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Designing an Electric Field

Keywords: Maxwell's Equations, Voltage, Jacob's Ladder, reference point, Small Group


Highlights of the activity

Students make up their own electric field and write down its vector formulation, sketch it, check that it satisfies Maxwell's equations, and justify the choice of a reference point to measure its potential. Jacob's Ladder is used as a demonstration and students are asked to make sense of the physical behavior they observe.

Reasons to spend class time on the activity

Goals of the activity:

  • Gain confidence with divergence and curl, and understand what they mean physically
  • See a relationship between mathematical representation of E-field and graphical
  • Understand what charge distribution causes an electric field
  • To decide if a mathematically plausible field is physically possible as well.
  • Path independence of voltage difference
  • How to choose a “good” voltage reference point
  • See the connection between calculating potential difference and measuring it with a voltmeter.
  • Apply physics knowledge to a real-world example.
  • Estimate order of magnitude of a real-world problem


Instructor's Guide


Authors: Darren Tarshis, Dr. Stephanie Chasteen, Dr. Steven Pollock of the University of Colorado - Boulder
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