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Education Lesson Plans

Electricity, Frankenstein, and the Spark of Life

  • Grade level: 6–8
  • Subject: literature and science & technology

Time Needed

three 45-minute class periods


This lesson plan uses several visual materials from Frankenstein: Penetrating the Secrets of Nature, an online exhibition, to consider one of its topics—how Mary Shelley’s horror science fiction, published in 1818, reflects the increasing knowledge and hopes about electricity in her time. In Class 1, students explore the references to electricity in the Frankenstein novel and a 1931 film by viewing a four-minute film clip and reading short excerpts from Chapters 2 and 5 of the novel. In Class 2, students are introduced to Galvanism and Luigi Galvani whose experiments and observations on electricity and muscle contractions ignited the imagination and work of many scientists in late 18th century.

Students learn about Galvani’s experiment with a two-scene play that depicts two fictitious encounters featuring Galvani and another scientist, Alessandro Volta, who was Galvani’s contemporary.

  • learning outcomes

    Students will be able to:
    • Understand that Mary Shelley wrote her horror science fiction, Frankenstein, and incorporated into her novel emerging scientific knowledge and hope for electricity in the late 18th century.
    • Describe Luigi Galvani’s experiments and observations about electricity and muscle contraction made in 1791.
    • Explain the relationship between body and electricity, and identify at least one electrical application in modern medicine.
    • Demonstrate critical observation skills and effective reading comprehension through oral and written summaries.
  • Background Information

    The Frankenstein: Penetrating the Secrets of Nature exhibition looks at the world in which Mary Shelley lived. Her fictional story did not come from the void, but included scientists and physicians of her time who were tantalized by the elusive boundary between life and death, probing it through experiments with lower organisms, human anatomical studies, attempts to resuscitate drowning victims, and experiments using electricity to restore life to the recently dead. Some thought electricity capable of reanimating the dead. This hope and enthusiasm rose from the studies of Luigi Galvani and his publication, De Viribus Electricitatis in Motu Musculari Commentarius (Commentary on the Effect of Electricity on Muscular Motion). While dissecting a frog, Galvani observed the leg muscles twitch in response to a transfer of charge from equipment in the laboratory to the frog’s muscles. His work led him to believe that electrical energy was a vital force of life. Galvani’s work set the stage for the current understanding and studies of electrophysiology.

    Teachers are encouraged to preview the following online exhibition sections and other resources that provide useful instructional materials integral to the implementation of the lesson:

  • Vocabulary

    The following words may be introduced or incorporated into the lesson:

  • Materials

    Print All Materials
    • Frankenstein Novel Excerpts with Electricity References (PDF, MS Word)
    • A Play: How did the Frog Jump Across the Road? (PDF, MS Word)
    • Play: Follow-up Questions (PDF, MS Word)
    • Teacher’s Play: Follow-up Questions (PDF)
    Other materials and set-ups:
    • a display set-up for class—e.g. interactive whiteboard, computer connected projector, or flip chart/whiteboard
    • materials for class display include all student handouts listed above
    • a set-up to show a Frankenstein movie clip
    • a copy of the 1931 film, Frankenstein, staring Colin Clive and Boris Karloff, or available online at (accessed 10/01/2014)
  • class 1 procedures

    1. Start with a brief assessment of if and what students know about Frankenstein.
    2. Tell students that they will view a short clip of 1931 movie, Frankenstein. Display and read aloud the following questions for students to consider while viewing the movie clip:
      • Who is Frankenstein? How is he portrayed?
      • Who else is included in the scene? What role do they serve?
      • Where is the setting and what is the mood of the scene?
      • Which element(s) seems important in the scene?
    3. Show students the clip (approx. 4 minutes), starting where Dr. Frankenstein explains to Dr. Waldman about his discovery of “the great ray that first brought life into the world” and ending where Frankenstein exclaims “…now I know what it feels like to be God!”
    4. Look back at the four questions on display, and have students answer them based on the clip.
    5. Tell students that the Frankenstein story originated as a novel published in 1818. Display the “Portrait of Mary Shelley” (see slide 2 of 4) and introduce the novel’s author by reading aloud the text accompanying the portrait.
    6. Reread the text and look up unfamiliar words as a class—e.g., envisioned, hideous, phantasm—to help all students fully comprehend. Have students rewrite the text in their own words and collect their writing for assessment.
    7. Have students work in pairs to read and summarize the introduction of the “Boundary Crossing/1818” section of the online exhibition. Assign pairs to create a list of unfamiliar words that they look up, and to summarize the main ideas in the two paragraphs in their own words. Collect the pair work and read aloud several examples of the pair’s summaries.
    8. Highlight the sentence in the second paragraph—“Frankenstein reflected the interest of early 19th-century physicians and natural philosophers …” Ask students what science topic(s) is highlighted in the movie clip—lightning, light/ray, electricity.
    9. Tell students that they are to review selected references to electricity in the original novel. Distribute copies of Frankenstein Novel Excerpts with Electricity References to each student. Have student pairs read and summarize the main idea(s) of the excerpts from chapters 2 and 5 for the remainder of the class.
    10. Class 1 Evaluation: Collect students’ two written summaries from steps 6 and 7, as well as their completed Frankenstein Novel Excerpts with Electricity References sheets for evaluation.
  • class 2 procedures

    1. Display the “Boundary Crossing/1818” page of the online exhibition and read aloud the sentence as done in the previous class—“Frankenstein reflected the interest of early 19th-century physicians and natural philosophers …”
    2. Remind students that they have watched and read some references to electricity in the 1931 movie clip, and excerpts from the novel during the previous class.
    3. Return students’ Frankenstein Novel Excerpts with Electricity References sheets from Class 1, and display a copy for the class. Ask students to volunteer to read one excerpt and share their summary of the excerpt.
    4. Tell students that they are going to learn more about the “electricity and galvanism” that Dr. Frankenstein described so excitedly in the excerpt from chapter 2.
    5. Display the illustration from Luigi Galvani’s book. And tell students about two scientists—Luigi Galvani of galvanism and Alessandro Volta as in electrical volt and voltage— who were well known for their work in electricity during Mary Shelley’s time. [Note: For more information, see online resources Galvani and the Frankenstein Story from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.]
    6. Distribute copies of A Play: How did the Frog Jump Across the Road? and Play: Follow-up Questions worksheet to each student. Explain that the skit is a ‘fictional’ encounter between Luigi Galvani and Alessandro Volta, describing Galvani’s observation on how a dissected frog twitched as if it were alive.
    7. Have students form groups of three, and assign each group to read the play and complete their Play: Follow-up Questions worksheets.
    8. Have groups present the play then provide their responses to the questions on the worksheet. Summarize student responses and see the Teacher’s Play: Follow-up Questions for discussion guide.
    9. Class 2 Evaluation: Collect student responses to Play: Follow-up Questions and use participation in class discussion to evaluate their ability to comprehend the reading assignment.
  • evaluations

    In addition to observing and assessing students during class discussions, teachers can evaluate student progress and understanding by reviewing completed Frankenstein Novel Excerpts with Electricity References and Play: Follow-up Questions worksheets from each student.

  • extension activities

    1. Assign students to an independent research and presentation project, for which each student selects one of the following figures to prepare her or his biography/information: Prometheus, Plutarch, Goethe, Luigi Galvani, Alessandro Volta, or Mary Shelley.
    2. Have students work in groups of three to research and prepare a presentation on one of the topics below. Assign each team to produce and prepare a final presentation that may consist of a minimum 3-page paper (double space) and a poster or multi-media presentation in the class. (See a sample Check Lists from a previous exhibition for a display and essay assignments):
      1. Your heart’s electrical system: // (accessed on 10/29/2010) and minimum 3 other sources.
      2. Atrial Fibrillation: // (accessed on 10/29/2010) and a minimum of 3 other sources.
      3. How a pacemaker works: // (accessed on 10/29/2010) and minimum 3 other sources.
  • Common Core State Standards: English Language Arts and Literacy

    Integration of Knowledge and Ideas

    • Distinguish among facts, reasoned judgment based on research findings, and speculation in a text

    Reading: Informational text

    • Cite textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
    • Integrate information presented in different media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively) as well as in words to develop a coherent understanding of a topic or issue.


    • Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas, concepts, and information through the selection, organization, and analysis of relevant content.
  • Next Generation Science Standards: Understandings about the Nature of Science

    Science Models, Laws, Mechanisms, and Theories Explain Natural Phenomena

    • Theories are explanations for observable phenomena.
    • A hypothesis is used by scientists as an idea that may contribute important new knowledge for the evaluation of a scientific theory.

    Science is a Way of Knowing

    • Science is a way of knowing used by many people, not just scientists.

    Science is a Human Endeavor

    • Scientists and Engineers rely on human qualities such as persistence, precision, reasoning, logic, imagination and creativity.