STEM Field Study Kits for All!
by Martin E. Fortin, Jr.
AWSP Director of Learning Centers
arly in my career as a science teacher I had the opportunity to attend a lecture by the famous Princeton professor Dr. Herbert Alyea. His demonstrations were so legendary he was referred to as Dr. Boom. In fact, he loudly ignited some gases for us during the lecture. But I better knew of his creation of the TOPS program. The acronym stood for The Overhead Projection Series. Dr. Alyea was convinced that the best way to learn was for each student to have their own miniature lab kit that they could use at their desk to follow along with his demonstrations. This kit did not involve explosions but did replicate real lab investigations. I still have my kit I received the day of that seminar.
As a former 7th grade life science teacher I knew that given the assignment, students can find almost anything in the natural environment. I would announce a weekly field trip just out the doors of my classroom. The students were charged with finding mosses, ferns, grasses, insects, or whatever natural science unit we were studying. They never failed in finding the samples I requested. It wasn’t until I began my tenure at the Cispus Learning Center that I realized we could replicate the professor’s ideas for field study in an inexpensive way. Dr. Alyea’s concept of each student having the means for hands-on investigations inspired me to develop a field kit for outdoor study.
As an ASB advisor I was very familiar with the contents of the catalogs from the Oriental Trading Company and US Toy. Combing through those catalogs I discovered inexpensive items that could replicate those pieces of equipment commonly used in a formal laboratory. Among other things I filled the study kit with a pair of scissors, a hand lens, a ruler, and hand-made meter tape, a plant press, study plot place-markers, and tools to hold or probe those interesting items found outdoors.
Here’s the breakdown:
$0.15 Small writing pad for taking notes
$0.05 Magnifying glass for examining items
$0.02 Small Cardboard Plant press for collecting samples
$0.05 Cardboard Clipboard & Produce bag rain cover
$0.125 Ruler for measuring
$0.125 Scissors for collecting samples
$0.02 Popsicle sticks for marking sites
$0.06 Small plastic bags for collecting items
$0.02 Acid/ base indicator strips from a spa supply company
$0.15 Crayons for sketching, recording, marking
$0.05 Plastic Scratcher for digging
$0.01 Toothpicks for separating or holding down items
$0.00 Flexible measuring tape made from back-to-back masking tape and marked by students
$0.04 Zip lock bag to keep everything together-marked with the owner’s name.
$0.08 Sales tax
Some other almost free options I found along the way:
Plastic picnic knife for separating items, Old cassette tape boxes for collecting and storing specimens, Paper plates as an examination platform, Coffee filters for separating liquids.
I believe using readily available and inexpensive tools to encourage and nurture the exploration of our natural environment is an effective approach to learning. Especially valuable when the student is alongside their teacher using the same tools. Dr. Alyea once said “A good teacher is one who explains a concept; a better teacher is one who asks questions about the concept; and the best teacher is one who demonstrates the concept then solicits the questions from the students.”
With this Field STEM kit every student can have their own personal set of tools to investigate the natural environment. Even better- they can take them home at the end of the school year and continue to explore the out of doors wherever they go.
Martin Fortin is director of the Chewelah and Cispus outdoor Learning Centers in Washington. He was a science techer for 16 years, and was given the President’s Award from the Environmental Education Association of Washington.