How To Make A DIY Compass – STEM Guide

When science is at work, things may sometimes look magical. From hot ice to frozen bubbles, nature and science, quite simply, have their ways of making things look like there are mystic and magical forces at play.

One such example of such mystical capabilities is the simple yet wondrous ability of a few household materials to create and craft one of the most important discoveries in the world – the compass.

Up to this very day, the compass is in the foundations of the most important navigational systems. From the map to the GPS, and up to everyone’s favorite assistant driver, Waze, the compass lives on as one of the most important discoveries in history as it aided adventurers and sailors of the age of exploration and helped the world, quite literally, find direction.

Through basic scientific principles and fundamental knowledge in forces and engineering, the compass can be a simple yet educational STEM-fueled activity for every family. With adult supervision, kids can be like the conquistadors of old who sailed across the world with nothing more than the compass to give them direction in a voyage with only oceans as far as the eyes can see.

So get ready to grab a few household tools and maybe play pirate because this article is about to teach you and your kids about one of the most popular basic experiments for kids to date – the DIY compass.

What You Need

The compass is an ancient mechanism that helped civilization navigate the uncharted world. It was a revolutionary navigational tool that indicated the four cardinal directions – north, south, east, and west.

The most important part of the composition that, through this experiment, needs to be duplicated to craft a working compass, is the magnetic needle that aligns itself automatically with the magnetic poles of Earth.

If anyone were to be lost in the wilderness without a compass, they can easily craft one all on their own. Here’s what you need to do:

First, you will need to decide on the most important aspect of the experiment – choose what to use as a compass needle. There are several options for this and sometimes, often in uncontrolled environments, it could just be a matter of availability.

Assuming, however, that you aren’t in any danger and hostile environments, you will have the luxury of choosing what material to use as the compass needle. Here are some options that can readily be accessed within a household:

•   Paperclips
•   Razor Blades
•   Safety pins
•   Hairpins
•   Needles

A compass needle is any light and thin metal that can be magnetized. In many cases, the needle produces optimal results as it is a straightforward and practical choice. The other options mentioned above, though, can still work wonders.

The next thing to do is to choose magnetizers. Magnetizers are tools a person can use to generate static electricity, thus giving metallic objects magnetic properties. Magnetizing the compass needle can easily be achieved. By tapping the needle of your choice with a piece of steel or iron, or rubbing it with a magnet, or rubbing it against another item that magnetizes, the compass is sure to be working in no time. Below are some considerations you can look into:

•   Refrigerator magnets are prime examples that would work for the experiment or activity. Refrigerators are often readily available in craft stores. Plain magnets work just as fine as well.
•   Other options can be steel or iron nails, horseshoes, crowbars, or other similar items in case you don’t have a magnet around.

Once you have these two most important parts, all you need now are the following:

•   A single bowl or jar.
•   Some water about an inch deep; just enough to make a cork float.
•   A coin-sized cross-section of a cork.

These last materials will act as the 360-degree surface that will allow the compass to point toward any direction. Upon retrieval of all elements and materials, you’re ready to make the DIY compass!

Making the DIY Compass

First things first – magnetize the compass needle. To magnetize the compass needle, you will be rubbing the metallic material against the magnetic surface. So whether it be a needle over a refrigerator magnet or a safety pin on a plain magnet, what’s important to remember is that when you rub, you rub in a circular motion. Rubbing in a circular motion is better than doing it sideways or up and down.

Make sure that as you go through the circular motion, you do your best to make it uniform and equal. After 30 to 40 steady and even strokes, the compass needle is very likely magnetized.

The same process can be used for magnetizing the needle with silk, fur, or hair. However, you will need to stroke the needle with the material up to 50 times to successfully magnetize it. Remember not to use these soft items if the compass needle of your choice is a razor blade.

Also, if your magnetizer is a piece of steel or iron, the procedure will be changed to tapping. Tap the needle onto the material to magnetize it. You can stick the compass needle you chose into a piece of wood and tap the top of the needle about 50 times or more.

It’s time to use the cork. Push the needle up into the center of the cork. It should be deep enough that the needle comes out of the other side and the same amount of the compass needle is visible on both ends.

On the occasion that you use a razor blade, all you have to do is place the razor blade on top of the cork piece – although in this instance you might need a bigger piece of cork. If you’re in the wilderness, there can be several alternatives for the cork coin. You can use leaves or other small materials that float on water.

Using the DIY Compass

To use the compass, put some water in the bowl or a jar. Place the cork with the compass needle to make it float on water and watch the coin turn clockwise or counterclockwise. The compass needle will then proceed to align itself with the Earth’s magnetic field and point north to south.

A common deterrent to this activity is the wind. If the wind keeps on hitting the compass, it will have a hard time aligning itself with the magnetic fields. Consider shielding the compass as it calibrates. If you’re in the wilderness, do your best to avoid using this method on bodies of water that have current. You may use a puddle of water or water in a bowl or jar.

If all things are considered and it still does not work, you may need to ensure that the needle is magnetized.

And there you have it: A DIY compass. A world classic and a tool for the wilderness. It’s a neat science experiment that can be used for STEM education just about anywhere. It’s a lot of fun to make and it can be entertaining for kids to learn about fundamental knowledge for navigation, science, and engineering.

Spiral RankingScore
Fun Factor10.5
Challenge Factor4.5
Storage & Clean Up3.5
Age Appropriate9
Science Score2
Technology Score1.6
Engineering Score1.6
Art Score1
Math Score1
Elena Jones

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