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Defining Electric Potential Difference

by Moving a Multimeter’s Ground

Marta R. Stoeckel, Tartan High School, Oakdale, MN

he abstract nature of electric potential difference (volt- similar setup to mapping the electric potential between two
age) can make it a difficult concept to grasp, but un- small electrodes.5
derstanding the relative nature of voltage is central to For safety purposes, it is best to limit the maximum volt-
developing a conceptual understanding of electric circuits.1,2 age available. With 10 V or less, there will be insufficient cur-
In laboratory situations, I see these conceptual difficulties rent to shock a student who touches the water, even when us-
manifest when students have difficulty placing voltmeter ing very hard tap water. Since the power supply simply needs
probes appropriately or struggle to interpret unexpected mul- to provide a consistent voltage, it could be replaced with a
timeter readings, such as negative voltages. I developed this 9-V battery to limit the maximum voltage.
lab activity to reinforce the relative nature of electric potential Initially, the ground (black) probe of a voltmeter is at-
difference and to provide students with a concrete under- tached to the negative lead from the power supply. The volt-
standing of what a voltmeter measures, including the signifi- meter’s measuring (red) probe is then used to plot voltage vs.
cance of the placement of each multimeter probe. position along a line connecting the power supply leads, as
In this activity, students measure and plot the voltage along shown in Fig. 1. This will produce a graph with a vertical in-
a line in a uniform electric field using several placements of tercept of zero and a slope equal to the magnitude of the elec-
the ground probe from a voltmeter. The initial setup for this tric field between the leads as described by the equation ΔV =
lab activity was inspired by an electric potential mapping lab EΔx, where ∆V represents the voltage as measured from the
I first encountered in the Modeling Instruction physics cur- negative lead of the power supply, E represents the electric
riculum.3 I typically use this activity as a follow-up to map- field strength, and ∆x represents the distance from the nega-
ping electric potentials since the maps provide opportunities tive lead of the power supply.
for conceptual links to gravitational potential energy that can The data collection is then repeated with the ground probe
aid in the analysis of the results from this activity. of the voltmeter placed in new positions, such as the mid-
Students place a sheet of laminated grid paper or a plas- point between the two power supply leads, as shown in Fig.
tic ruler in the bottom of a tray. The tray is then filled with 2. When these data are graphed, they should have the same
enough tap water to cover the sheet of grid paper, usually slope as the original data, but with a horizontal intercept that
about 1-2 cm. A power supply is set to 5-10 V and the leads corresponds to the new position of the ground probe.
are anchored in the water at adjacent corners of the grid (see To confirm the pattern, students should move the volt-
Fig. 1). While not necessary, clipping pennies to the power meter’s ground probe to the positive power supply lead and
supply leads provides some extra weight that can also help repeat the data collection once more to produce a plot that
keep the leads anchored. Alternatively, conductive paper4 can again has a slope that matches the first plot, but with a hori-
be used in place of the laminated grid and water tray using a zontal intercept that matches the position of the positive lead.

Fig. 1. The multimeter’s measuring probe is moved along Fig. 2. The multimeter’s ground probe is held in a new
the arrow to measure electric potential difference at position and the measuring probe is used to measure
points between the power supply leads. electric potential difference along the same range of

24 The Physics Teacher ◆ Vol. 56, J anuary 2018 DOI: 10.1119/1.5018683

This activity also supports students in effectively using
voltmeters in later labs involving quantitative circuit analy-
sis. Students’ instinct is often to always place the multimeter
ground probe at the negative terminal of a power supply or
battery, but their experience with moving the ground probe
as part of this lab translates easily to moving the ground
probe around a circuit to measure the potential difference
across specific elements. In addition, the understanding of
negative voltages that students develop during this lab pro-
vides a conceptual basis for interpreting negative voltages in
a circuit.
This simple lab activity gives students the opportunity to
develop a deeper conceptual understanding of voltage, in-
cluding its relative nature and the significance of a negative
Fig. 3. An example of data collected for this lab activity. The
value. It also provides students with the conceptual tools to
horizontal intercept represents the position of the multimeter’s
ground probe. effectively use and interpret a voltmeter in quantitative circuit
The relationships between the three data sets can be further
reinforced by having students plot all three on the same set of References
axes, as shown in Fig. 3. 1. R. Cohen, B. Eylon, and U. Ganiel, “Potential difference and
In a discussion of the results, students usually connect the current in simple electric circuits: A study of students’ con-
data to position-vs.-time graphs in which the vertical inter- cepts,” Am. J. Phys. 51, 407 (May 1983).
cept is determined by the position at a time of zero relative 2. L. C. McDermott and P. Shaffer, “Research as a guide for cur-
riculum development: An example from introductory electric-
to an arbitrary origin; in this case, the vertical intercept is
ity, part I: Investigation of student understanding,” Am. J. Phys.
determined by the electric potential at a position of zero rela- 60, 994 (Nov. 1992).
tive to an arbitrarily defined ground. In discussing the slope, 3. More information on Modeling Instruction can be found on
students recognize that the consistent slopes indicate that the the website of the American Modeling Teachers’ Association,
change in electric potential between any pair of positions is .
the same, regardless of the placement of the ground probe. 4. From sources including PASCO scientific, 10101 Foothills
Another key element of the discussion of this lab is iden- Blvd., Roseville, CA 95678-9011 or (PASCO
tifying what a negative electric potential represents. The PK-9025).
experience of moving the ground probe of the multimeter 5. J. Phillips, J. Sanny, D. Berube, and A. Hoemke, “Beyond the
provides a tangible connection to selecting a reference height point change: Equipotential surfaces and electric fields of vari-
where gravitational potential energy is equal to zero. This en- ous charge configurations,” Phys. Teach. 55, 71 (Feb. 2017).
ables students to recognize that a negative reading on a volt- Marta Stoeckel has been teaching physics and other science courses
meter indicates that the measuring probe is simply located for nine years. Currently, she teaches AP Physics 1, physics, and basic
chemistry. She has a BS in physics from Valparaiso University and an
at a position with a lower electric potential than the ground
MET in educational technology from Boise State University. Her interests
probe, just as a negative gravitational potential energy indi- include Modeling Instruction, STEM integration, and teacher professional
cates an object is at a position lower than the reference height. development.

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