Materials…materials…MATERIALS! I want my students to have more hands-on experiences. I want my students to have the opportunity to explore! I just don’t know where to get the materials. I think every science teacher has felt this way at some point in her/his career. Let’s face it. It can be difficult to find the right materials at the right time for the right price. Of course, like most problems we face, there are creative solutions to the materials dilemma.
Many of the materials needed for exciting scientific inquiry are readily available and, at times, free. When I begin my search for materials, I start by thinking about other businesses, individuals, or organizations that use the same materials and would be willing to donate some small portion to my classroom. For example, I use drinking straws in a lesson I do on sound. Many of the restaurants in my area are more than willing to donate a few dozen straws for my students. All I needed to do was ask! There are probably businesses near and around your school that would love to support your efforts in the classroom. They just need to know what you need.
Let’s say you do have funds to purchase materials for your classroom, but you don’t know where to find what you need. There are some creative options for locating materials. For example, I was recently approached by a teacher who wanted to purchase some worms for a lesson on ecosystems. She could purchase worms from a supplier who specializes in providing living organisms for science classrooms and laboratories. However, she might save some money and time by contacting her local Bait and Tackle Shop. After all, she doesn’t need high-end worms for her lesson. Fishing bait will do just fine! Pet shops also carry living organisms, such as meal worms, fish and crickets, which they sell as feeders for larger animals.
You can also found some great demonstration and hands-on materials at garage sales and discount retailers (e.g. dollar stores). I am often surprised at the treasures I find when I stop for a quick look. Of course, you can’t be too picky when shopping at these places. What you see is what you get! However, if you are looking for some oversized shirts to use as lab coats in your classroom, a Saturday morning venture to your local garage sale will usually do the trick.
Finally, there are a number of suppliers that do specialize in providing science materials to teachers. Here are a couple of the ones that I have used in the past:
- Carolina Biological - These folks carry a lot of great science materials. Specifically, you can purchase living organisms here. They also have some great free resources for teachers.
- Educational Innovations - You’ll find some really interesting things here (e.g. science toys). They also provide some ideas for teaching science in the classroom.
- Fisher Scientific - Fisher carries a lot of lab supplies. There products seem more appropriate for reseach laboratories. However, they do provide some materials for the elementary and secondary classroom.
- Learning Things, Inc - There are some really unique materials here. However, you can also pick up a lot of the basic lab materials (e.g. eye droppers and magnifying glasses).
- Steve Spangler Science - One of my favorite sites. In addition to the materials, the people at Steve Spangler also provide you with a lot of great ideas on how to effectively teach science using inquiry based methods. Check out Steve’s blog for some great ideas.
These are some of the many suppliers that are out there. Most of them will send you a free catalog if you ask. A number of them also offer free subscriptions to an electronic newsletter. You just have to sign up for it!
Here are some final things to keep in mind when it comes to science materials:
- Compile a basic list of the supplies you use in your classroom. This will make it easier for you to keep stock of what you have and need. Furthermore, you will be able to quickly and easily tell businesses and other individuals that want to support you and your students exactly what you need.
- Get help from your students. Some of the materials you use in your class can be collected in your students’ homes. For example, two liter soda bottles are always in high demand. There are probably some in your students’ garbage cans right now. Why not recycle?
- Get help from parents. Remember the list I mention up above. I have known some teachers that send that list home to parents. They ask that parents donate one item (or more) off of the list to the classroom. This gives every parent the opportunity to support their children and the school.
- Use materials wisely. Many teachers are finding ways to more effectively use the material they have. For instance, some teachers set up science learning centers around the classroom. Because students work in small groups at the centers, teachers can use few materials than they would if they attempted large group instruction.
- Look for outside funding. Many teachers are discovering that they can purchase materials with funds from outside organizations. Of course, this method takes time, patience and practice! Most communities have businesses and organizations that want to support education. However, they want evidence that their money will be well spent if they decide to invest in your classroom.
I hope this helps with your search for materials. Remember, the solution to the materials dilemma is out there. It make take a little creative thinking and elbow grease, but there is definitely a way to find the materials you need to bring the world of science to your students!
These are my suggestions. Please feel free to share if you have others.