Magnets can be fun-charged decorations to stick on refrigerators, but the base science behind them is a study of physics. Refrigerator magnets are continuous magnetic fields, whereas electromagnets are charged fields created by electric currents. In this experiment, STEM explorers will dive into electromagnetism, an interaction between electrically charged particles. Parent supervision is recommended.

What You’ll Need

  • A battery (AA or AAA will work)
  • Paper clips
  • A nail or a stainless steel utensil
  • Insulated wire
  • Scissors


  1. Wrap the insulated wire around the nail or steel utensil. Do not overlap the coils. Make sure that there is an extra wire hanging from both ends.
  2. Using the scissors, very carefully remove the insulation on the ends of the wrapped wire to expose a few centimeters. Parental help in this step is ideal!
  3. Tightly coil the exposed wires, and then form each end into a loop. This will make it easier to attach to the battery ends!
  4. Using one hand, press the exposed wires into the opposite ends of the battery (where the positive and negative signs are), while holding the insulated wire wrapping on the utensil or nail.
  5. Hover your electromagnet over the paper clips and watch them pick up!
Electromagnetism was first discovered in 1819 by Hans Oersted by happy accident. He noticed his magnetic compass moved when it was close to an electric wire. Until that moment, scientists had believed that magnetism and electricity were separated.

What is Happening

Magnetic fields are created by moving charges, but only electromagnets have an active current to push them. Electrons move through the battery and the wire, generating the magnetic field. Coiling the wire increases the field because it is a shorter distance for the electrons to travel.  

Electromagnets are used all over everyday life, from Magnetic Resonance Imagining machines (MRIs) that let us look inside the body, to loudspeakers and cell phone signals.  

Want to learn more?

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