Introduction: Discovering Electricity With Paper Circuits and Tinkercad Simulations

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Middle school students in Virginia learn the basics of electricity then explore the possibilities with hands-on project-based learning using paper circuits and virtual simulations in this multi-day, cross-curricular project.

Grade Level: 6-8


VA Standards of Learning (SOLs) Physical Science - PS 1, PS 5: experimentation, scientific process, energy

Learning Objectives:

Students will learn the basics of electricity.

Students will create a working circuit.

Students will imagine how their knowledge can be connected to other projects.

Students will innovate from their introductory knowledge of the topic.

Assessment: Screen shots of student work in simulations, written responses, physical projects


This slidedeck:

Per student:

12 inches of Copper tape, or Brown Dog Maker Tape:

Simple circuit handout (1 per student): Template used from: Paper Circuit template, or design your own!

1 3V coin battery per student

1 LED bulb per student

1 paperclip per student

Access to clear tape, scissors

Step 1: Get Building With Tinkercad!

Introduce the topic of electricity, discuss how it is something so present and available, but not typically understood.

Introduction Video:

What is electricity? (Create a class definition.)

The flow of electrons through a material

What is a circuit? (think circle...)

The circular connection of all electrical components in a group.

How do we create a circuit?

  1. First we have a plan in mind of what we want to accomplish with our circuit. 
  2. Then we test it using a simulation.
  3. Then we build it.

15-20 introduction

So we are going to try and simulate and then build some working circuits throughout our time together. Start in Tinkercad and Sign In using a class code# ____________. (Teacher should set this up in advance to make accessing Tinkercad easy.)

We are going to build a circuit that includes power and light.

Have students sign into Tinkercad, use the class code to get started, then use the circuit projects to bring in a 3V Coin battery and an LED. Have them practice connecting it and then start the simulation.

15 minutes to play in Tinkercad with Circuits.

Assignment: Take a screenshot of each of your working circuits and submit it for an assignment (see student examples)

Step 2: Get Building With Paper Circuits!

Distribute supplies and ask students to see if they can get their LEDs to light up with just the bulb and battery. Then we’ll get started with building a simple circuit. Distribute supplies.

Protip video:

15-20 minutes to get them to build their circuits successfully.

Assignment written response after completion of the circuit. “Describe what is happening in your circuit. Using the electricity vocabulary that was introduced earlier: circuit, conductive, electrons, positive, negative.

Now that you have a working circuit, what could you add to your circuit? How can you add innovation? Describe how you might add additional items to your circuit and what that might look like.

Step 3: Adding More to the Virtual Circuit!

Play the Intro to Electricity video as a refresher (first 3 minutes)

Use the virtual tool to draw the circuit that we created last class.

“Now many people asked about how we would add additional things to our circuit, so let’s look at another short video as we talk about adding more elements.”

Parallel vs series (first 2 minutes):

So here you see how we might design our more complex circuits, using two choices. (Draw series circuit and parallel circuit.)

Head back into Tinkercad and build a simulation of the following:

  1. A circuit with at least two LEDs and a battery in a series.
  2. A circuit with at least two LEDs and a battery in parallel.

Assignment: Take a screenshot of each of your working circuits and submit the image (see student example)

(15-20 minutes to design circuits in Tinkercad, students should post their successful circuit screenshots.)

Step 4: Working With Switches

Now there are other elements that we might want to include to finish our circuit. For example, what is different about our simple circuit from an actual product, like a flashlight?

A switch!

So how does a switch work?

A switch has the ability to make or break a circuit. Draw the symbol for a switch on the board.

Head into Tinkercad and create a circuit with a working switch. 

Assignment: Take a screenshot of your working circuit with a switch

Plan on how you can make a paper circuit with a working switch. Use the back side on your circuit page. Think about simple material that you could use to make a switch. Remember your learning about conductive materials. Think about the function of a useful switch. Think about a switch that is the most functional. Think about a switch that is the most creative.

Distribute the same materials as last time, with additional items like aluminum foil, paperclips. Students should make a circuit with a switch.

(15-25 minutes for students to build working circuit with switch)

Provide some time for students to share their circuits with switches. 

Step 5: Exploring!

With basic electronics skills maxed to 100%, now is a great time for students to explore more with their circuit building skills.

Inviting students to use Makey Makey allows students to immediately recognize circuits and conductive materials and can start to integrate other materials or a computer into the mix.

Wood block circuits are another great way to add complexity into student creation. The Tinkering Studio at the Exploratorium has been a fantastic resource. Expert student makers can design their own blocks and other students who are just getting started can use them:

Also, swapping LEDs for motors can get students interested in building other kinds of circuits. There is so much for students to explore with their new superpowers!

Project-Based Learning Contest

This is an entry in the
Project-Based Learning Contest