Low-budget (or no-budget) science

I recently started teaching in an elementary school. When I first walked into my classroom, I was surprised that there were no supplies or equipment for teaching science. My colleagues said that the requisitions and orders were all placed last year, the budget is tight, but eventually I can request supplies for next year. What can I do now?
—Brenda from Alabama

If you talk to teachers, you find that most (more than 90%, according to some studies) spend an average of close to $500 of their own money on school supplies instructional materials, and personal items for their students. (See Ed Week, the Huffington Post, and T.H.E. Journal)  Unfortunately, this situation has become even more critical as school budgets are shrinking.

Fortunately, science teaching at the elementary level does not necessarily require a lot of expensive equipment. Browse through issues of Science & Children, and you’ll see many featured activities that use everyday materials. Students can investigate plant growth, examine rock samples or insects, study mechanics and motion, and collect weather data with simple and inexpensive materials. For more science-on-a-shoestring ideas, you can also refer to The Frugal Science Teacher, PreK-5 from NSTA Press.

Check your science curriculum guide to find suggested activities for your grade level. Some teacher’s manuals list the materials used in the textbook activities. Compile a wish list of what you’ll need to implement your curriculum. However if you do not have safety equipment such as goggles, there may be activities that you cannot do this year.

Even simple activities require basic supplies. Before you spend any of your own money, describe the situation to your principal. She may ask other teachers to share their materials or scavenge the building to find things for you. She may be able to use discretionary funds to reimburse your purchases (save the receipts) or to order safety equipment. Find out if your parent organization gives gift cards to teachers for classroom materials.

Many families have limited incomes, so I’d hesitate to ask parents to send in supplies, although in some schools this is acceptable. But I would never give students extra credit toward a grade for bringing in supplies.

As a last resort you may have to purchase things yourself. Your local discount stores are treasure troves of things that can be repurposed for science. I’ve attended many NSTA conference sessions where presenters had us investigate science concepts with marbles, balloons, straws, paper clips, plastic cups, rubber bands, craft sticks, and small plastic cars. Take your wish list everywhere you go—you’ll never know what you’ll find at a flea market or yard sale. And save your receipts.

Enlist your family and friends to help find things for you. For example, when the bank where my husband worked changed to electronic manuals, they had dozens of three-ring binders they were going to put in the dumpster! My husband collected them and I gave them to students to use as science notebooks. The binders had various logos on them, but the students decorated them with stickers.

For larger projects, there are organizations (such as Adopt a Classroom or Donor’s Choose)and stores that give mini-grants for teachers.

It would be wonderful if our schools were fully funded so students and teachers had access to the resources they need for learning and investigating in science. Until that happens, teachers will continue to be generous and caring toward their students to make sure they have what they need. Welcome to the profession!

Photo: http://farm8.staticflickr.com/7152/6736170827_3b8b51b12e_t.jpg

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  1. GMc
    Posted September 10, 2012 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

    This is a common problem. Various groups have attempted to help by developing kits that are curriculum specific and ma be borrowed for free by classroom teachers.
    See: http://www.asla.ca and more specifically http://www.praxismh.ca/services.html#LearningKits

  2. Posted September 11, 2012 at 7:43 am | Permalink

    Brenda, to assist you in supplementing your classroom supplies at NSTA we have elementary awards which as part of the award, provide you with materials from sponsors such as Delta Education, PASCO, and Vernier. We also have a teacher competition, the Shell Science Lab Challenge, where you can win up to $20K of classroom materials and money for your science lab classroom. The deadlines for these are in November so please begin the process now. Visit our awards webpage at http://www.nsta.org/awards where you can get started on winning prize money and materials for your classroom!

  3. Peggy Ashbrook
    Posted September 16, 2012 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    Teachers can show their school’s tax exempt form at the check-out to slightly reduce their expenses.
    And some stores give a small discount on school purchases to teachers with a school ID–ask at every store!

  4. Melanie Cooper
    Posted September 18, 2012 at 8:57 am | Permalink

    I am looking for a STEM presenter on April 19, 2013, 8:30am-3:30 pm in Garrett County, Maryland. Audience is early childhood staff: teachers (and managers) of Head Start, Pre-K, Kindergaren, child care providers,etc. Do you know of any dynamic presenters who could come to our area?

    Please let me know.
    Melanie Cooper
    Training Coordinator

  5. From Judy via email
    Posted November 7, 2012 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

    You might also suggest she contact the teachers at the high school. We often supply/loan our middle school and elementary school teachers with items that they need whether that is microscope slides, solutions or samples of chemicals. Usually the teachers are not asking for much and our budget is sufficient enough to meet their infrequent requests.

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