Make a simple electromagnet by coiling wire around a nail. It can pick up small metal materials containing iron and nickel.
Science content
Physics: Motion and Forces, Newton’s Laws, Gravity (K, 2, 6)
Physics: Energy forms, Conservation of Energy (1, 3, 4, 5)
Physics: Electricity, Electromagnetism (7)
  • 130cm or more of magnetic wire ('mag wire' - copper wire coated in insulating plastic)
  • small piece of sandpaper
  • large stainless steel nail
  • small piece of masking tape
  • two small pieces of aluminum foil
  • AA battery
  • small nails/paper clips (any small metal objects containing iron) to pick up

Use the sandpaper to remove the plastic coating from about 2cm of each end of the wire (do this ahead of time for younger students). You will see the silvery-copper wire colour underneath.

Starting at the head of the nail, leave about 7cm wire sticking out, then wind the wire around it in tight turns. Move slowly down the nail, until all but the last 7cm is coiled - it will make about 80 turns. It does not matter if the coils lie on top of each other, though the tighter they are packed together the better.
Keep the coils pushed towards the head of the nail so that when winding is done, the pointed end of the nail is still exposed.
Secure the coil onto the nail with pieces of masking tape. (Skip the tape if galvanized nails are used, as the coils stay tight on the rough nail surface). Make sure that there is about 7cm straight wire sticking out at each end of the coil.

Fold over each end of the sandpapered wire ends so that the pointy end is tucked away. Fold a small piece of aluminum foil around the ends of the wire to cover the ends. The foil will help to make the connection between the copper wire and the battery.

Hold the foil-coated wire ends over the ends of the battery to make electricity flow through the coil, then touch the pointed tip of the electromagnet against smaller nails and paper clips.
Note that the battery becomes hot if it remains connected for a while so make sure it is disconnected frequently.
This activity drains batteries very fast (there is not much resistance in the wire).

Optional: set up stations that the students spend a few minutes each at:
nails large and small - the electromagnet will be able to pick up fewer larger nails than smaller ones
coins - coins that contain nickel (some pennies and nickels) will be picked up by the electromagnet
items with different kinds of metal - steel, containing iron, will be attracted to the electromagnet, whereas aluminum foil will not be e.g. use fish from magnetic fishing game
compass - bring the electromagnet near to a compass, to see it strongly attract the compass needle
See the attachment for cards to put at each station.

Students can also try linking their electromagnets together, to make an even stronger electromagnet.

How it works:
When there is electricity from the battery flowing through the copper wire, the coils make a magnetic field, which is significant with the many turns. This magnetic field turns the large nail into a magnet, strong enough to pick up small nails, paperclips etc.
Break the circuit by removing one wire from the battery. The nail is no longer magnetic and it drops the objects. (Sometimes a weak residual magetic field remains in the nail, so a few objects remain attached.)

NOTE that as there is little resistance in the wire, both the coiled wire and battery heat up if the battery is left connected for longer than half a minute. Using stations, with a short break between, makes sure that there is time for the wire to cool. In addition, switching out the batteries each time the students move means they don't heat up too much.
Using a longer wire will reduce how much the wire heats up.

For more detailed explanation see

Uses of electromagnets: buzzers/door bells, speakers, cranes in metal recycling yards, maglev train.…


Using a galvanized nail means the tape can be skipped, as the rough surface makes the wire grip on its own.
1/4lb of 24 gauge mag wire (also called hookup wire) is 198ft and costs about $10. 198ft makes 46 electromagnets.

For younger students, they made one electromagnet in pairs, and I had pre-made electromagnets to distribute so that they could all try one.

Don't make the wire any shorter. A shorter wire has less resistance than a longer wire and will pass more current and so heat up more quickly. A shorter wire gets quite warm quite fast.

For older students, try varying the length of the wire - a longer wire has more turns so makes a stronger magnet, so picks up more paperclips than a shorter wire. (Take care of wire heating up.)

Also show electricity generating magnetism with a battery, wire and compass. The compass needle turns when electricity flows through an overlaid wire. See minute 4:24 of the video at…

Grades taught
Gr 1
Gr 2
Gr 3
Gr 4
Gr 5
Gr 6
Gr 7