volta, Marconi, Franklin, etc. are amazing and also dangerous.  It because of Franklin that we know how to protect against lightning.  It is because of Edison that we know how to make effective storage batteries.  I don’t recommend repeating some of their experiments at home unless you are good friends with the local fire department.  Read about these historical figures and their work, and then move on to your own investigations.

Next, you should look into the question of what electricity is. We can see evidence of it, use it to accomplish work, and even die from it if we mishandle it, but most people do not understand its nature.  The best way to begin to study electrons and their movements is to play around with static electricity.  We all have experience with generating a charge on a dry day and then getting zapped when we touch the doorknob.  We also know that a balloon will attract hair.  If your child understands why static electricity builds up and discharges, he will find understanding the current or flow of electrons much easier.

After checking out the possibilities of static electricity, then it is time to move on to electrons moving in a current.  Direct current and alternating current are each very useful in our daily lives and so your child should understand them; how they are generated, how controlled; and how used at home.  What are the different kinds of batteries we use and how do they produce electricity?  What are the other ways to produce electrical current?  Solar power, wind power and geothermal power, not forgetting hydroelectric power, are all ways in which we generate electricity.

Electricity is a ready servant. We are surrounded by complicated electrical technology that is growing rapidly.  Great advances are made every year making it almost impossible to know all there is about electricity and electronics.  But, our children can become informed users who can control this servant wisely and not be intimidated or overwhelmed.   What, then does an informed user know about electricity?  He/she knows how many ways electricity is used in the home, how much electricity costs, and understands electrical safety.  Finally, your student should know how to take care of the electrical servants around the house.  Is this starting to sound easy?  I hope so.  It is still a BIG topic, but we starting to get our arms around it now!

Let’s look at the four issues; uses, cost, safety, and care more closely.

How many ways do you use electricity around your house? You could walk around with your student while you make a list.  This could take a while and it should generate a zillion questions like: why is there electricity going to a gas furnace, why does the phone work when the power is out, why do the lights dim when the refrigerator comes on, why are there so many fuses or circuit breakers behind the electrical panel.  Why is the dryer plug shaped differently than most of the others, why are there three electrical wires coming to the house when there are only two wires leading to the lamps and TV…the list of questions goes on forever.

Take one question and research it! Write a good paragraph or three stating the question and the answer.  What a good starting point!

When you did your list did you remember the battery in your car?  Did you remember the dry cells in the flashlight?  How about the TV remote control or the garage door opener?  How about the electrical energy beamed to your house in the form of radio broadcasts?  Wow, so many starting points!

How much does your electrical servant cost? Can you explain the electrical bill to your students?  Can you teach them to read the power meter especially the tricky old ones where some of the dials move counterclockwise and clockwise?  Can you predict the amount of your next electrical bill?  Can you show them how the dial spins faster when high wattage lights are on?  Can you turn off everything unimportant in the house and see how slow the meter turns?

Is this an economics lesson?  You bet it is! While you are teaching the cost of having your electric servant, don’t forget the cost of things other than house current such as car batteries, flashlight cells, solar panels, wind generators and more.  Could you run your house on car batteries, why don’t more people have solar powered appliances, why are alkaline batteries cheaper to use than regular batteries?

Oh, my!  That was another string of questions begging to be answered by your student.  It was also another possible set of starting points.

The next issue to explore is safety. You know a great deal about electrical safety.  You may not understand all that you know, but you know a lot.  For example, you know not to use electrical devices while standing in a puddle of water or in a bathtub.  Teach this to your student!  A young man was killed recently when he plugged in a car battery charger while standing on wet grass.  How tragic!  You know that you never put a knife in the toaster to retrieve your burnt bread, but that a clever toast lifter made from two tongue depressors can be safely used.  This brings up the topic of insulators and conductors.  How about a list of conductors and insulators?  How about a list of things that should never go in the microwave oven?  And why?

Oh, did you remember that microwaves (not the ovens) are an electrical energy field?  Good.  It is just another form of your electrical servant to be used correctly.

You can’t stress electrical safety enough. Batteries give off explosive gases when they are charged.  Halogen lamps give off large quantities of ultraviolet light and can damage eyes if not filtered.  Heat lamps can cause sunburn.  Electric motors give off tiny sparks and can set flammable fumes on fire so don’t use the electric weedchomper near the gas can.  Wet skin conducts much better the dry skin.  Don’t pull out a plug by the wires; don’t put too many plugs into an extension cord.  Don’t put a penny in the fuse box.  The TV still has deadly voltage inside it long after it is turned off.  Improperly handling a spark plug wire on a running engine can knock you silly – even on the lawnmower.

Once again, the list of safety items is very large.  Moms and dads may not remember or understand all the safety rules, but what a great list of library research topics.

Let’s move on to the last of the four issues, care of our electrical servant. Actually, this topic is both care and respect.  Used properly, electric appliances last a long time and work safely.  Abused appliances do not last as long and may not be safe.  It is good to discuss examples of abuse and the consequences.

Examples might be that overloaded motors will overheat and eventually burn out.  Overloaded extension cords get hot and can start a fire.  Rotating devices such as blenders, mixers, and garbage disposals can be damaged by feeding them spoons and other objects.  Plugging in or unplugging sensitive devices while they are switched on can damage them. Sparking the cat’s nose on a dry winter day can cause cat bites.  Pulling out electric cords by the wire can break wires or cause short circuits.  Turning the TV on and off a while lot of times quickly will most likely destroy it.  And finally, if the device says,  “no user serviceable parts inside,” it really means,  “don’t mess with it unless you intend to buy a new one.”

Did I answer the question about where to start? You can start nearly anywhere and get the vital concepts across.  Safety leads to care and respect which leads to uses, which leads to costs and so forth.  It really does not matter where you begin to teach the fundamentals of electricity as long as you keep the objective in mind.  You want an informed user of the servant electricity.

Once this foundation is built, the student can go as far as the imagination will allow.

A few parting thoughts.

Many people like a list of concepts, topics and projects that provide a good coverage of a topic.  After giving this some thought, I have compiled a brief list that a senior high student should understand.  This is not to say you should wait until the senior year to teach electricity.  Most students can grasp electrical concepts much earlier and can be working with the basics by age twelve.  By age thirteen, every student should have built and explained one simple electrical device such as a buzzer or electromagnet.  It is better to make a simple device that is understood than to build a superwhizbang gadget which the student cannot explain.  Students who enjoy electronics will naturally build more.  Other students will become wise users of electricity.

Concepts which your students should understand:

  • Static electricity
  • Alternating current
  • Direct current
  • Ohms Law
  • Voltage
  • Ground
  • Resistance
  • Digital signal
  • Analog signal
  • Battery
  • Cell
  • Transformer
  • Electromagnet
  • Circuit
  • Electron


Simple Machines Made Simple by Ralph St. Andre.  A great book for experimenters, Simple Machines Made Simple not only has easy to understand directions and down to earth experiments, but there is plenty of follow through.  The students are asked to observe, record, measure, and even make line charts!  The activities are suitable for 3-8th grades and also include directions for making an activity center so the kids can work independently.

Basic Electronics by Gene McWhorter and Alvis J. Evans.  This book is really a textbook.  It is divided into chapters covering the basics of electronics, DC and AC electricity, diodes, transistors, amplifiers, radios, digital circuitry (the foundation of computers) and more. The chapters are organized and should be able to be used easily independently.  There are problems to solve and quizzes.

Getting Started With Electronics by Forrest M. Mims III.  This book is full of easy to use electronics experiments that make sense.  My son started this one at age 8, as it is simple to understand.  The concepts are real, not watered down and progress to college level very quickly even though the apparent difficulty of the book is very low.  Buy it!  Highly Recommended.


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Teaching Biology at Home

Upper level science at home can be a challenge, but teaching biology at home can be very rewarding if you plan for it. This article can help you teach biology confidently. Let’s discuss some of the many options available for learning high school level biology at home.

Biology, the study of life, is different from physics and chemistry. On the foundational level it is not based upon mathematics, yet, it is one of the most complex sciences. There are many parts to a good biology course, some important to your student and others, not so important. So, before you start to plan for biology at home, you should consider why you are teaching it and what you want your students to know, and then you can think about course details like text, notebook, and labs.

Why are you teaching science at home and why particularly biology?
It is true that the colleges usually require the course for admission, but any student should have a basic understanding of life and life processes. As Christians, we want our children to appreciate life as the Designer created it. As parents, we want our children, once they are adults, to understand some of the ramifications of biological decisions they might make. Examples of biological decisions are: how should we stop the pests from eating in the garden, is the water safe to drink, is a genetically engineered tomato bad or good for the market, and should I vote pro-life or pro-choice? So, considering why you are teaching biology leads directly to deciding what you will cover.

Let’s make a list. We see that we should cover life and life processes, that is, plants and animals and how they function. In the study of forms and functions we will learn about the designs of the Creator and in the process learn more about Him. We should add health and well being to our list of topics. We might also include something about being wise citizens with limited resources. This narrows the topics to: animals, plants, health, and ecology.  If you have a more advanced student, say a tenth grader, you should include genetics and cellular biology. Next, list of all the things you personally want the children to learn in biology class. You may decide to include child development, animal habitats, or butchering venison. An outline of what a biology course usually contains is in the post: “What every biology student should know“.  Take the list you have made, combine it with the fundamentals list and then divide the combined list into sections. You will take the sections and plan your schedule next.

A note about timing: because high school biology is an observational course, a student does not need a grasp of algebra before taking it. This means that a seventh grader can study biology and certainly, biology is what you see in the course called “life science”. I have observed, though, that the life science course is completely repeated later in biology. One of the advantages of homeschooling is that we are not bound by the norms of regular schools, so skip life science and have your student do high school biology in seventh grade. The topics of genetics and cellular biology are more difficult, not to mention, more controversial in current events, you may choose to leave out those topics and cover them later after your student has had critical thinking and chemistry. These can become part of Biology II, an extra semester of biology on the transcript.

The study method I suggest incorporates some of the advantages of both traditional learning and unit study methods. Let’s look at the basic topics that we will cover in a year of biology: animals, plants, health and human anatomy, cellular biology, and ecology. Take out a sheet of paper and divide it into seasons of your school year. Let’s plan. Well, because it does not make sense to study plants when they are not growing, we put plants in the spring or fall of our school year. Let’s choose fall. The study of animals does not depend so much on the outdoors, but we would like to go to a couple of zoos and farms. Early spring is a good time for that, and also for seeing some babies being born. We have been able to borrow a microscope and slides, so we’ll do that during the winter days when it is best to stay inside (cellular biology). Winter is also a good time to be doing dissection or model building (animals). Ecology is best studied outside so we will plan on late spring or summer for our hikes and visits to the parks. We still have spring left for human anatomy and health. Fortunately, almost any text we choose can be adapted to our schedule. Note: Do you notice that the lab work or fieldwork is playing a major role in determining when we actually do the bookwork? This coordinates your year and adds interest to your studies. Now we know when we will cover the material, so we can plan for labs, trips, etc. This is important if we plan on sharing equipment with other homeschoolers. Also, since we are covering the material according to topics, the pre-made tests of the publisher will be easy to use.

To make it even easier, biology is great do as a family. All of the children can do biology this year, just on different levels. Get your fifth grader a life science book, your seventh grader and the tenth grader a high school biology text, and let the first grader make his own biology notebook. They can all collect leaves, look through the microscope and dissect a fetal pig. Well, maybe not the dissection for the first grader (a third grader could), but they can all put together their own Visible Man or Woman, watch the video on the birth of foals, make field journals of their hikes, and learn the vocabulary of biology. Don’t forget to plan for the biology type activities in clubs like Scouts. There are many merit badge things you can do during biology class and it will count for Scouts, too. The year we covered biology I had two high schoolers, a 6th grader and a 4th grader. Everyone did biology, at his or her own level. Everyone dissected, hiked, collected, identified, labeled, wrote papers, wrote essays, used the microscope, did a science fair project, and read selected chapters and news articles. A lot of this was recorded in the children’s notebooks. Because I did not have to plan different courses, I was able to do a lot more fun things with the children, creating memories we will carry a long time.  It should go without saying that a good course is one that fulfills your goals as well as your students’.  Not every family will do every activity. The notebook can serve another very important function. You can look back and see all of the things you did in the course and be satisfied that you used the time wisely.

In the notebook you can include these sections: vocabulary, questions and exercises, drawings, experiments, tests, leaf collection pages, and journal pages. Vocabulary is a very important part of biology. Once a student has a good understanding of the vocabulary, he is prepared to study the “whys” of what is happening in nature. Even your first grader will learn a lot of vocabulary by participating. Notice how much of this notebook is a record of activities. This is important to biology and critical to keeping the interest of a young person. Plus, by doing the active part of biology and learning the vocabulary, he will understand more of the textbook part.

A textbook will probably be your main reference material although you may use others. A text is not usually written to motivate or to make the topic compelling, so don’t blame a perfectly good text for a boring course. What will make your course interesting is how you use the text. Discuss the readings, argue about it, collect other references like news articles, observe nature and see if you understand or agree with the author. Use the book to give you a framework for the course, not as the eternal guide of wisdom. There is only one Book for that. Exercises and activity sheets are another type of resource; use them. They are great for learning vocabulary. Some even encourage critical thinking and analysis. As in all resources, use what you can and feel free to discard the remainder.

What about the lab part of biology? You have many options.  Your text book may come provided with its own lab portion of the course.  If it does not, or if you are dissatisfied with the lab presentation or the cost of materials, you can put together your own lab course or use Experiences in Biology by Castle Heights Press to accompany the text you are using.  If you have a microscope, plan on doing lots of microscopic experiments. Build a plant press by drilling holes at each corner of two 12 X 12 X 1 inch boards, putting 6 inch bolts through the boards, and using butterfly nuts to secure them. Plastic models of humans or animals can be used to take the place of dissecting. Or you can do both. There are several very nice dissection kits available which have the tools as well as the organisms for a very reasonable price. There are many experiment books you can use for high school level science, just remember that a high school student should be expected to write a detailed conclusion and use measurement to make the experiments more analytical. Another good laboratory is CPR class and a first aid course from the Red Cross. These are all good lab ideas for your biology student.  Refer to the resources list below for some recommended lab sources.

Biology is interesting and fun to do at home. Think about why you are studying biology and what you would study. While you are planning your course, consider these ideas for your biology notebook, textbook, and lab materials. Use what seems good and build your own year of biology.


Books of experiments, how-to-use microscope books, and, kits:

Biology Lab Resource Book by Judith Hancock. This is a good lab book for beginning biology students high school or above. It has classic activities that are designed to teach skills of science such as observation as well as the reasoning of science such as interpreting results. (If you can find it… last publishing was in the mid-eighties.  -ed.)

Experiences in Biology by Kathleen Julicher. A lab manual designed for homeschoolers and small schools, it has an assortment of lab activities. You can choose half of the activities to do for a year’s worth of high school level lab. Answer key included.

A Guide to Biology Lab by Thomas G. Rust. This is a pictorial trip through biology class. It is a great help to see actual photos of the microscopic work and dissections all labeled so that the student can recognize what he is looking at without asking for instructor help.

Laboratory Techniques for High Schools: A Worktext of Biomedical Methods by Gabrielle Edwards and Marion Cimmino. One hundred lab exercises designed to teach or to provide practice in lab techniques used in medical laboratories.

The Microscope: a Buyer’s and Owner’s Guide by Joe Makemson, Jon Slaughter, and Marvin Young. An excellent guide to microscopes in general which parts identified and a glossary for many different types of scopes.

The Microscope and How to Use it by Dr. Georg Stehli.  1970 English edition translated from German, soft cover, 157 pages, b/w illustrations.  Clear instructions and many suggestions for using your student microscope. Buy this one!

Magazines and Software:

Cliff Notes: Biology: This program is pretty fundamental and has most of the topics from high school biology. Missing some detail, it can serve as an alternative way to review some biology, not as a primary text.

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The Butterfly Garden

The butterfly is a beautiful addition to your garden.  Because they can be easily grown and observed, because they occur all across North America, and because they are so beautiful, they are well studied in homeschool.  Here are some ideas for doing a unit on lepidoptera, butterflies.

Start with a trip to your dictionary and look up the words: butterfly, lepidoptera, moth, scales, wings, proboscis, and antennae.  Next, check out a book about butterflies and learn about their life cycles.  Then, go to your garden shop and ask about plants which attract butterflies and about the gardens they love best.  Now you are ready to put together your butterfly garden.

Planning your garden

There are a few qualities a garden should have in order to become a place which will attract butterflies.  The location should be sunny and have some protection from the wind.   Although butterflies look delicate, they are stronger than they appear, but wind will tend to carry them easily past the plants you want them to inhabit.  They do bask in the sun on low walls, log piles, and stones, all places of shelter and sun.  Butterflies have predators as well and low growing shrubs and rocks can provide some protection.

Butterflies need sources of rich nectar and are attracted to plants which smell sweet.  Choose plants like the butterfly bush or the coreopsis which will provide these things by growing beautiful flowers all season long.  The most obvious plants are local wildflowers; for example, honeysuckles, lupines, black-eyed susans, and, in Texas, bluebonnets.  See the list below the post for suggested plants.  In your local area there may not be many of those plants listed here, but do not worry as there are some generic plants which will probably be found either in nearby fields or at your plant store.  Other sources of butterfly attracting plants are mail order suppliers.  Mass plantings of colorful and sweet smelling plants are great for your butterfly garden.  Creeping phlox which cascades over walls is a good attractor as in Spanish heather.

Another, often overlooked plant type which must be present in the garden is the edible plant; edible, that is, for the caterpillars.  When you attract butterflies, they will lay eggs for the next generation of butterflies.  When the eggs hatch, the larvae (caterpillars) must have food so you need to provide for them.  Members of the carrot family, parsley family, lettuces, celery, and other herbs are feasts to caterpillar.  Don’t begrudge them the food because they represent your next group of butterflies.  Host plants will supply many needs of the butterfly in all of its life stages.  Some of these are Butterfly Weed (providing for the Monarch butterfly among others), herbs like dill, parsley, and fennel (which the Black Swallowtail enjoys), and the Tulip Tree (a home for the Tiger Swallowtail).  Willow, clover, milkweed, sassafras, Queen Anne’s Lace, and passion flower are other host plants.

Remember, too, that butterflies are insects and because of this are sensitive to insecticides and pesticides which you may be tempted to use in the garden.  If you need to use something to save your fruit trees or whatever, try to limit the area it may affect.  Only spray the effected area as overspray  will kill your butterflies.  According to the Wise Garden Encyclopedia, even herbicides and fungicides will harm the insects you want to cultivate.

So, now you have a garden which has attracted many different kinds of butterflies.  What do you do next?  Everything is not known about butterflies, their habits, their cycles.  This means that you may discover something important about butterflies.  So, keep a journal on what you see in your garden.  Record the numbers and varieties of the species you see.  Try to answer the questions: what, where, why, when, how, how many, and for how long, in your journal and as completely as you can.  Make colored drawings for your notebook.

Study the behavior of the butterfly. What are the favorite flowers to which each type of butterfly you see is most attracted?  Do they seem to migrate from yard to yard, or even farther?  How long do you notice one butterfly in your yard?

Study the biology of the butterfly: What are the butterflies’ sizes, colors, and flying characteristics?  How do they see and smell?  Can they recognize the colors of the flowers or it is only smell which attracts them?

What are the life cycle stages of your butterflies?  Study the adults and try to find the eggs they lay.  Keep careful watch over the eggs until they hatch, then observe the larvae.  Make sure that the larvae are getting plenty to eat and then watch over the chrysalises they produce.  At the correct time, perhaps ten days, the beautiful butterfly will come out of the chrysalis and begin to fly.  Keep records of the stages and the number of days each lasts in your journal.

Collect more butterflies for your garden: Go out into the field or forest and look for chrysalises hanging from limbs, leaves or rocks.  Collect them carefully and place them into a vivarium (a place for live specimen).  Later, when they come out you can place them in your garden on some good tasting (to larvae) plants for them to grow and mature.  Another way to collect butterflies for your garden is to look for caterpillars to place on the parsley or carrot plants.  Although some of them are not the prettiest thing in the garden, they mature into something of beauty, so remember that when you see them eating up your salad greens.

Observe the four stages of the life cycle: egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (within the chrysalis), and adult (butterfly).  Make drawings or take photos to record the events.  To photograph a butterfly, you will find it best if you collect the caterpillar and wait it out until the adult emerges from the chrysalis.  For a brief time, the tissues have not hardened sufficiently for flight and the butterfly can be photographed fairly easily.

The butterfly is an insect and so is made up of three body parts: the head, the thorax and the abdomen.  The parts are segmented with the wigs usually coming from second and third segments of the thorax.  The head has compound eyes, segmented antennas, and a proboscis.  This proboscis can unroll into a long sucking tube which allows the butterfly to feed upon nectar.
If you wish to preserve some of the butterflies, catch them with a butterfly net, place them in a killing jar, dry them on a spreading board and pin them, labeled, in a box prepared for the collection.  Be sure to write on a slip of paper pinned with the specimen, the pertinent data:  place found, name of the butterfly species, common name, when the specimen was collected, and by whom.
The homeschooler has an advantage in the study of butterflies since they are usually active during the day.  There are many types of butterflies, over 700 varieties in North America, so there are plenty to study.  Build a butterfly garden, get out that journal, and begin a study of beautiful creatures which can last a lifetime!

Plants which will attract and feed adult butterflies:
This list has been adapted from The Pike Gardening flyer on Butterfly Gardens and The Wise Garden Enclyclopedia.

Asclepias (milkweed, butterfly weed)
Black-eyed Susan
Butterfly Bush (buddleia)
Butterfly Weed
Cardinal flower
Coreopsis (Tickseed)
Corn flower
Daucus (Queen Anne’s Lace, carrot)
Dianthus (pinks, Sweet William)
Echinacea purpurea (purple coneflower)
Gaillardia (blanket flower)
Mock orange
Rudbeckia (Black-eyed Susan)
Syringa (Lilac)
White or pink viburnum


The Wise Garden Encyclopedia by HarperCollins Publishers.  An alphabetic resource for anything to do with gardens, plants, and planting.  The authors have included hints for growing and other tidbits of useful information hidden within the formality of a glossary format.

Butterflies and Moths: A Golden Guide This book is a must have for the homeschooler who is interested in butterflies.  Discussing the life cycles, habitats, migrations, and food sources, the book provides a fairly complete text.  The majority of the book is, of course, identification of American butterflies and moth in full color.


Butterflies Worth Knowing by Dr. Clarence M. Weed.  A wonderful introduction tobutterflies covering their cycles, habitats, structure, and going into much detail about some of the more common butterflies of North America.  It is an older book which can be found in libraries.

Botany by Kim Wright   A brand new unit study written for homeschoolers but which could be used by any school, this 133 page book has lots of activities and lists of resources and other ideas to use in a study of plants. (even has flashcards)  There are questions to answer in the study, instructions for an organised plan, vocabulary list, and lab instructions; basically everything you need but the text, two lab books, and a few materials, to do a semester on plants.  Throw out the biology book for a semester and use this unit study on plants.

The Butterfly Site Visit this website to plan your butterfly garden by area, and then order the appropriate plants or seeds.  Lots of good tips on butterfly gardening!

Insect Collector’s Backpack Kit.  This great little backpack comes with everything you need to collect butterflies or any insect.  Sold by Home Science Tools, it has a net, Audubon guide, magnifier, killing jar, pins, and a bunch more.  Check here for all their insect collecting supplies.

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