Ballin’ on a Budget!

It’s certainly no secret that a teacher’s salary is not a particularly glamorous one. And when teachers are expected to spend their own money on decorations, activities, and other materials for their classroom, the actual usable portion of their salary keeps going down, down, down. And, according to, teachers have been spending more and more each year out of their own pockets; during the 2020-2021 school year, teachers spent an average of $750 a month of their own money! I don’t know about you, but that number scares me as a future teacher. It makes me wonder if there is any way to spend less, but still be the engaging, supportive teacher that my students need.

Luckily for me, there are some great resources that exist to engage students that are either free or are low in cost. Here’s a list of some things that I think would be quite useful to engage students, especially if you are using the 5 E’s learning cycle framework to teach a lesson!


A lot of students will most likely have a general distaste for “the news”. However, they probably imagine the news as just a boring newspaper that their dad reads in the mornings. ScienceNews is a free, online source that has articles, new and old, on any science topic you could imagine. The articles are divided by topic, with some of the main topics being “Life”, “Humans”, “Earth”, “Space”, and “Physics”. However, they have many other smaller topics as well, and there will most likely be a news article for any topic you might need to start a lesson!

Even better, they also have ScienceNews for Students, which includes similar style articles, just written for a younger audience. You could have your students look for an article that they think involves the upcoming content and have them share what they understand about it before and after the lesson. They even have things like “the word of the week”, which could be a good way to start class, or could be used as an engage activity. Here is this week’s word, decay:

I genuinely do love both of these websites and think that they help to develop scientific literacy in our students, which is essential. Using these websites can show students that science is real with the current events and that scientific writings are not always as scary as they are made out to be.

Before you know it, your students might be checking out these articles on their own time!

Links to Websites:


YouTube is a topic very near and dear to my heart, as it is what the undergraduate research I do is centered around. It is something you certainly need to be careful with as a teacher, as a lot of the academic content on there does not actually support learning or is just plain wrong.

You need to be sure that you aren’t showing students videos that might foster or promote misconceptions. In addition, videos that include anthropomorphism are not the best, although they might seem cute. However, if you are just using it to initially engage students, you might have a little more leeway in the quality of the video you show.

You can show demos, songs, or clips from current events, all from your own computer screen. And don’t forget, YouTube is completely free! Although hands-on demos are generally the most fun for students, they aren’t always the most practical in terms of time, cost, or safety. YouTube to the rescue!

Here are a few videos that I particularly like to engage students:

Learning about chemical reactions? Have students watch this!
Talking about pollution? Have students check this out first.
Hello, current events! Watch this in your biology class before talking about DNA, RNA, and the state of the world today.

Consignment Stores

Ask any teenager, and they will say that thrift shopping is the coolest new thing. Thanks to social media influencers, the thrift shop business has really taken off even more (but not in a totally good way. Here’s an article, unrelated to science but related to equity, from Vox that talks about how the new thrift shopping “trend” is actually pretty harmful:

While thrift shopping is certainly not anything new, it is very useful! As a teacher, you can find materials such as books, toys, or even silly props and decorations for your classroom for a low, discounted price compared to what you might pay for retail. Using a toy students might have used as a child to engage them in an upcoming physics lesson on forces becomes a lot cheaper when you purchase that toy from your local Goodwill, rather than at Target.

When I was younger, one of my favorite toys was called a Sky Dancer, pictured below. The class could check out this fun toy and then investigate what forces are present. An engineering class could even take apart the toy and figure out how it works. The possibilities are endless, and who knows what you might find at the store!

Not to mention, using items secondhand helps to reduce the amount of waste in landfills- a win-win for everyone!

Use What You Have!

As a future chemistry teacher, I generally envision all of my future experiments as using lab-grade chemicals, standing at a lab bench. However, not all experiments need to look like this (and, unfortunately, not all science classrooms even have labs!). There are many engaging and helpful experiments and projects that your students can do that use inexpensive, or sometimes even free materials that you or your students might already have laying around.

Here is a list of 55 experiments you might be able to do with your classes, depending on the subject and age group:

One that I think is really interesting, particularly for the chemistry classroom, is number 23, “Turn milk into plastic” This could be a demo that just the teacher does for the class (as buying a lot of milk could become relatively expensive), and could get students wondering about how it worked and what polymers really are. It even has NGSS alignment information- hello standards!

And don’t overlook the ones that seem that they might be for “younger kids” only- there are new concepts you might be able to introduce to old experiments your students did when they were younger! Plus, odds are they will have fun “reliving” the younger parts of their childhood, which will hopefully engage them even more in the lesson.

Local Partnerships

I feel like I bring this up a lot, but it really is fitting for so many different topics in the classroom! It all comes back to showing students that science is real and has actual applications.

Bringing in (or Zoom-ing) local science-centered organizations or people that work in the science field is a great way to engage students and show them, at the beginning, the “why” behind why they are going to learn something. For example, in AP Environmental, why does learning about water quality matter? Bringing in an employee from somewhere such as the groundwater consortium can help answer that question.

Depending on the size of the organization, most speakers would most likely come in or Zoom for free, and engaging the parents of students would also be a great idea if they work in the appropriate field (and would certainly come speak for free!). Don’t have any connections? No worries- ask your coworkers or parents of students to see who they might know.

This also can help show students what careers in science can look like, and I strongly encourage using a diverse array of speakers to remind your students that anyone can do STEM.

Here is the link to the groundwater consortium around Oxford: . I had a great experience with them in a geology class at Miami and think they would be really helpful in a high school classroom as well!

Just for Fun

Doing “engage” activities certainly won’t be the only time you are trying to engage your class or have fun in your classroom. Here are a few ideas that I think are useful (and free!) to keep your class exciting:

  • Spotify: Creating a class playlist is a great way to build community and ensure you are playing (appropriate!) music that your students enjoy. Spotify is free with ads, or $9.99 a month without ads.
  • Wordle: The newest craze! Playing Wordle or other similar-type games as a class to start the class period can be a fun way to bring everyone together and start to focus their attention. You can even create your own Wordle word connected to the content or anything else you want and have your students play that one on their own:

  • Brain Busters: Riddles, crossword puzzles, or other “thinking” type activities can really engage a class and get their focus ready for class. Having students do something like this every day to start out class is a fun way to get them into a routine and will hopefully make them excited to start class, and will make the transition from the bell to instructional time a bit easier.

Seeing all of these free/low cost resources makes me slightly less nervous about the amount of money I may have to spend out of pocket in the future. Most things you need are out there, you just need to look hard enough.

What engaging, low cost resources did I miss? Let me know! That’s all for now…until next time.

Miss Karlock (@MissKarlockChem on Twitter)


  1. Hi Steven!
    I think you make a great point. As relevant and oftentimes accessible as social media is to students, it also has tons of content on there that is either not relevant to what we need to be learning in the classroom, or is not appropriate. I think to be used well, in my opinion, things on social media should just be “extra” or mostly “for fun”. There shouldn’t be class time devoted to students looking for relevant TikToks because they would certainly just go through their FYP and watch whatever they wanted. However, you could have students create a TikTok about the content you are covering if you have “free time” in class or have them send you TikToks they find on their own time, for example.

  2. Grace,
    Great job on hitting some key budget-friendly options. I think your use of social media is very relevant to today’s modern age. Kids are so familiar with these platforms that we should take advantage of this and use it towards our benefit in learning. I think that is we can use this for educational purposes it serves as a great tool that can strengthen participation and integration of course content. A question I have for you is how could we monitor this process to prevent slacking off on noneducational social media content?

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.