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‘Potato Power’ Illuminates Just How Cool Science Can Be

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Dec 04 2021, 12:00 AM

This article was produced in partnership with Ada Twist, Scientist. Stream now, only on Netflix.

While it might be a versatile ingredient, the humble potato isn’t exactly the flashiest food around. But when you and your kid turn a potato into a battery that can power a lightbulb, they’ll never look at the everyday tuber the same way again.

That’s because the things we associate with electricity and power are metallic and manufactured not edible and natural. Seeing that a potato can supply electricity is a great way to teach your kids to consider the potentially different purposes that items can have, to inculcate the spirit of inquiry that is fundamental to science.

Getting kids excited about science is also the goal of Ada Twist, Scientist, the Netflix animated series based on the blockbuster children’s book. It chronicles the adventures of a young Black female scientist who stages experiments at home and uses scientific discovery, collaboration, and friendship to help others.

Ada Twist is a great way to get kids excited about science. And like the other Saturdays We S.T.E.M. activities, Potato Power is a great opportunity for families to get hands-on experience by performing an experiment. Here’s how.

Prep Time: 5-10 minutes

Entertainment Time: 10-15 minutes 

Energy Expended by Child: minimal physical, plenty of mental

What You Need:

How to Play:

Cut a slot into one end of the potato that is just large enough to fit a penny into. Wrap the exposed end of one of the pieces of copper wire across the diameter of the penny (so that firm contact between the two is made) and insert it into the slot.

On the other side of the potato, insert the galvanized nail, pointy side first. Wrap an exposed end of the other wire around the head of the nail (so that firm contact between the two is made).

Take the ends of the two wires and touch them to the opposite terminals of the light bulb. (Usually, one of the terminals is the metal base of the bulb while the other is the tip at the very bottom of the bulb.) Once you do that, the bulb will light up, no doubt eliciting oohs and aahs from your kid. 

Wrap-Up:

There are a few important scientific concepts at play here. The copper on the outside of a penny and the zinc on the outside of the galvanized nail undergo a chemical reaction when inserted into the potato. They essentially become electrodes, with the zinc attracting the electrons that the copper is releasing. These electrodes are passed through the potato because it’s an electrolyte, a necessary component of every battery. When the current passes through the light bulb, it lights up.

You may not want to go into that level of detail to younger kids, but you should have this basic grasp just in case your inquisitive youngster peppers you with questions. If you want to take the experiment further, you can add another potato to the chain and see how it affects how bright the bulb glows. Or you can try with another variety of potato to see which is the best conductor of electric current.

But even if your kid simply marvels at the sight of a potato powering a light bulb, you’ll have accomplished the most important goal of the activity: piquing your kids’ interest in the “S” part of S.T.E.M. And if you can do that, you’re well on your way to raising your own Ada Twist.