Do Electrons Move or Charges Move?

Greetings Douglas,

I am teaching 4th graders about energy and electromagnetism and am using Foss Science Resources. Everything in their materials show electricity flowing out the negative terminal of D-cells, through components such as wires, bulbs, motors and back into the positive terminal.

My school district, formerly provided us with an answer key showing a similar circuit but had electricity flowing in the opposite direction.

I just watched a Khan Academy video that confused me even more.

Help! I don't want to teach the students incorrectly. I feel like Foss is reputable and after reading your post, I feel like electrons moving out the left battery terminal through wires is the way to go??

Thank you, M B

Your problem and mine is that the word "electricity" isn't well defined. To one person, electricity is the movement of electrons in a wire, to another person, electricity is the movement of positive charged forces in a wire. A better term for "electricity" would be "the transfer of power or energy", but even adults sometimes have difficulty wrapping their heads around that concept.

Foss Science Resources focuses on the electron as to what is physically moving; the school district's answer key focuses on the traditional "movement of positive forces". The distinction between the terms is better taught in high school physics, but you're stuck trying to explain it to your fourth-grade students.

For me, rather than saying "electricity flows" one direction or another in a wire, I say "electrons flow" in a wire. I talk about electrons flowing because in a wire, electrons are the only thing that actually move. The individual positive charges on the atoms stay fixed-in-place, but as a group, the positive charges appear to move.

I'm not sure this will work for fourth grade students, but you might talk about the Foss Science Resources explanation as the direction that electrons move.

Something you'll have to work around is the politics of not using the school district's answer key. Most of your students, however, will never really deal with the electricity direction conflict. The few students who will be dealing with the conflict will have a better base of understanding if they are taught the scientific "electrons flowing" rather than the ambiguous "electricity flows".

Douglas Krantz
Based on his electronics training, and his understanding of Life Safety, Douglas Krantz has compiled his knowledge of Conventional Fire Alarm Systems into the book Make It Work - Conventional Fire Alarms. The book covers the basics of the Conventional Fire Alarm System, and shows how Life Safety and internal supervision affects the fire alarm system.

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