Fridge magnets (Photo by Rumensz via Wikimedia Commons)

Magnetic letters
(Photo by Lylamerle, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Setting the Stage

The skill of sorting comes almost naturally to young students. From an early age they group things together that have some common characteristic and are able to tell us why those objects belong together. As students’ understanding about attributes develops they learn about putting things into a “class” – the “toys with wheels” class or the “farm animals” class. Deciding which attribute to sort by is an important reasoning skill.

In this inquiry, students have opportunities to further develop and apply their sorting and classifying skills as they explore the many shapes and sizes of magnets and the objects that are attracted to them. Through these explorations they will learn that magnets are capable of applying a non-contact force that plays a role in many aspects of day to day life.

Assortment of magnets
(Photo by Let’s Talk Science)

This inquiry could begin from:

  • questions and/or comments from students about magnets and magnetism. Discuss using questions such as:
    • “Why don’t the coloured letters fall off the filing cabinet?”
    • “Besides keeping our letters from falling down, where else do magnets help us?” (e.g., in the classroom, at home)

  • exploring a collection of magnets of various sizes and types. Discuss using questions such as:
    • "What do you notice about the objects on the table? What is the same about them? (e.g., they are all magnets) How are they different?” (e.g., different shapes, different sizes)
    • “What are some things we can’t tell about them just by looking at them? (e.g., we cannot be sure they all really magnets; we cannot tell how strong they are) How can we find out about these things?”
  • exploring a collection of objects made of different materials (e.g., plastic, cloth, various types of metals). Discuss using questions such as:
  • Cover of Marta’s Magnets by Wendy Pfeffer
    (Cover image via Open Library)

    • “What do you notice about these materials?” (e.g., some are made of cloth, some are made of metal; some are made of plastic)
    • “What do you think would happen if we brought a magnet close to these materials? Why do you think that?”

  • Reading a book such as Marta’s Magnets by Wendy Pfeffer. Discuss using questions such as:
    • “How did Marta’s magnets help her make friends?”
    • “How did Marta use a magnet to help her solve a problem? What did you learn about magnets from the story?” (e.g., that they are attracted to some things and not to others).
    • “What things did Marta’s magnets attract that surprised you? (e.g., the children playing on the street) Why do you think this happened?”

Materials and Preparation (Click to Expand)

Materials:

Assortment of objects made of different materials
(Photo by Let’s Talk Science)

  • A collection of magnets of different sizes, shapes, and types (e.g., wand, bar, horseshoe and ring magnets)
  • A variety of magnetic and non-magnetic objects
  • Hoops/yarn/chart for sorting
  • Paperclips, small washers, and/or hex nuts for testing and comparing the strength of magnets

Preparation:

  • Think about a learning strategy such as the Sorting Mats Learning Strategy to support students’ development of the skills of comparing & contrasting and sorting & classifying. 

What to Do

Magnetic (left) and non-magnetic (right) sorting mats
(Photo by Let’s Talk Science)

Students use the Sorting Mats learning strategy and develop and apply the skills of Sorting and Classifying, Comparing and Contrasting and Predicting as they explore magnetism as a non-contact force that causes movement.

Students:

  • sort and classify objects according to self-determined and given criteria and describe the criteria.
  • compare and contrast various magnets and objects that are or are not attracted by the magnets.
  • predict which magnet they think will be the strongest and explain their predictions.
  • design and carry out a fair test to determine the strength of various magnets.
  • observe the results of their strength test and record their results.
  • draw conclusions from the data they have collected.
  • explain how they conducted their fair test.
  • communicate their findings.

Assessment

Observe and document, using anecdotal comments, photos and/or video recordings, student’s ability to:

  • Sort & Classify - students classify objects according to self-determined and given criteria and describe the criteria (e.g., “These objects are all made of plastic.”; “These objects are the ones I predict will be attracted by the magnet.”)
  • Compare & Contrast - students identify similarities and differences (attributes) between magnets (e.g., size, shape, strength), as well as the similarities and differences between the objects that are or are not attracted by the magnets.
  • Predict - students predict which magnet they think will be the strongest and explain their predictions
  • Plan - students create and carry out a fair test to determine the strength of various magnets.
  • Observe and Record - students observe the results of their strength test and record their results.
  • Draw Conclusions - students draw conclusions about the data they have collected (e.g., are magnets are stronger in one place than another? Is one shape and/or size stronger than others)
  • Explain - students explain how they tested the strength of their magnets.
  • Communicate - students communicate their findings.

Co-constructing Learning

Students:
Saying, Doing, Representing

Educator Interactions:
Responding, Challenging

Students sort and classify objects according to self-determined and given criteria and describe the criteria.

  • “Tell me how you sorted the objects.”
  • “Find all of the objects that are made of metal or have some metal attached to them.”
  • "How else can we sort this group of objects?"

Students compare and contrast magnets (e.g., size, shape, strength) and objects that are or are not attracted by the magnets.

  • “How are the magnets on the table the same? How are they different?”
  • “What do you notice about the objects that were attracted to the magnets?”
  • “How are the objects that were not attracted different from those that were attracted?”
  • “How might we change one of the objects that was not attracted to the magnet, so that it could be attracted to it?”

Students predict which magnet they think will be the strongest and explain their predictions.

  • “What do you already know about magnets that will help you predict which will be the strongest?”
  • “Do you think the shape of the magnet will affect its strength? Why do you think that?”
  • “Is one part of the magnet stronger than the other parts? How could you find out?”

Students create and carry out a fair test to determine the strength of various magnets.

  • “What steps did you take to make sure that your test of the magnets was a fair one?”
  • “What were the constants?” (e.g., always used the same magnetic object for the magnets to pick up [paper clips or washers]; always used the same process for picking them up [put the magnet on top of the pile, slowly drew it away] )
  • “What were the variables?” (e.g., the size and shape of the magnets tested)

Students observe the results of their strength test and record their results.

  • “What did you notice about which part(s) of the magnet attracted the most objects? Why do you think this happened?”
  • “Did this change depend on the shape or the magnet or the size of the magnet?”
  • “How will you record the results of your test?”

Students draw conclusions from the results of their test.

  • “From your observations, what did you conclude about:
  • How the shape of a magnet impacts how strong it is?"
  • How the size of the magnet impacts how strong it is?”
  • How the type of magnet impacts how strong it is?”

Students communicate their findings.

  • “Were the results of your inquiry what you predicted? Why do you think that happened?”
  • “Why is what you discovered important? How can it help you? Who else might want to know this information?”
  • “What would you do differently if you were to do this inquiry again?

Cross-Curricular Connections

Literacy

  • use communication skills (e.g., to explain how they tested the strength of their magnet and what conclusions they were able to make as a result)

Mathematical Thinking

  • measure, using non-standard units of the same size and/or standard units (e.g., to compare magnets in terms of their strength)

Extending the Learning

If your students are interested in learning more, the following may provoke their curiosity:

  • Students explore using magnets to pick up objects of different shapes and sizes
  • Students explore how using several magnets together affects the strength of attraction.
  • Students could share their magnets inquiries with families and engage them in helping students to carry out an exploration at home to identify places where magnets are used and for what purpose (e.g., to keep the shower door closed, to attach sunglasses to prescription eyeglasses, to attach notes and pictures to the refrigerator). Students share and compile the results of their explorations. A similar search can be done at school and the results compared with those from home (e.g., in the front office, in the custodian’s rooms)