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Becoming Ms. Frizzle: Managing Classroom Science Lessons

By Alycia Zimmerman on February 6, 2014
  • Grades: 1–2, 3–5, 6–8

If you’ve read my posts before, you’ve probably noticed that I get crazy excited when writing about science lessons. Like teetering on my soapbox while flapping my arms excited. (See my posts on ice balloons, mystery bags, exploring atoms, plant science, exploding soap, or bridge building.) But I also know that for most of us elementary school teachers, science is nowhere near the top of our to-do lists.

Elementary classrooms are rarely equipped with beakers, test-tube racks, aquariums, or greenhouses. To do it well, science lessons require a lot of STUFF and a lot of planning. After years of teaching science, I’ve earned hard-won strategies that allow me to embrace my inner Ms. Frizzle without losing my mind. Read on for my behind-the-scenes tricks that keep science lessons low-cost, low-mess, and low-stress.

This degree of engagement and collaboration makes it all worth it when teaching science!


Supermarket Science – a.k.a. Use What You’ve Got

My school doesn’t provide consumable science materials for lessons, so I’ve had to channel MacGyver and make due with what’s available. It turns out that students can explore almost every elementary science topic using supplies from the supermarket, drug store, and occasionally the hardware store.

Juice and soda? Perfect for testing acid/base chemical reactions with baking soda and antiacid tabs.

Before each science unit, I send out a request to my students’ families to each donate an item or two from our supply list. (I use VolunteerSpot, which makes these sorts of requests so simple!) I store all of the materials in giant storage bins that I keep along one wall (easy access) for the duration of a science unit.

Parents are happy to fulfull my VolunteerSpot donations list for supermarket science materials.

The consumable supplies for each unit varies (dried legumes and soil for a plant unit; lemon juice, baking soda, and corn starch for a matter unit), but I collect and reuse donated “lab equipment” throughout the year. Lab equipment from the supermarket? Here’s a starter list of what I like to have on hand to facilitate any experiment.

Disposable baking pans These make great basins to set out on tables to contain messy experiments. They can be rinsed and reused, making for easy cleanup.
Cups in every size In a classroom lab without beakers, test tubes, and graduated cylinders, cups become the number one piece of lab equipment. I use little 3 oz. cups to distribute materials and larger cups to hold the students’ concoctions, fledgling plants, and more. (In this photo, cups are acting as a make-shift test-tube rack.)
Zip-top bags Self explanatory. I particularly like using the large bags to save experiment materials in “kits” to be used again the next year.
Reusable plastic food containers – These four-cup containers are the best for preparing “kits” of lab supplies for each table or science group in your classroom. I set out the right number of containers, and then quickly distribute the rest of the materials into each container. Then each group simply needs to grab a container to get started. They return their materials in the same container, which keeps clean-up simple, as well. And if the containers get too messy? I just pop them in the dishwasher at home.

I’m not the only one using cast-off takeout containers as science equipment. I own and use all three of these science experiment guides by Steve "The Dirtmeister" Tomecek: Sandwich Bag Science, Coffee Can Science, and Soda Bottle Science.



Gotta Have It Science Materials (Not From the Supermarket)

Sure, the dedicated teacher can make due with many mundane substitutes for specific lab equipment. However, there are some materials that are worth getting the real deal. If your school cannot provide these materials, science projects are frequently funded through the philanthropic fundraising site, DonorsChoose.org.

  • Balances and weights for finding mass

  • Thermometers

  • Graduated cylinders or other liquid-volume measuring vessels

  • Goggles — Not only are goggles for safety, kids take science SO much more seriously when you ask them to put on their goggles. It really changes the tone in the room.


Goggles make a simple pendulum experiment seem risky. We use our equal arm balances all the time!

I also try to get a benefactor (either students’ parents or through DonorsChoose.org,) to buy a few unit-specific experiment materials to raise the bar on our experimenting. Owl pellets, a slime kit, or K’nex simple machines are a special standout treat in a unit of low-budget experiments.

Pricey science kits like this K'nex kit help enliven a mostly homemade science unit.


Planning With the Literal End in Mind Cleanup!  

Science experiments often use a lot of supplies and can quickly become a mess if you don’t have a plan for cleanup. For activities with liquid “garbage,” I keep plastic buckets on each table to hold waste. This keeps a crowd from gathering at the sink. My students know my sink rule — no more than three scientists may be at the sink at once.

For the messiest projects, plastic tablecloths make it easy to wrap up and discard the evidence all at once. And I keep enough baby wipes on hand to stock a hospital newborn ward. The students wipe down all classroom surfaces after experiments — it’s fun and keeps the bulk of the students busy scrubbing while my most able junior lab assistants take care of the more specialized cleanup, like rinsing out cups and containers.


No Woman is an Island Ask for Help!

Ms. Frizzle always has the help of her trusty reptilian sidekick Liz, not to mention a hardworking bus. I’ve learned to recruit parent help for the messiest, most intensive science lessons. It makes all the difference between an experience that leaves me with a headache and grumbling custodians instead of a productive opportunity to engage in messy science with my students.

I make sure to provide clear directions and detailed guidance for parent volunteers. I also keep extra aprons on hand to loan out to parents for messy projects.

Share Your Science Secrets!

If you’ve taught science, then you’ve undoubtedly come up with your own arsenal of management tricks and lab-supply swaps. Please share your ideas in the comments section below! And if you want updates about my latest blog posts about meaningful and fun learning, follow me on Facebook or Twitter!

Comments (1)

Wow - wonderful ideas, thanks for sharing! Makes me wish that I had you in class... But the next best thing is volunteering in a great environment like you have created, keep it up!

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