Magnetism is a non-contact force. The magnet can affect materials across an intervening space. That is, we do not have to be at the location of the source object to detect it.
The fact that the force acts across a space but can be modified (strengthened, weakened, redirected) by intervening materials creates an intellectual challenge. What is the important difference between materials which do not effect magnetic fields, those that enhance them, those that weaken fields, and those that redirect them? This may form an excellent question to place on the blackboard and leave for a few days to inspire investigation and thought.
Students will investigate the shape of the magnetic field of a bar magnet. This will be done by placing the magnetometer at various locations and recording the direction of alignment of the sensor magnet. Students will look for the place where the magnetic field of the bar magnet can no longer be seen. They will not find a discrete transition point but rather a region of blending. The region may be fairly narrow as the field of a dipole falls off as the cube of the distance to the center of the dipole. Note: the magnetic field of the earth is always present but is overwhelmed by the dipole field close to the dipole.
There is pedagogic value in motivating the students to think about the contributions of the earth as well as the dipole magnet to their observations. A great deal of science is about exploring methods of removing extraneous "background" information from desired observations. Students to become explicitly aware of the process of interpreting observations for new information. The standard method of demonstrating a dipole field shape using iron fillings clearly avoids the problem of interpreting raw observations and gives the "right answer" efficiently. We wish to avoid unthinking acceptance of the data.
Awareness of the impact of the background magnetic field from the earth will be achieved by comparing the observed bar magnet field for different radial distances from the dipole magnet and by comparing observations made at different orientations relative to the magnetic field of the earth. The results will not be absolutely precise or accurate. This is due to limits of the magnetometer as an observation tool and it is due to interference from local producers of magnetic field in the observation area. This is not a "cook book" lab activity and is likely to produce some frustration on the part of the student-scientist.
A certain difficulty may arise with the bar magnets: sometimes a single bar magnet will exhibit a field shaped like two dipoles placed end-to-end. My experience is this happens with bar magnets that have been dropped or otherwise violently disturbed. A fast check is to observe the direction of the field at the midpoint of the long axis of the bar magnets to insure no defective magnets are being mapped. A map of such a magnet will show field direction lines perpendicular to the long axis of the bar magnet at the center. Such (defective) magnets will be a source of confusion to students. Looking at the following web pages may help students understand what is happening that makes a magnet "defective" and what to do to repair it.
Students were asked in homework to answer the following questions: