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Using Edmark's Virtual Electricity Lab demo to teach elementary science

by  Alan Zisman (c) 2003, 2011

Most elementary school science curriculums include a unit on electrical circuits. In BC (Canada), for instance, it is expected to be included in grade 5.

Unfortunately, letting young children have hands on experience with electric circuits can be difficult. Aside from the danger of shock, setting up for electricity experiments can involve managing a lot of small parts, and dealing with inevitable breakage, making it an expensive unit at a time when most school budgets are limited.

Computers make it possible to simulate electric circuits. While virtual experiments are (inevitably) one step removed from the real thing, they are vastly better than no experiments at all.

Software company Edmark ( - now owned by publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt - markets several virtual science kits and other educational programs. In the past, they made demo versions of some of their educational programs available; typically, these are more limited than the full versions, and don't allow students to save their projects - the list of available demos changes from time to time. Nevertheless, these free versions are fun for students to use; the demo science labs, for instance, can be used for science experiments that can be completed in a single period.

I am focussing on using the demo version of the Virtual Electricity Lab. I am re-distributing the free demo of Windows version which is currently not listed on the Edmark/Riverview site; it is about a 6 MB download. While it was created in the 1990s for Windows 9x, in my experience, it installs and runs without issue on more modern versions of Windows.

Students can explore the lab-- there is a 'Sci-clopedia' with lots of background information about electricity, and lots of pre-made circuits to play with. Most students quickly become comfortable using the programs small number of tools to create and modify circuits. Teachers considering using the program should take some time to explore its interface, learning how to add and remove components, connect them with (virtual) wire, etc. Rotating components may take a bit of practise.

The program (including the free demo version) can also be used to teach electric-circuit concepts, with teacher-directed lessons. I print handouts, asking students to write in the answers in pen or pencil, and discuss the concepts with the class before and after they carry out the experiments.

Lesson 1: Insulators and Conductors
Lesson 2: Resistors
Lesson 3: Series and Parallel Circuits
Lesson 4: Fuses and Schematic Diagrams

You are welcome to reprint, revise, and use these sample lessons with your own classes. I welcome feedback; if you develop other lessons using Virtual Electricity Lab, I would love to take a look at them-- and will post them on this site if you like. And I would love to have other teachers develop lessons using the Virtual Kinetics or Virtual Light labs.

Note: as the moment (February 2005), the Virtual Electricity Lab is not available for download on the website, as far as I can tell. You can download the Windows version here.

-- az June 17, 2003