Lighting It Up: Potato Batteries and STEM Outreach Day

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SPS Chapters on Outreach

Lighting It Up: Potato Batteries and STEM Outreach Day


Lara Celik, SPS Member, and Bart Horn, SPS Advisor, Manhattan College


SPS volunteer Lara Celik (right) and lab supervisor Erdinc Atilgan guide student teams in the making of a homemade potato battery. Photo by Bart Horn.

Education is for all, and our SPS chapter at Manhattan College was proud to help bring the excitement of science to the next generation at Manhattan College’s first annual STEM Outreach Day. Approximately 35 students from grades 6 to 12 and their teachers visited campus from three schools in the Bronx in New York City. Our challenge was to unite concepts and principles from electricity and magnetism in a clear, concise, and engaging manner for them during the physics station. 

“STEM people change the world in so many different ways, and it’s really important to get that excitement from a young age,” event coordinator and SPS co-president Sarah Rosen told Spectrum NY1 News. “We wanted to run this event to give students the opportunity to be exposed to all the different things in STEM, and have the opportunity to explore and have a good time.” 

During the event students participated in small group activities in different STEM fields, including isolating DNA from strawberry puree (biology), designing popsicle stick bridges (civil engineering), coding games with Python (computer science), investigating acids and bases in the kitchen (chemistry), and generating electricity (physics).


SPS volunteer Lara Celik demonstrates a homemade inductor coil. Photo by Sarah Rosen.

Education and diversity go hand in hand, and to reflect this in our activity, we combined visual, auditory, and hands-on modalities to engage students with different learning styles. We drew the schematics of the experiment on a whiteboard and wrote definitions, helping students understand the relationship between electric charge, voltage, and current, and interpret how electricity can be generated using batteries or inductor coils. We went through the steps of the activity using a visual projector. Students then collaborated in small groups to construct batteries out of potatoes, copper pennies, and zinc washers while SPS volunteers and faculty advisors answered questions. When students put physics to the test and connected their batteries together, both their eyes and our LED lights lit up!

Through trial and error, students figured out the differences between series and parallel connections, and all our teams were ultimately successful. One group began excitedly calculating how many potatoes they would need to charge a phone. Although it was early on a Saturday morning, the students were actively engaged, and quite a few enthusiastically declared that the physics activity was their favorite.

For us, the event highlighted the importance of adaptability in teaching. While testing the experiment in advance, we were surprised to discover that potatoes worked as well as lemons! Then, on the day of the event, we had to adapt to meet the needs of the students who attended. The students had a range of ages, and one of the groups we taught spoke only Spanish. While some of us are bilingual, the nonpolyglots came up with creative ways to connect with the students. Visual demonstrations and hands-on learning, not to mention background music from Star Wars, helped us include everyone. 

Based on enthusiastic feedback from students and volunteers, STEM Outreach Day was a great success, and both SPS and Manhattan College look forward to building on this initiative in years to come. Together we can help inspire and educate all students, and better yet, we can bring about change in the world.


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SPS Chapters on Outreach