Ecocolumns with a Small Budget and with a Big Budget

Sometimes new teachers panic when they see all the shiny probes, grow lights and data measuring stuff that veteran teachers have.  Don’t worry…most of us started out with limited supplies also.  Ecocolumns can be done cheaply or expensively.  Most teachers start off cheaply and the kids still learn a ton and have lots of fun.

Student directions for building ecocolumns.

To read about building ecocolumns, go to these posts: Cutting and filling bottlesplanting seeds and taking data , adding bugs, worms and leaf litter, and building the aquatic chamber.

Read about where to find funding for supplies.

Cheap Supplies

Basic supplies for building ecocolumns are fairly inexpensive. You can read more about supplies here. 

Bottles: Ask students to bring in or ask your staff to bring you empty bottles as they use them. Bottles can be re-used, but the plastic does get wrinkled and torn so its best to start new if you can.

Sand and gravel are cheap at the garden/hardware store. You could have kids collect small rocks for gravel instead of buying.

Get construction gravel. These were $3.50/bag

Soil: You can use native soil that you dig up if you don’t want to purchase potting soil. Make sure you plant native plants/seeds if you do, because they’re adapted for that particular soil.

Colanders for rinsing gravel or rocks. I bought mine at the dollar store for $1. Get one or two to share or more if you’re feeling rich.

Seeds: I purchase packets as they’re cheap, but I do get free packets on occasion. Some garden websites will give you free seeds. Check Monsanto’s education page–they will be genetically modified, but hey, they’re free and a learning opportunity.

Water plants: If you have a pond nearby, go collect some duckweed or other water plants. If not, buy elodea (called anachris) at the pet store and break the stems in half or thirds. Elodea doesn’t care and will grow.

My son collecting duckweed.

Fish: Feeder fish that are $0.10 are notoriously bad for ecocolumns, sorry. Try getting a donation of fish. I have received Gambusia from the county health department. Ask around if someone has a pond where the fish have been overbreeding.  If you have to get feeder fish, minnows/rosy reds, are better than goldfish. Or, forget fish and get small snails. The pet store will often donate as snails are pests in their tanks, but they’re awesome for us. Or, collect critters from a local pond.

Fish Tanks: Ask your kids to donate an old one that’s getting dusty in their attic or garage. I’ve never purchased a fish tank-they’ve all been donations from people wanting to get rid of them.

Windows: Use to grow plants instead of plant lights.

Plant light donation: Ask your local law enforcement for a donation of confiscated grow lights from a busted marijuana operation. My colleague, Danielle Werts, did that. Be prepared for drug dogs to go crazy, however, if they come through your school.

These are confiscated grow lights that the Sheriff department donated. Photo courtesy of Danielle Werts at Golden Valley High in Santa Clarita, CA.

Bugs: Go on a bug hunt at school or kids collect worms and detritivores on their own and bring in. 

Worms and bugs that a student collected at home.

Cheap Data for Ecocolumns

You don’t have to take every piece of data mentioned here.  Only take the data that you have equipment for.

Rulers: Measure plant height, elodea length etc. 

Thermometers: Most labs have these already and you can use to measure water temperature and soil temperature.

pH strips to measure pH of water in lieu of pH meters.  (pH meters are pretty cheap, however, on Amazon).

Observations: The kids can learn a lot with basic observations.

A little Money

Build your own plant lights:  So much cheaper than buying a set from a scientific supply company.  PVC pipe and shop lights will cost less than $50. My colleague, Laura Solarez, had her husband build her a set over last summer. You can also ask the wood shop teacher (if you have one) or a parent to build if you buy the supplies.

Plant lights made with PVC pipe and a shop light. You can buy grow bulbs at the hardware store too. Photo and set up courtesy of Laura Solarez at West Ranch High in Santa Clarita, CA

Nitrate Test Strips: Use a few times during the lab depending on your budget.  They’re about $18-20 for a bottle of 50, but wait! I found out last year from some smart teachers that you can slice in half and increase to 100 per bottle! You use one strip per ecocolumn and you don’t have to take nitrate data every time. These strips have served me well for years Industrial Test Systems 480009 WaterWorks Nitrate/Nitrite Nitrogen

This picture shows a whole strip, but now I have student service cut in half for me length-wise to double the amount of strips.

pH probe: $15-20 on Amazon. Its worth it as it shows pH to the tenth place so it can help kids see minor changes. Kids can rotate probes so you can start with one or two probes.  Probes, however, break easily or fall out of calibration. You may want to use pH strips instead.

Dissolved oxygen kit: $40-60. This is an important reading which helps kids really understand aquatic ecosystems. For large classes over multiple years, a probe is more economical, but to start, you can go with a kit.

Dissolved Oxygen Probes are expensive, but VERY worth it.

Soil Probes or Soil Testing Kit: $25 on Amazon. Kids can pass probes and kits around so you can start with one or two and then build up supplies over time. Soil Probes are on this link.

Expensive Supplies to Buy Over Time (or if you are blessed with an awesome budget)

I love all my plant lights, probes, fish tanks etc., but it took 10 years to get all of this stuff.  I purchased a little at a time using DonorsChoose, PTA grants, Education Foundation grants, and plain old science budget money.

Dissolved Oxygen Probe/s:  The most important item to splurge on when you get some money. Kids really see patterns and changes regarding DO and this is a topic that is a big part of our exam.  I rotated 1 probe around to different groups when I first started, then built up my supply to 3 probes between 9 groups and now I’m up to 5 probes to rotate between 9 groups. Again, this took several years to get this many.  I like the Milwaukee MW600 LED Economy Portable Dissolved Oxygen Meter, because they last a long time and rarely need calibration.

Grow Lights: If you have some money, the pre-made grow lights are nice. They come with trays and a cover for humidity.

Fish Tanks, Filters and Food to keep a breeding stock of fish.

Gambusia (mosquito fish) are my favorite and I keep them year-round in 3 aquariums.

Buy more probes so not as many groups have to share. It will speed up the data process.  I now have one soil probe per group and one pH, temperature, and DO probe per two groups. Data takes 10-15 min a week this way.

I have enough probes for one of each per two groups. But, one per 3 or 4 groups is fine too. Readings take only a minute.
I have one soil probe per group now, but I didn’t even take soil data for several years.