Five years ago, 67% of science educators participating in an informal NSTA Reports poll reported their typical school budget for classroom supplies was less than $500, and 27% expected to spend more than $500 of their own money on classroom supplies. This summer, Reports again asked educators about their school budgets, and found only 12% report budget increases over the last five years, while 41% say budgets have decreased, 40% say they haven’t changed, and 7% say they don’t know. A majority (61%) say their typical annual school budget for classroom supplies is less than $500; 13% have budgets between $500 and $1,000; 10% between $1,001 and $1,500; and 16% have budgets that exceed $1,500. Only 25% of educators report their school budgets allow for breakage, upgrades, chemical disposal, and/ or annual repairs and maintenance.
Science educators continue to dip into their own pockets to supply their classrooms and labs: 23% reported spending more than $500 of their own money, and another 21% spent between $301 and $500 last year. They believe that trend will continue, with 31% reporting they expect to spend between $301 and $500 in the current school year, and another 33% estimating they will likely spend $101–$300. Consumable lab supplies were the most common items bought (69%).
To extend budgets, 82% reported they share supplies and equipment with other teachers. In addition, 10% apply for grants at least once a semester, while 18% do so annually. About half (51%) of poll participants said they are able to receive donations of supplies or equipment from local businesses, hospitals, or universities, with 22% unsure if they could.
Educators most often turn to colleagues in the same school or district for budget-friendly ideas for labs (55%); social media such as Twitter and Facebook (53%); NSTA journals and books (37%); and other professional publications (34%). (Respondents could select multiple options.)
The tight budgets are affecting students’ experience: 63% report dropping a planned lab at least once a year because supplies were not affordable. Only 11% of respondents said they have never done so.
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Here’s how science educators say they try to address budget shortfalls:
Beg, borrow, and plead!—Administrator, Elementary, Colorado
Unfortunately, it’s to drop a lab. —Educator, High School, Illinois
Not my favorite, but the most effective is to ask for donations of everyday objects from students. Most of my parents want to help, but don’t know what the classrooms need.—Educator, Middle School, West Virginia
[I offer] extra credit to students [who] bring in lab supplies that can be found within their homes.—Educator, Middle School, Texas
Using NSTA publications are the best resource for inexpensive lab ideas. —Educator, High School, Institution of Higher Learning, Kentucky
Teaching the kids that we can reuse many items [that] might otherwise be seen as consumables. Shopping sales.—Educator, Elementary, Middle School, Illinois
Buying some items with classroom supply list.—Educator, Middle School, Indiana
I love using Freecycle to ask for supplies.— Educator, Middle School, High School, Colorado
Microscale the labs, and sometimes just [doing] a demonstration (which is not my favorite strategy).—Educator, High School, North Carolina
Alas, it’s not my favorite or preferred strategy, but not doing labs when I don’t have the facilities, materials, and equipment.— Educator, High School, Hawaii
Request private donations from philanthropists.— Educator, Middle School, Texas
Donors Choose.—Educator, Middle School, District of Columbia
Reusable supplies.—Educator, Middle School, Montana Calling supply companies to get discounts.—Educator, High School, Michigan
We ask students to pay a lab fee that helps us increase our budget by a substantial amount.—Educator, Middle School, Kentucky
Keeping a continual classroom wish list.—Educator, Middle School, High School, Texas
Reuse, recycle.—Educator, Elementary, Georgia
Try to pull consumable resources from other departments, such as food resources and office supplies from the office.—Educator, Middle School, Florida
Teams and groups sharing materials; cleaning and reusing; order once and copycat.—Educator, High School, California
Go as cheap as possible. Dollar store is visited frequently.—Educator, Middle School, Texas
Provide students “data” to work with had they been able to collect their own with [a] complete inquiry. Only complete one trial per lab group, and use each group’s results as a trial with class data.—Educator, Middle School, Florida
Using labs that are reusable every year or only require household items. —Educator, Middle School, High School, Oklahoma
Pairing up and group work.—Educator, High School, United Kingdom
Do not order separately; all teachers together, and get a quote from the vendor; usually get free shipping and discounted items!—Educator, High School, California
Change the lesson to one that supports [the] idea, if not the experience. —Educator, Elementary, New Jersey
Buy more in bulk when possible to save on cost.—Educator, High School, Virginia
Planning ahead as much as I can, and asking others in my school or district for donations.—Educator, Elementary, California
Buy at secondhand stores and home improvement stores.—Educator, High School, Washington
Borrow supplies.—Educator, Middle School, Oregon
Demos or larger groups.—Educator, High School, North Carolina
We collaborate as a science team so we don’t double-order materials we can all share.—Educator, Middle School, Illinois
Using [a] unit plan to prioritize equipment and supply needs.—Educator, High School, Maryland
I inherited a pencil machine and collect 25 cents for every pencil. I use this to buy consumables.—Educator, Middle School, Colorado
Larger groups and microscale labs. —Educator, High School, Indiana
Having kids work in groups (as opposed to pairs or threes) to make supplies last longer.—Educator, Elementary, Middle School, Connecticut
Collaborate with colleagues to use [one an]other’s leftovers.—Educator, High School, Michigan
I look for activities and experiments that can be done with the same equipment.— Educator, Middle School, Iowa
Small quantit[ies] with large lab groups. No two-partner groups; typically 4–5 students for one small lab.—Educator, High School, Georgia
Taking a lab that uses an expensive chemical and finding a cheaper local alternative!—Educator, High School, Michigan
As a chemistry teacher, [I have] a simple way to connect my content to my students’ daily lives: …to do labs with kitchen chemicals. They’re usually cheap, and I always get kids who come in the next day and tell me they talked about (or did) the experiment again at home with their family.—Educator, High School, Michigan
Encouraging team members to apply for grants as they become available. —Educator, High School, Texas
This article originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of NSTA Reports, the member newspaper of the National Science Teachers Association. Each month, NSTA members receive NSTA Reports, featuring news on science education, the association, and more. Not a member? Learn how NSTA can help you become the best science teacher you can be.
The mission of NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.