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Labs on a Budget

Labs on a Budget: 4 tips for engaging students in science labs even if you are on a budget

If you are reading this, I am guessing (and hoping) you found me because you are a science teacher. Because of this, I know that labs are a huge part of what you do.

But if your teaching situation is anything like mine was for 4 years of my career, you may not have any money to spend on supplies, and thus you are expected to be doing labs on a budget.

Trust me, I get it. It is STRESSFUL. You want to do all the things with your students and make your classes engaging, hands-on, and fun, but it is HARD because you feel like you constantly have to fork over your own wallet to create meaningful learning experiences for your students.

It was HARD for me to transition from teaching at a large school with a MASSIVE fully stocked lab and all the resources I could ever need to a tiny private school in an old computer lab turned classroom with no running water, safety supplies, or money to spend on labs. But you know what? It forced me to get INCREDIBLY creative with how I served my students, and I learned so much about how to do labs on a budget – while still creating FUN and EFFECTIVE hands-on learning experiences in my classroom.

So if you are in a situation like I was, FEAR NOT! Here are my FOUR BEST TIPS for teaching labs on a budget!

Tip #1: Keep it simple.

Labs on a budget Tip #1: Keep it simple.

If I could shout this from a mountaintop I would – KEEP. IT. SIMPLE. I have found time and time again that the simplest labs are often the best (and best of all, the cheapest!!) We can get so caught up in trying to execute these epic lab investigations we find online with a long list of supplies that we don’t even take a second to ask ourselves – is this really serving our students and supporting them in their learning in a way that is WORTH IT to keep spending time, energy, and resources on?

One of the biggest gifts of my teaching career transition was how it forced me to REALLY reflect and evaluate every single instructional resource I used – because now it was coming out of MY POCKET to make it happen, so it really needed to be worth it.

What I found when I did a serious analysis of my curriculum was that a lot of the labs I was doing not only required a lot of supplies I didn’t have, but they also weren’t REALLY helping students understand and engage with the content better.

For example, I was using the really popular Catalase Enzyme Lab. If you Google it (or potato enzyme lab) you will find a ton of derivations of the lab I am referring to. It was fun and a bit flashy but required a LOT of stuff I didn’t have, and I was finding students really weren’t understanding enzymes any better because of it.

So I talked with some coworkers and brainstormed other ideas and my Enzyme Lab Activity was born. It requires pennies, tennis balls, tape, and stopwatches – all materials I had around the house. It is 10x simpler than the original lab I was doing, and arguably 10x more effective at helping students to really GET enzymes – while still allowing them to get out of their seats, collect data, analyze, graph, and conclude from. Best of all, it was nearly free for me to execute.

For your consideration: Take an hour and go through the labs you typically do. Are there any that just aren’t crazy effective? Or any that require a lot of your time and energy to prep, and money to execute with seemingly mediocre results? Consider how you can replace them with something MUCH simpler!

Tip #2: Stations are your friend.

Labs on a Budget Tip #2: Stations are your friend.

Stations are a game-changer for executing labs on a budget. If you have very limited resources (Ex. 2 working hot plates for your entire science department, 1 digital scale, etc.) STATIONS ARE YOUR FRIEND!

Take the labs that you would typically do in groups of 3-4 and break them up into chunks. Each chunk is a station of the lab. So you may have a design station, a heating station, a measuring station, a graphing station, an analysis station, etc. When you do it this way, instead of needing enough supplies for EVERY group, you really only need supplies for ONE group that you just divide up among stations.

Students can still work in groups but scaffold their start time so that they can still work through stations in order if needed. All you have to do is provide some reinforcement practice or another meaningful exercise for them to do at their desks while they wait for their start time (or if they are the first group to start, as they wait for the rest of the groups to finish).

This is exactly how I set up my Sweet Tea Reaction Rate Lab to majorly minimize the number of supplies that I need. I also love this lab because students get to see how factors affect reaction rates using something I can make for less than $5 at home – sweet tea!

I love stations so much that I’ve written a TON of blog posts about them! If you are interested in learning more about how they can help you do labs on a budget, you can read more here: why I love them here, 7 different ways you can use them here, practical tips for using them here, and challenges and solutions for using them here. (I know, I wasn’t kidding when I said I had a lot of thoughts about them!!)

For your consideration: Is there a lab you love that requires more materials than you can afford? Would you be able to buy materials for just one group that can be reused over and over if the lab was broken into stations? Think about it!

Tip #3: Prioritize model building.

Labs on a Budget Tip #3: Prioritize model building

I didn’t really do a ton of model building if I am honest when I first started teaching. It wasn’t until I dove into NGSS more that I realized how incredibly effective (and affordable!!) model building can be. It is such a great way to get students to think in a unique way about what they are learning!

A model is simply a helpful tool for representing an idea or explaining something. It could be anything like 3D representations, diagrams, drawings, analogies, and even mathematical representations!

Personally, I LOVE giving my students simple materials (like chalk markers for writing on lab tables and play dough!) and having them build models. It’s hands-on and as long as they close the caps and lids on the materials, we can reuse them all year long! Below you can see an example of what my students have done below for modeling protein synthesis.

A protein synthesis model using play dough and chalk markers

These are the chalk markers I’ve used in the past and have found easy to wipe off with Clorox wipes. I’ve heard great things though about neon Expo markers. You can buy playdough anywhere or to REALLY do labs on a budget, make your own with this recipe here!

For your consideration: Is there a lab that may be better replaced by having students create a model?

Tip #4: Get creative with simulations (and not just using virtual ones).

Labs on a Budget Tip #4: Get creative with simulations (and not just using virtual ones)

I think when any of us hears simulations, we immediately think of online virtual simulations. Don’t get me wrong, these can be great and a VERY effective way to do labs on a budget, but simulations can be more than that!

A simulation is simply any sort of hands-on experience that imitates a process, acting as a representation of a complex topic. My enzyme lab activity I mentioned in Tip #1 is an example of a simulation.

Here is another example I found. For several years my students really struggled to visualize photosynthesis. Yes, the floating leaf disk lab can be cool to see, and the goldfish and bromothymol blue lab/demo is a fun thing to observe. But do either of these REALLY help students to understand what the heck is going on in the process?

That’s when my photosynthesis relay activity simulation was born. In this activity, students become the parts of photosynthesis, and we simulate it in our classroom. ALL it requires supply-wise is paper cutouts, poster board, water, and yellow food coloring – nearly all of which can be reused year after year. Students have SO much fun with this and it is SO CHEAP TO EXECUTE!! It is the perfect example of doing labs on a budget in a way that is still fun, meaningful, and incredibly effective.

For your consideration: What is a topic that your students struggle to understand year after year? How could you create a simulation using materials around your house and classroom to help them to really VISUALIZE the process or topic?

I hope these four tips give you some ideas for how you can get creative in executing labs on a budget. I sincerely hope that you will find the success that I have in that sometimes the simplest and cheapest learning experiences are the most effective!!

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