Thursday, March 13, 2014

States and Capitals Circuit Boards

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One of the big milestones in 5th grade social studies classes is learning the names, locations, and capitals of the 50 United States. In my classes, this learning goal was spread out over many months with students learning and testing over one region of states at a time. They took a final test of all states and capitals in the spring. For many students, this was their first experience taking ownership of a significant learning goal on their own. To help them prepare, students used textbook maps to label and color blank regional maps. We then brainstormed mnemonic devices based on different learning styles to help learn the information. We also spent a few days a month as a class practicing the locations and capitals using a blank map on the SmartBoard.

Even with all the strategies presented in my class, however, the most innovative, hands-on tool that students used to learn states and capitals came from science class of all places: circuit boards.  The (literally) brilliant idea to combine the study of electricity and geography using homemade circuit boards was presented to me by our 5th-grade team's science teacher. The basic idea is for students create a circuit board on which they complete electrical circuits by correctly touching wires to a state and its corresponding capital. Each state and capital is connected by a foil conductor strip, and the energy source is a 9-volt battery.

The idea of playing with electricity may sound a little frightening, but this activity is completely safe and is easy for upper elementary students to complete!

Prior Knowledge
On the social studies end of this, students will need to have been introduced to at least one region of states and capitals. On the science end, students will need to have a knowledge of circuits and electricity.

file folder
blank map of states with list of corresponding state capitals (We used regional maps for this project.)
hole punch
aluminum foil
transparent or masking tape
electronics wire
small light bulb with holder
9-volt battery 
battery cap with electronics wires

Easy-to-find classroom supplies
Create the Circuit Board
First, punch one hole in each state on the map. Then, punch one hole next to each of the state capitals. I did a soft fold-over of the map and capitals and put the paper about halfway in the hole punch before punching so that I could get a full circle-shaped hole and not bend the paper too noticeably.

You'll need to decide to punch the hole either on the exact location of the capital or somewhere in the middle of the state. In some regions, some capitals are very close together, which could be problematic when attaching the conductor foil. 
Next, turn to the backside of the map and capitals. Cut thin strips of foil long enough to connect the holes from the states to the holes next to the capitals. For each state and capital, line up the foil strip so that the state hole and its capital hole are covered with foil. Then, use the tape to adhere the foil strip. Cover the entire strip of foil with tape. Continue until all states and capitals have foil trails that are taped to the page.

*Start with the states and capitals that have the least distance between them. Tape those foil trails down first.
*It is important that the foil strips do not directly touch one another so make sure they are completely covered in tape.
*Make sure the foil strip does not cover any part of the holes belonging to other states or capitals.

All taped down and ready to go
When all foil has been attached, adhere the map and capitals list to the file folder. You should only see the foil-covered holes.

Ready to test my knowledge of states and capitals!
Assemble the Battery and Bulb Wires
First, attach a battery cap to the top of the 9-volt battery, which will be the source of the electricity. Attach one of the cap's wires to one of the bulb terminals. Attach a small piece of electronics wire to the other bulb terminal. Make sure that the two "loose" ends of wire are stripped back enough so that the wires will easily make contact with the foil surfaces.

You may be able to create a more stable battery apparatus with available lab equipment. You could even use something other than a light like a buzzer.
Completing the Circuit
To complete the circuit, students will take one end of the wire that extends from the battery and touch it to the foil-filled hole of one of the states on the map. Then, the students will touch the other end of the electronics wire that extends from the bulb to the foil-filled hole next to the state's capital on the list. If the state and capital combination is the correct, the circuit will be complete, and the small bulb will light up. If it is incorrect, the bulb will not light up. 

Got it!
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Social studies can be a love-it or hate-it class for many students. As a social studies teacher, it can be a challenge to come up with meaningful hands-on learning activities. Being able to partner with my teaching team to develop cross-curricular ideas like this offers students some new and creative ways to take charge of their own learning. The beauty of this activity is that it can be modified for any subject matter that uses matching. It may provide students with a different view of a subject and how it connects to other subjects. It also may build their confidence and interest in subject areas in which they struggle or show little interest. (I'm no science whiz so if I was able to create something like this and have it work, I'd feel like a science superstar.) Overall, this activity really "lit up" both the science and social studies classrooms!

Your comments are welcome! What are some creative cross-curricular activities that you've used in your classroom?


  1. I love making circuit quiz boards! Great share.

  2. Awesome! Thanks so much for sharing!! I'll be using this circuit board project for Bring your child to work day!


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