Engage Your Science Students Without Engaging Your Wallet

Engage Your Science Students Without Engaging

Your Wallet

Hayley Johnson

In an ideal world, all teachers would have access to all the supplies that their lessons require and a budget that allows for the school to supply the teacher with any requested materials. Unfortunately, this is not the case for far too many teachers in the country.

Why do teachers need excess supplies?

A study depicted that “38 percent of teachers reported that they abandoned more than two projects over the course of the school year because of lack of funds.”

“When teachers are able to provide their students—particularly those from low-income backgrounds—with adequate supplies, their learning experience is transformed.”

A teacher reports, “When I am able to give them opportunities through different supplies, they see that they are not limited,” they said. “They see that they can do more and be more. It gives them a lot of self-assurance.”

Are there alternatives to purchasing supplies for every lesson?

YES. Depending on the lesson or activity, there can be alternatives that allow the teacher to spend NO money, or very little of their own money. I have a few suggestions of low-budget activities that showcase how lessons can be altered by teachers and adjusted to have less money come out of their pockets. Here are a few examples:

Low-budget STEM Activities

#1: “Magic Milk”

Intro: An introductory activity to showcase the concept of surface tension by having                          students observe the thought-provoking mechanism that causes the colors to                          disperse.

Supplies: Packs of disposable paper bowls ($3)

1 gallon of milk ($2)

Box of food coloring ($2)

Dish liquid (not antibacterial) ($1)

Bag of q-tips ($1)

Total cost: $10

#2: “Rainbow Tower”

Intro: An engaging activity that clearly showcases the aspects of varying densities but                      allows students to observe and make predictions (weight, thickness, etc.) as to                        why the liquids “stack” instead of mix.

Supplies: 1 tall glass vase or recycled empty water bottle ($0-$3)

1 box of food coloring ($1)

Liquids at home with varying densities (water, soap, oil, syrup)         ($0-$5)

Objects at home that sink to densities (soda cap, blueberry, penny) ($0)


Total cost: $1-$9

#3: “Water Lens Trick”

Intro: A simple, cost-efficient, and time saving demonstration that introduces the idea                   of light refraction through glass vs. water with an image or symbol of the teachers’                 choosing.

Supplies: 1 Piece of paper ($0)

1 pen/marker ($0)

Large glass of water ($0)

Total cost: FREE

#4: “Vacuum” Brain Teaser

    The question: A man in a restaurant asked a waiter for a juice glass, a dinner plate, water, a match, and a lemon wedge. The man poured enough water onto the plate to cover it.
“If you can get the water on the plate into this glass without touching or moving this plate, I will give you $100,” the man said. “You can use the match and lemon to do this.”
A few minutes later, the waiter walked away with $100 in his pocket. How did the waiter get the water into the glass?

The Hint: The glass will be upside down when the water is in it

The Answer: First, the waiter stuck the match into the lemon wedge, so that it would stand straight. Then he lit the match, and put it in the middle of the plate with the lemon. Then, he placed the glass upside-down over the match. As the flame used up the oxygen in the glass, it created a small vacuum, which sucked in the water through the space between the glass and the plate. Thus, the waiter got the water into the glass without touching or moving the plate.
You can try this experiment at home with appropriate supervision.

Total cost: FREE

#5: “Phases of Matter”

Intro: Whether the students each have access to their own computer, can share in groups, or complete as a class on the projector, PhET simulations are amazing engaging and exploratory activities that students can use to be introduced to concepts, such as particle behavior in phase changes!

Total cost: FREE

*Tip* The dollar store will be your best bet for the lowest cost on many supplies! 

Final thoughts-

While the first few engage activities required physical supplies, teachers nowadays have access to online versions of many simulations and videos if the supplies would not be available/affordable to you. Some concepts will not be able to be turned into an activity, so online resources are very adequate for engaging students (such as the planetary example in activity #5).
The important takeaway is that you don’t need to be spending hundreds of dollars out of your own paycheck each year!


Key terms:

Engage, budget, adapt, opportunity, not limited, experience, learning, STEM


  1. Hayley,

    I really love your title! It is creative and makes me want to read your blog. I also liked that you explained why we need access to supplies and how many teachers don’t have access the things they need. Your activities were wonderful and would engage students in the learning. I liked how you put the cost of the materials in your blog so that readers would get a cost estimate. I think my favorite was the water lens trick because it is cheap and fun. Your videos and visuals helped to get your point across. Overall, great job!


    • Katin,
      As a college student now, I am always good at finding the cheapest ways to do stuff so I think that is a great skill that will help me when I teach. The water lens one is so cool because students can think of their own creative drawings that can be mirrored. Thanks for the comments!

  2. Hayley,
    I love it! You included all the supplies needed and even the total price for each of the activities that you presented. That gives clues at how cheap a good engaging activity can be. You don’t need anything super fancy to show the effects of surface tension for students, or even how matter acts in the various phases. Excellent job!

    • Dillon,
      I think it is important that teachers don’t spend too much of their hard earned paycheck on their students so I loved finding cheap ways to show teachers how to engage their students. Thanks for the response!

  3. Hayley,

    The thing I really liked about your blog post was your use of specific examples. I know that in mine, I just said things like “demos” and “Simulations”, but you took things further and gave ideas that another teacher can look at and put directly into their classroom. I also like how you talked about specific price points too. Great work!


    • Aesa,
      I was a bit confused how far into the 5 examples I should go so I used a few things that I used in field last semester (like the water tower) since I actually bought those supplies and know how much the activity costs. Thanks for the comment and thoughts!

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