By Susan Riddell

Senior Andrew Marsee launches a sling shot device during a lab on projectile motion in Michael Barker's Honors Physics class at Newport High School (Newport Ind.). Photo by Amy Wallot, Feb. 9, 2012

Senior Andrew Marsee launches a sling shot device during a lab on projectile motion in Michael Barker’s Honors Physics class at Newport High School (Newport Ind.). Photo by Amy Wallot, Feb. 9, 2012

Michael Barker, a science teacher at Newport High School (Newport Independent), would love to have a projectile motion launcher from Pasco in his classroom.

It’s the $349 price tag that he finds less palatable – or even practical.

“In no way am I trying to say that that piece of equipment is overpriced,” Barker said. “However, I can use a foam dart launcher and a plastic protractor for a similar – albeit a less accurate lab – for between $3 and $5.”

The projectile launcher is just one example of Barker’s frugal approach to finding supplies for his science classes. Every month, he said, he makes monthly trips to thrift stores, looking for anything from stopwatches to toy cars.

“Adaptability and the ability to improvise are skills that are useful to every science teacher,” said Sean Elkins, science consultant for the Kentucky Department of Education. “Mr. Barker’s creative approach to improvised materials means his students will have the opportunity to experience natural phenomena in a meaningful way despite a limited materials budget.”

Barker said the hands-on activities to bolster the learning experience.

“Being able to see a property of physics or chemistry demonstrated on a scale students can observe helps to reinforce the concept or push the students on the verge of understanding ‘over the edge,’ so to speak,” he said.

Barker teaches physics, chemistry and forensic science. This is his fifth year of teaching, and he’s been working on economical lessons from the onset. In his first year at Newport High, Barker started the $ Store Lab in his physics class after being unable to afford the lab-grade projectile motion equipment

“I broke down the lesson into what the students needed to learn from the assignment and went out looking for an inexpensive way to get those results,” he said. “I came to the conclusion that a thrift store was the perfect place to buy inexpensive but usable equipment.”

Now, his lab contains multiple resources for different lessons, all from his visits to local thrift stores. The money he uses comes from $100 that he is given at the start of each school year.

Last year, Barker was one of four finalists for the National Science Teachers Association’s (NSTA) Shell Science Lab Challenge. Coming up with high-quality, inexpensive lessons was a key reason he was a finalist for the award.

It’s a concept that would work in any classroom, he said.

“Teachers can create their own hands-on experiences in the classroom without the need to purchase specialized equipment or break their departments’ budgets,” he said. “I have found that there are very few experiments in physics that have to be performed with professional-grade equipment. It just takes some trial and error on the teacher’s part to put together meaningful hands-on experiments without ‘breaking the bank.’”

Barker’s approach is likely becoming more commonplace as classroom and department budgets continue to tighten, making it difficult for teachers to purchase new equipment or upgrade older equipment, he said. “I think all teachers are going to have to look at everyday objects and ask the question. ‘What can I teach with this?’” he said.

Seeking out bargain materials, however, is not haphazard. Barker said he generally has an idea what he’s looking for when he looks for supplies.

“I can’t say I have ever stumbled upon something that I have used in a lesson,” he said. “You have to have a pretty good idea of what you want to find before going into the store. However, due to the changes in stock and availability of different items, I do have to change up a lab on the fly. I have learned that many different items could be used to teach the same learning targets.”

Barker strives to make sure his students learn from his economical approach. He said not only are they receiving hands-on lessons, but economics is integrated into his classes, and students walk away with concepts that will help them when they must budget their personal finances in the future.

“I have taken this a step further and cheaper this year in my physics class,” Barker said. “Responding to a need for increased STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education, I have begun introducing my physics students to the Engineering Design Process. This can be accomplished, once again, with a small budget.”

Barker, who has a degree in aerospace engineering, incorporates projects into these lessons that are borrowed or adapted from his college engineering labs, the University of Cincinnati’s Engineering Your Future program and other online resources.

He is excited about a growing emphasis on engineering and technology in the Next Generation Science Standards and said he feels he will have a head start when they are released in final form in the fall.

“With the Next Generation Science Standards not yet released, my lessons are aligned with Kentucky’s Core Content and Program of Studies,” Barker said. “I expand these standards with best practices and many of the skills I have learned attending professional development and workshops focusing on STEM education.”

During his most recent engineering design project, students paid for their supplies as they took on the “role of engineering contractors trying to win a bid for a government project,” said Barker.

Students were asked to formulate a plan on a limited budget, and also include details about how they were able to cut costs.

When other lessons call for conceptual designs, Barker has the physics students rely heavily on standard 8 1/2 by 11-inch paper and masking tape. He said these are his favorite materials.

“Using these simple materials the students have been asked to design towers, bridges, catch-and-capture machines, even rafts,” he said. “The lessons are designed to force the students to work through not only physics concepts, but they also bring economics into the class.”

Michael Barker,, (859) 292-3023