Perspectives of Hands-On
David L. Haury and Peter
9. Hands-on science can be expensive. How do I
get materials and equipment?
Inadequate science equipment is an obstacle to hands-on science teaching
that has existed since the 1970s (Tilgner, 1990). Lack of supplies is the
most reported major barrier in elementary science education (Morey, 1990;
Teters & Gabel, 1984). Numerous studies have found the lack of hands-on
materials to be a major problem for teachers (Finan, 1990; Glass, 1984;
Guerrero, Eisler, & Wilcken, 1990). This section looks at ways teachers
can overcome the hurdle of expensive equipment and materials.
- To teach hands-on science to middle school sixth-graders in a rural
school district, where lab equipment is scarce to nonexistent, requires
dedication and innovation on the part of the classroom teacher. It can
be done. To teach body systems to my sixth-graders I have a very understanding
butcher who supplies me with all of the hearts, lungs, kidneys, brains,
eyes, and other organs that we are studying free of charge. The students
are able to handle, dissect, and examine tissue from these organs to get
a much better understanding of living body tissue and its function. These
labs fuel a fire that no textbook or black and white film from the 1950s
could even spark.
In physical science I can make 15 sets of gram weights from nuts, bolts,
and other items from my local hardware store. I can make graduated beakers
from empty jelly jars and mark them with a permanent marker. I can make
a balance from pegboard, a nail, a piece of soda straw, and scraps of wood.
The materials and equipment you can design for this age group to foster
an early interest in the sciences is only limited by the teacher's imagination
and dedication to their subject area. Saundra K. Elsea, Sixth Grade
Science/Health, Kingston, OH
- If my school has monies I just ask my principal and if he has funds
I have no problem. If money is not to be found I ask the children to bring
in materials from home. As a last resort I simply buy the materials with
my own funds. At times we have done fund raisers for field trips and that
could be another source for materials. Dave Kelly, Sixth Grade Teacher,
Daley School, Lowell, MA
- It seems to me that when you begin to study the "hands-on"
approach, one pictures a science lab with microscopes, Jacob's Ladder,
etc. But, looking at and reading books such as Mudpies to Magnets
you realize that 98% of the materials you need are in your home. Such materials
are easy to collect. Plus, they're replaceable. Mike Thorn, Kindergarten
teacher, Eakin Elementary School, OH
- The best way is to pool the money [at the] ... district or building
level and buy in quantity. Your dollar goes a lot further because you can
get discounts. It also works best if one person [is] ... given responsibility
because then he [or] she can become knowledgeable, have time to do comparison
shopping, etc. Bonita Talbot-Wylie, Presidential Awardee 1990, President
of SEPA, third grade teacher, Minnettonka Schools, Excelsior, MN
- As the budget ax falls on local school districts, funding continues
to be a major concern across the country. Science teachers, notoriously
known for being beggars, scavengers, and packrats, can turn their resourcefulness
into grant dollars with creative ideas and innovative classroom programs.
Start simple! For my first grant, I used a project which had been successful
in my classroom for several years. I knew the project inside and out, the
intended audience, the expected outcomes as well as the limitations. As
the students and I discovered "new twists" in the project, funding
became a problem. I needed a plan to finance the project and its possible
Start small! Each year, small grants are awarded to groups, individuals,
and organizations dealing with some sort of science education. Look to
local or state agencies and organizations for your first proposal. For
example, the Ohio Wildlife Diversity Project Grants for 1993, funded by
the Ohio Division of Wildlife, awarded a total of $9,108 to three Ohio
schools. It is interesting to note that the largest award, of the twelve
contracts awarded, went to an elementary school teacher. A good source
for larger more competitive awards is the "Earn & Win" section
in each issue of NSTA Reports. Amid the nationally recognized awards
are a handful of state and regional awards as well. Be sure to consider
the full gamut of types of funding sources that might be interested in
science education - private foundations, state agencies, federal agencies,
private businesses, and professional associations. Doing the homework to
match your need, project, or program with the interests of donors is extremely
important and will increase your chances of success.
Start now! I submitted my first grant proposal in 1991 and have been
awarded three grants. My projects were not exceptional but rather they
addressed the needs of my students and school with elements of creativity
and innovation. With a carefully selected funding source, clear and concise
writing technique, and quality objectives, you're well on your way to being
funded. Sally A. Parker, The Montessori House, Tampa, FL
- In some cases you can get materials and equipment from people who have
them - research people. Contact corporations in your area to ask them to
consider you when they are discarding materials. You can acquire some very
nice, albeit used, equipment.
However in many cases you need 25 of the same object, and you cannot
expect to have it donated in that quantity. You must raise the money. Find
out whose father or mother is an engineer, scientist, or medical doctor.
Impress them with your need and ask them to call a few other parents to
make a contribution. I did that last year and raised over $400 with a dozen
phone calls (and only one turndown).
For bigger projects, local companies and foundations may contribute.
They are out there; you need to find them. See if your community has a
volunteer center or a community foundation. They can help you find the
sources. The library may also have the information. Edwin J.C. Sobey,
National Invention Center, Akron, OH
- Hands-on science programs that start with what you already have (or
can easily obtain) are naturally cheap - perhaps $10 to $15 per student
per year [see question 10 for a list of materials Marson recommends]. If
your school doesn't budget for science materials, you can order many items
out of general supplies. Here at TOPS we occasionally get orders paid by
the PTA. Ron Marson, TOPS Learning Systems, Canby, OR
- Many effective science activities can be done with readily available
materials. However, buying materials for large numbers of students can
be expensive. The SPLASH (Student-Parent Laboratories Achieving Science
at Home) program originated to get parents more involved with their children's
science education and to give students more hands-on science activities
in order to improve their attitudes toward science and achievement in science.
A weekly activity is assigned to the students that utilizes commonly available
materials in the home. Flour and balls are used to simulate crater formation,
paper to construct whirly-birds and paper airplanes for flight investigations,
and popcorn to design controlled experiments. Teachers can have students
bring materials from home for class activities, or assign extension activities
to utilize materials in the home environment. Peter Rillero, SPLASH
(Student-Parent Laboratories Achieving Science at Home), The Ohio State
University, Columbus, OH
Notes from the literature
- Over three quarters of the teachers (grades K-2) responding to a survey
on the Comprehensive Instructional Management System Science program (New
York State) reported that the materials required were not readily available
in their school (Guerrero, Eisler, & Wilcken, 1990).
- Kahle, Anderson, and Damnjanovic (1991) in a survey of United States
elementary school teachers, found that teachers who stated they had inadequate
resources in science rated the availability of materials and equipment
in physical science the lowest.
- Elementary school classrooms are a little more likely to have commercially
available science manipulatives than they are to have teacher-assembled
materials (Harty, Kloosterman, & Matkin; 1989). However, there are
many sources of information for teacher- assembled materials.
- Fox (1994), a fourth grade teacher, describes the solution at her elementary
mathematics/science magnet school that utilized site-based management and
community-wide support to gather and store science materials. In a collaborative
effort teachers visited other schools and evaluated curriculum guides and
textbooks to create priority lists of equipment and materials. This lists
was shared with school administrators, and then parent groups, school partners,
various local business (including pet and hardware stores and a zoo), and
supportive intermediate-level science teachers. An amazing collection of
material was collected. Then available funds were used to purchase equipment
that was not collected, which included lab tables, microscopes, beakers,
test tubes, and flasks. "The communal project has resulted in an enormous
sense of ownership and pride in the school science program, as well as
continued funding for the laboratory" (Fox, 1994, p. 22).
- Doherty (1992b) describes how an electroscope can be made from inexpensive
materials, and explains the advantage of having students build the instrument.
"All of the teams have successfully built electroscopes by draping
charged strips of Scotch Brand Magic Tapeþ over bent straws stuck
into film cans full of clay. Judith [the classroom teacher] found the tape
in administrative supplies; the straws were donated by a local fast-food
restaurant; the film cans came from a neighborhood camera store; and the
clay came from Judith's own collection supplies. The resulting electroscopes
are not black boxes made by some science supply house; there are no hidden
or mysterious parts. The students have built them, and so 'own' them. If
an electroscope breaks, the students fix it or build a new one. Each group
checks the electroscope it has built. One girl combs her hair and brings
the plastic comb towards the strips of tape dangling from the soda straws.
One piece of tape is repelled by the comb, but the other is attracted.
The electroscope works! The team cheers and brags to the surrounding tables"
- Graduated cylinders can be created from quart size plastic oil containers
that have a volume sight tube calibrated in ounces or parts per quart (Schlenker
& Yoshida, 1992). Students or the teacher can use scissors to remove
the pouring spout of the bottle so it looks more like a beaker. To measure
in the metric unit of milliliters, 100 ml of colored water is poured into
the container and the level marked. This is repeated so that 100-ml increments
are marked on the volume sight tube. Now the graduated cylinder can be
- Bait shops can be an inexpensive source of living vertebrates that
can be used for classroom activities (Texley, 1993).
- The outdoors can be an important source for materials for science teaching
(Tredway, 1982). Tredway advises teachers to choose a site that is within
a 15-minute walk from school. Possible activities in the local environment
include collecting trash and sorting it into categories and weighing it
to make a graph, collecting leaves for identification, and describing the
type and number of insects in the study area.
- Stangle (1993) explains that teachers can integrate language arts with
science by going out and finding critters that are characters in the books
the children are reading. Critters such as ants, butterflies, crickets,
and worms can be observed in their natural habitats. Large jars with a
rubber band securing a fine net to the top enclosing sticks and rocks and
moistened leaves can be convenient temporary homes for the organisms. Questions
- such as What do the critters eat? and How do they move? - can guide the
students in making observations. After an hour or two the critters should
be returned to the outdoors.
- Many low cost, educationally sound hands-on activities can be found
in magazines for teachers. For example in Science Activities, Philips
(1992) described how readily available equipment can be used to teach principles
of the controlled experiment. The National Science Teacher's Association
produces Science and Children (elementary grades) and Science
Scope (middle grades) which contain an abundance of inexpensive, creative
science activities. For example, in "Can-Do Science" in Science
and Children, Scott (1992) describes different hands-on activities
that can be done with ordinary cans.
- As the problem of materials is increasingly recognized, many science
educators are designing activities to use very simple materials. The introductory
paragraph of "Electrifying Science" by Duane Inman (1993) illustrates
this approach to low or no budget science. "Elementary science teachers
increasingly are being encouraged to teach more science and to use a hands-on
approach. But they are usually then constrained by budgetary limitations
that, to many, seem to preclude the effective use of activity science in
the classroom. Following are several activities, grouped by the process
skills involved, that I have found to be of high interest and relatively
low budget and that are effective in stimulating interest in science and
in teaching science concepts to elementary students" (Inman, 1993,
- Activities from journals, teacher magazines, conference presentations,
curricula, and books can be found using the ERIC database. The most efficient
search utilizes a computer with a CD- ROM. The ERIC descriptor "science-activities"
will identify thousands of documents containing hands-on science articles.
It is recommended that you narrow your search to a topic of interest by
using descriptors or identifiers. For example, if you want hands-on activities
related to electricity your search terms would be "science-activities"
and "electricity." To get activities that may not be strictly
limited to science it is advisable to use the descriptor "learning-activities."
For example, to find activities related to evolution the following search
could be used: "science- activities" or "learning-activities"
and "evolution." See page 131 for more information on
the ERIC system.
- The ERIC Clearinghouse for Science, Mathematics, and Science Education
produces publications for hands-on activities in science mathematics, and
environmental education. A free list of publications can be obtained by
writing the Clearinghouse.
- Grants from Eisenhower math and science funds, corporations, and school
districts may be used to purchase science equipment and materials. Bruder
(1993) lists the following corporations willing to fund K-12 science programs:
ARCO Foundation, 515 South Flower Street, Los Angeles, CA 90071; The Lukens
Foundation, 50 South First Street, Coatesville, PA 19320; America Honda
Foundation, P.O. Box 2205, Torrance, CA 90509; Sterling Winthrop Inc.,
90 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10016; and National Semiconductor Corporation,
2900 Semiconductor Drive, Mailstop 16-179, Santa Clara, CA 95052. Bruder
advises writing for information and an application and not sending grant
- The National Gardening Association (1993b) has collected excerpts from
successful grant applications for funding the GrowLab program. They make
the following offer: "To request 'How to Fund a Classroom GrowLab,'
send a stamped self-addressed envelope to Growlab Grants, National Gardening
Association, 180 Flynn Ave., Burlington, VT 05401."
- "There will always be problems with doing investigative science,
especially with living materials and simple apparatus. Some teachers will
always be able to cite reasons why they cannot teach investigative science,
even when their colleagues are overcoming the barriers and doing an outstanding
job. It is the contention of the authors that the large numbers of teachers
who fall between these two extremes would be willing to give investigative
science a try, and would persist in doing so, if some of the obvious barriers
could be reduced" (Atwood & Howard, 1990, p. 858).
- Among the recommendations for the Comprehensive Instructional Management
System Science Program was the following: "Given the importance of
manipulative materials to the program's hands-on approach, program staff
in collaboration with district and school administration, need to explore
alternative ways of making these more readily available; this might include
establishing networks among teachers for sharing materials and modifying
lessons in ways that take the paucity of supplies into account" (Guerrero,
Eisler, & Wilcken, 1990, p. 28).
- Thorndike, the famous educational psychologist recognized the value
of using simple, inexpensive materials in science education. In 1920 he
wrote the following: "Laboratory or experimental methods of teaching
depend less upon extensive equipment of [sic]instruments and complicated
arrangements for controlling nature in experiments, than upon the attitude
of open-mindedness and sincere curiosity. A teacher may be as prejudiced,
dogmatic and pedantic with a thousand dollars' worth of brass instruments
as with a text-book; and a scientific teacher can make a pail of water,
a hot-air stove and a school yard the means of first-rate experiments.
Indeed, the instructiveness of an experiment is commonly in a rough
proportion to the simplicity of the apparatus used" [emphasis
added] (Thorndike, 1920, p. 178).
There is no denying the fact that hands-on teaching and learning requires
materials, and some materials can become expensive or difficult to obtain.
But the greatest challenge, it seems, is to first focus on what experiences
are desired, then consider the alternatives in terms of materials. Often
the materials can be quite simple or readily available from nontraditional
sources. For instance, some have suggested using nuts and bolts from the
hardware store for weights, or obtaining from the local butcher organs,
bones, and assorted joints to dissect. Many teachers also report that most
of what is needed for simple hands-on activities are readily available
in the homes of teachers and students.
A materials-based, hands-on approach should not be totally dependent,
however, on the scavenging abilities of teachers. Many local businesses,
agencies, and parent organizations will award small grants to purchase
essential equipment and supplies. Many corporations seek needy recipients
for used equipment when updating their own resources. Also, all American
public schools receive Federal monies to support improved teaching and
learning, particularly among historically underserved and underrepresented
groups in mathematics and science. Find out who in the district knows about
the sources of funding, and submit proposals.
No matter what approach is taken to science teaching, there is a cost
factor: costs for books, materials, or a person's time. The quest for materials
must not take place in a vacuum; efforts to obtain materials must be considered
in the context of the time and expense being committed to the full array
of textbooks and services being managed in the service of instruction.
When all is said and done, however, the real key to hands-on learning is
to use whatever is available to spark curiosity and promote active inquiry.
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