SHiPS Resource Center ||   BOOK BRIEF

posted: 10/15/00 Sparks and Shocks: Experiments from the Golden Age of Electricity. The Bakken Library and Museum (3537 Zenith Ave., Minneapolis MN 55416; 115 pp.

This excellent book describes investigative experiments and demonstrations on static electricity adapted by the Bakken Library and Museum from the original studies of scientists who lived during the eighteenth century—the golden age of electricity. The book aims to give pupils a fundamental grounding in basic electrical concepts such as charge, potential and capacitance, which are often skipped over in the rush to get on to "batteries and bulbs," and also to help them realize that they can wrestle creatively and successfully with the same scientific problems that puzzled the great scientists like Benjamin Franklin and Alessandro Volta.

The method used, of investigative experiments, is outlined clearly in the introduction: first ("preliminary observations"), do an expriment whose result the students are likely to find new or unexpected. This is largely where the demonstration experiments decribed in the book are useful. Then repeat the experiment, modifying conditions without any specific plan. A comparison of the data provides the basis for formulating a problem and selecting variables to investigate. Then ("main experiment"), investigate each variable by conducting preliminary observations, derive a hypothesis, test the hypothesis and decide whether it is correct or not. Six "main experiments" are described in detail, and many more investigations are suggested.

After the introduction, chapters cover: Attraction, Conductors, Two Kinds of Electricity, Sparks, Shocks, Electrization by Induction, Potential, and Capacitance. Each chapter begins with a discussion of the historical background, which is followed by instructions for demonstrations of historical experiments. These have been adapted to use modern and readily available materials, while still retaining the "feel" of the originals. Next come the investigative experiments, either with a detailed description of the experiment or with suggetions of questions to investigate. As with the demonstrations, the investigations have been adapted to school use. The experiments range from the single demonstration of electrostatic attraction using amber, sealing wax or glass, to construction and investigation of Leyden jars and charging up a pupil (on an insulated platform) using an electrostatic generator.

Chapter 11 adapts and simplifies many of the previous experiments for use in primary schools. Photocopiable record sheets are provided for these experiments in an appendix, the spiral binding of the book making photocopying particularly easy.

This book is sold alongside the Bakken Museum 18th Century Electricty Kit [SHiPS 5/4], which contains all the equipment needed to conduct the experiments in the book. For those who do not want to buy the kit, though, Chapter 9 contains instructions for building all the apparatus required in the book, from a simple electroscope to an electrostatic generator. Chapter 10 contains tips on how to get electrostatic experiments to work, and an appendix contains a useful list of resources. Altogether this is an inspiring yet very practical book, which succeeds in integrating three key elements in science education: an understanding of the nature of electricity, of scientific investigations, and of the historical context of science. I certainly hope to use it in my science club.

Isobel Falconer
reprinted from BSHS Education Forum No. 20

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