The Life and Times of Percy Julian

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Activity 7A.5 (Lab Activity)
Magnetic Separation

Note to Teachers: There is no corresponding student version of this separation activity on the site. This is an in-class activity.

Lesson Overview This activity illustrates another separation technique, utilizing magnetic properties of some substances.
Learning Objective Students will be able to understand that separation using magnetic properties applies only to substances with magnetic properties.  
Lesson Concepts
  • Magnetism
  • Metals and nonmetals
  • Substances with magnetic properties can be separated from nonmagnetic substances using a magnet.
  • Some metallic substances have magnetic properties; nonmetallic substances are usually not magnetic.
Materials Required

Per lab group:

  • Glass marbles (5–10)
  • Steel ball bearings (5–10)
  • Shallow tray or basin made of nonmagnetic material (an aluminum pie pan will work here)
  • Permanent magnet
  • Plastic cups (2)

Caution students to watch out for dropped marbles or ball bearings on the floor.

Skills Required

Students should be able to work carefully with materials that are both difficult to keep together on a lab table and can break or chip (glass marbles).

Time Required

10–15 minutes.

Student Ability Level and Grouping

This activity can be done by middle school students working individually or in pairs.


Teacher prep: Before class, prepare a cup of marbles and a cup of ball bearings for each lab group so that they are ready to distribute along with a tray and magnet for each group.

Procedure Notes
  1. Have the students mix the glass marbles and steel ball bearings together in the shallow basin.
  2. Ask them to use the magnet to draw out the steel ball bearings (and place them in one of the plastic cups), leaving the glass marbles behind.
  3. Have the students write down their observations on their Investigation Record Sheet as they perform the separation.
Assessment See Activity 7A.7, Assessment: A Challenging Separation.
Resources for Further Study

An interesting activity that removes elemental iron from breakfast cereal using a magnet can be found at

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