Dumpster Diving for Science (and Engineering)

Summer is a great time for teachers to plan for the coming school year and gather materials for all the great learning experiences you are developing for your students. In the spirit of “Recycle, Re-use, Re-purpose,” and in recognition of the difficult financial straits so many schools find themselves in, I’d like to propose “Dumpster Diving for Science.”

Our intrepid STEM Institute faculty has made an art form of it, all in the name of giving their students richer learning experiences and the teachers in their professional development sessions some creative solutions for those limited budgets they face.

Jim with Box

Jim Effinger with the Dumpster Box that Started It All — We Needed a Box Large Enough to Hold Wayne Wittenberg

To inspire your own participation in this soon to be Olympic sport, somewhat akin in a twisted sort of way to Pokemon Go, here are a few of our faculty’s favorite memories, their most fabulous finds.

Wayne Wittenberg said of the dumpster dive strategy for equipping his science armamentarium, “that’s how I got my first science equipment. My district just got rid of a whole bunch of science equipment and I grabbed it. That was 30 years ago, and I still use the equipment. Magnets, aquariums, and electric circuit boards, all of it was there. Districts have stopped doing this because it’s taxpayers’ money. But when a school transitions from one program to another, you can still snag some pretty good things.”

Howie Templer told me, “I’ve never gone dumpster diving except at my school when people throw random stuff away at the beginning of the year, but on days when people throw things out in their alleys in my community, I pick up things I can use in my classroom. You can’t ever look for something specific, but you can find things you can use. My best find was a tent. It’s the only thing I used intact. Everything else I used for parts in building stuff. Ice keeper stuff, for example, like foam, foam floaters, cardboard, bubble wrap. The tent was a discarded IKEA pop-up tent that I challenged my students to find the volume of. Then my students used the poles as a framework for building a structure they had to engineer to be freestanding. It was an architectural design problem. I’m always just looking. One of the most useful typical finds is the plastic storage containers people put things in to dispose of. I dump the contents and use the containers to organize and store my science supplies. Cardboard bankers boxes for paper storage are also easy to find in the alley.”

John Lewis said, “It’s pretty much my life. It’s pretty amazing how someone else’s garbage can be a treasure for your classroom. I find some stuff around schools — mine in particular. Anything from projector cart parts to an old overhead projector, last century’s technology. When the school throws it away one day, I retrieve it the next. The overhead projector, for example, is perfect for the color mixing activity I do, and Jim Effinger uses it to project the results of the hand washing experiment, the bacterial grown in the petri dishes. You wouldn’t want to buy something like that for one or two activities, but finding an old overhead in the dumpster is great!”

John Lewis with Salvaged Overhead Projector for Color Mixing Activity

John Lewis with Salvaged Overhead Projector for Color Mixing Activity

Referring to the related sport of alley picking, John commented, “An annoying thing taking up space in someone’s garage could be the perfect illustration of the scientific principle you’ll be teaching next week. Just cruising down the alley, I’ve found hot wheels cars, furniture, and other cast offs that have found a perfect place in my classroom and curriculum.”

And he concluded, “Many of our giveaways at STEM Institute workshops have come from others’ castoffs, which can be used to enrich classroom experiences and supplement scarce resources.”

Not everyone feels comfortable dumpster diving. While Ron Hale has never done it personally, some of his best friends are dumpster divers. Ron has a teacher friend who looks for old electronics he can deconstruct for STEM activities. Ron is a bit averse to the sport himself.

Elizabeth Copper uses dumpsters in a unique way. Noticing that dumpsters tend to attract flies, she captures maggots in collection jars and flies out of a flytrap for forensic etymology. Students get to see the life cycle of flies and understand the life death continuum. Elizabeth advises, “Just like universal precaution, always carry your gloves with you.” She’s hoping this year to get Ron Hale to help her collect.

Bill Grosser’s first experience with the sport started after working at Amoco Chemical Corporation. He recounted, “They had a room there that was full of no longer used custom made research lab equipment. Some of it was bizarre looking, and you had no idea what it was designed to be used for, however it was obvious it related to science. When I started teaching my Amoco friends at one point called me up and said ‘If you want any of this junk, come over and get it.’ Lee Merrik, another Golden Apple Fellow, and I took our vans and we came away with two vans full of equipment and materials. 25 years later I still have a lot of it and use it for class. When it’s on the counter and the kids come into the room, they know that something spectacular is going to happen.”

Bill’s advice: “Always be on the lookout for cool looking stuff that will spark the inquisitive nature in kids.”

Jim Effinger and Bill Grosser often snag excellent finds together. By far best thing they ever got out of a dumpster was a full-sized cow from the old farm exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry. They couldn’t resist the temptation to whisk it away from the MSI dumpster because they saw the potential for humor. With Wayne Wittenberg’s help, they had to cut the legs down to get it into the van, and they drove down Lake Shore Drive with the cow clearly visible in the window. They put in in the research prairie where the students would be collecting bugs. It was worth all the trouble when the kids came running back shouting “there’s a cow in the prairie!”

Dumpster Divers Extraordinaire: Wayne Wittenberg, Bill Grosser, Jim Effinger, Louise Huffman.

Dumpster Divers Extraordinaire: Wayne Wittenberg, Bill Grosser, Jim Effinger, Louise Huffman.


Bill Grosser and Wayne Wittenberg Load Van with Rescued Cow

Bill Grosser and Wayne Wittenberg Load Van with Rescued Cow

And that reminds me of what Jim Effinger always advises us on the first day of Introduction to Inquiry — “Have fun.” Some of those dumpster, alley, thrift store, garage sale, basement, or attic finds have great potential for humor. Certainly their primary purpose is to spark curiosity. They can make excellent hooks. And some can contribute to your students’ scientific investigations and engineering projects. But they can also contribute to making learning fun for you and your students.

To the dumpsters everyone!

~ Penny

You can learn more about Golden Apple STEM Institute here.


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