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How to teach science on a budget

Teaching science can be expensive, but it doesn't have to be. Over the years I've realized that I can get a ton of cheap science materials online or at the dollar store for a fraction of the cost that you would pay elsewhere. Doing so has also taught me that you can get a heck of a lot of science done without spending much money at all. This article is therefore my attempt to summarize the money-saving tips that I've learned in order to help out science teachers and homeschool parents on a budget.

Saving money on science supplies science money symbol sign

Perhaps you aren't too concerned about how much your school spends to keep your department stocked, because, after all, it's not your money, but I think you should be. That's money your organization could be spending elsewhere, and ultimately, it might just affect your paycheck and the quality of education you are able to provide.


With that out of the way, let's get to it!


Avoid science suppliers


My school typically insists on using supply catalogs for most of our science materials, which is fine for reagents and complicated equipment, but for simple things like glassware, craft supplies, and disposable items, I think it's a huge scam. It should not cost $12 for a beaker, but supply companies know that schools are footing the bill and will happily charge whatever they want.


I went along with ordering from suppliers for a while, but now I refuse to pay inflated prices for items that I can easily find at literally any local store. Of course, the trade-off is that I sometimes have to go shopping on my own time, but that can be avoided by purchasing items online. Also, this sometimes means paying out of pocket (nothing new there), but to me, the benefits greatly outweigh the costs.


Buy it online or in a store


Assuming you've made the decision to forgo suppliers, you'll need to shop around for the best price. The dollar store is always my first choice when I require simple items and craft supplies. A good store will have almost everything you need for basic science experiments and projects. If that doesn't work, there are always large, low-cost retailers like Wal-Mart and Target. If you need electronic supplies, measuring equipment, and glassware, check out home centers or cooking specialty stores. If something looks good but seems too expensive, take a photo or write down the product name/number and buy it online instead, which is almost always cheaper.


One added benefit of purchasing things in this way is that you'll get what you need right away. Few things annoy me more than having a plan for a great lab and not being able to do it because we aren't able to get what we need in time. I do a ton of project-based learning so I can't plan my labs months in advance. That makes the traditional school ordering system pretty inefficient for my needs.


I went through my school's science inventory and made a list of materials I prefer to purchase online or in a store rather than rely on my school's clunky, overpriced suppliers. Then I made a second list of the items I still need to order from reputable dealers because they are too dangerous, expensive, or difficult to acquire otherwise.

Materials you can save money on by purchasing online or in-store

Materials you should probably let your school order

-toothpicks -straws (get the paper ones) -balloons -elastic bands -paper towels -paper plates and cups -popsicle sticks -batteries -flashlights -magnifying glasses -jars (glass and plastic) -storage containers -lighters -dice -marbles -magnets -food items (salt, sugar, oil, etc.) -insect cages -food colouring -glue -spray bottles -nail polish remover -gelatin -candles -cleaning supplies -coffee filters -sandpaper -disposable gloves -hardware supplies (tools, fasteners, etc.) -dishcloths and towels -rulers, protractors, etc. -calculators -glow sticks -string, twine, etc. -tape -cotton swabs/buds -glue gun -disposable utensils -resealable plastic bags -vinegar -baking soda -gardening supplies

-most chemicals -microscopes and prepared slides -glassware (test tubes, flasks, etc.) -electronic components (lightbulbs, LEDs, motors, etc.) -measuring devices (data loggers, scales, thermometers, etc.) -precision items (small weights, calipers, etc.) -metals -retort stands/clamps -dissection supplies -sets (molecular modeling sets, building sets, etc.) -Bunsen burners and fire safety equipment -indicators -goggles and labcoats -lasers -physics demo equipment -aquarium supplies

Ask yourself if you really need it


Yeah, it might be nice to have an infrared camera or a Liebig condenser for that cool distillation demo, but is it really worth the expense for something you're only likely to use for a few minutes each school year? You can often get by with much simpler equipment (see below), or just show a video clip instead. If you want your kids to see some fancy equipment in person, take them to a science center or university.


Substitute with cheaper materials


Why pay a fortune for Pyrex glassware or lab-grade chemicals when much cheaper materials will suffice? For elementary science in particular, I see almost no reason why you would need high-precision, professional equipment or measuring devices. Even at the high school level, you're not doing cutting-edge research and don't need the highest level of quality for all of your supplies. I can't tell you how many graduated cylinders my students have broken (I've shattered one or two myself!) so I've switched to plastic ones instead. The one item I splurged on over the last few years was a single weight scale accurate to 0.01g.


Other household materials I regularly make use of include coffee filters (faster and much cheaper than lab-grade filter papers), paper cups (instead of glassware, particularly when working with messy ingredients), and chemicals like isopropyl alcohol and vinegar that can be easily purchased at the grocery store or pharmacy for much less than their lab-grade counterparts.


Beware of kits


I get it. Kits always look really engaging and seem like a good value, and occasionally they are, but lots of times the quality is very poor for what you're paying and you only really use one or two components from the kit anyway. If possible, try to figure out exactly what you need and then order each piece separately. You'll often save money and get better materials.


The one type of kit that I think is really worth the money is testing kits (for water quality or soil, for example), but for those I would still order directly to avoid the education markup costs.


Use less of everything


I wrote an entire article on how to cut down on lab and experimental waste, so check that out if you want to learn more. To summarize, you should choose reusable materials where possible, compost waste, do virtual labs instead of traditional ones, make use of microchemistry experiments, avoid handouts, have students work in groups instead of by themselves, or share supplies with other schools/departments. There is no shortage of ways to cut costs by making small changes in the way you allocate materials. Also, if you find that some of your supplies are just sitting on a shelf somewhere collecting dust, consider donating them to another school or organization that could make better use of them.


Conclusion


I hope the advice above is helpful for new and experienced science teachers who want to do more while spending less. You'll feel good about being frugal with your students and you can potentially use the leftover funds in your science budget on things like field trips or digital resources that will better serve your needs and improve learning. If you have other tips for how you can save money while teaching kids science, please share them in the comments or send me a message.


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