Sciencemadness Discussion Board

Blowing 100k on science equipment

j_sum1 - 1-7-2020 at 17:47

I am fishing for some advice here.
Yesterday I received an interesting phone call from my boss informing me of a budget of $100 000 AUD which he wanted to spend on "science equipment" and asking me for ideas on how it could be spent.

A little background:

I work for a school of distance education. The school has been in existence for 8 years and has run on a shoestring budget for all of that time, while undergoing rapid growth. It now has a roll of some 1200 students. A year ago the school was finally recognised by the federal government and it was acknowledged that it should legitimately receive government funding similar to other comparable schools. This has enabled the school to expand and consolidate in ways that previously were just not possible. Several milliion dollars has been spent in the past couple of months bringing our resources, systems and staffing levels up to speed.

So to the present dilemma.

The boss wants to expand science resources but without a particularly clear sense of what the needs or possibilities are. My responsibility includes overseeing high school sciences: physics, chem, biology, psychology and junior high science. Being distance education we have some materials that we mail out for students to use. We also conduct group workshops in the various regions. We have recently acquired some mobile library vans which could easily be used as mobile labs simply by switching out some trolleys. Additionally we now have some leased facilities that are being fitted out with all manner of equipment so that students can come in for extended periods and receive training. Thus far we have a video and media studio with editing facilities, a commercial kitchen, and we have purchased gear for a full woodworking shop, metalworking shop and textile facility. It seems that a multipurpose lab may be next on the list.

One of the consequences of the way we run is that these facilities may be used only intermittently by students. My boss has expressed the desire to fit out these areas with high quality, industry-standard equipment that can then be leased out to small operators who would otherwise not have access to them. Thus we have CNC machines and embroidery machines that can be used for training students but also can be made available to the wider community in a number of ways.

So, I can put together a wish list for equipment that has educational value: both transportable and fixed. I should cover all applicable science fields. And there is value in having equipment that can be leased out. My initial thoughts are that some good analytical gear would fit the brief, maybe some microscope equipment, maybe something technical in the bio area. My thing is that I have always had near zero budget and have focussed entirely on those things that are extremey visual for the purposes of demonstrating principles to high school students. I really don't know what kind of equipment would best meet the brief. Would a SEM find uses? (I know that students would find it interesting but I also see difficulties from a practical standpoint in using high vacuum devices.) Would it be worth getting a NMR? or maybe a GCMS? Or good IRS equipment or electrophoresis equipment for analysing DNA. Maybe we make our own liquid nitrogen. Or maybe I simply outfit some trolleys with lasers, signal generators, oscilloscopes, masses and pulleys for a suite of high impact physics demonstrations.

Consider this thread an open brainstorm. $100k is not necessarily the upper limit.

Ubya - 1-7-2020 at 19:05

that's wonderful news!

i would invest in good microscopes, they keep their value pretty well.
an electronic microscope uhh, maybe an used one, a new one could blow your budget in one hit.
nmr? mh if you are not university or college i would say no, they are expensive to begin with, but keeping one working is already quite expensive (nitrogen and helium refills+deuterated solvents)
a gas chromatograph would be good, you can make quick analysis of many types of samples.

if you want to expand/add a bio lab area you could start with simple centrifuges, micropipettes, autoclave, incubator, pcr. the thoughtemporium made lots of videos about bioengineering, they could give you an idea.
oscilloscopes, optic tables, lasers. surely a liquid nitrogen generator, you are going to need it for many chemistry/physics/biology experiments.

maybe i would also invest in a good calculating system, like a remote powerful server where students could log and do experiments (molecular dynamics simulations, and anything that needs to crunch big numbers quickly)

Chemetix - 1-7-2020 at 19:31

That is great news, congratulations! You should contact Domenico Caridi at Vic Uni. Dom put together a mobile analytical lab which was used for workshops at high schools around Victoria. Not sure if they are still doing it, but he has the experience to be able to guide you. He had Shimadzu HPLCs, GC, UV-vis spectro, etc.

draculic acid69 - 1-7-2020 at 21:25

Congratulations on your achievement.sounds like you have definitely earned it. Maybe a few test tubes and beakers for all students.watching and doing are two different things and having the ability to do when you want to can make a big difference

j_sum1 - 1-7-2020 at 23:23

Quote: Originally posted by Chemetix  
That is great news, congratulations! You should contact Domenico Caridi at Vic Uni. Dom put together a mobile analytical lab which was used for workshops at high schools around Victoria. Not sure if they are still doing it, but he has the experience to be able to guide you. He had Shimadzu HPLCs, GC, UV-vis spectro, etc.

Thanks. I will definitely follow this one up.

woelen - 1-7-2020 at 23:49

A very nice addition could be some electronics equipment, demonstrating basic principles of modern electronics. There are kits for making oscillators, flashing devices, solar-powdered devices, so-called joule thieves, and so on, which demonstrate basic concepts of electronics (such as switching, oscillating, power conversion, production of light). For a certain group of students this can be very interesting.

The electronics devices should be big, e.g. big transistors, resistors and other components, built into blocks, which can easily be connected and can be used to make oscillators and switching devices, which operate in the Hz and tens of Hz ranges and powers of tens or hundreds of mW. This makes the effects visible (blinking, flashing). You then can explain that in real production circuits, the components are several orders of magnitude smaller and the frequencies in modern computers, smart phones and multimedia equipment is in the GHz range, but the basic concepts remain the same.

MountainMan - 2-7-2020 at 06:40

A high quality light microscope with video camera to transmit live images over the internet.
Stereo microscope with same video camera system.
Biological safety cabinet.
Chemical fume hood.
Portable video camera system to transmit experiments performed in the hoods.
High quality UV-vis spectrophotometer.
Arduino and common accessory shields and/or accessory integrated circuits.

Dr.Bob - 2-7-2020 at 17:17

I was going to say microscope with camera, so that scores high. Some petri dishes, 96 well plates, and pipettors to do simple biology experiments. Some DNA extraction kits and analysis kits, simple ones.

The electronics ideas are great, I had some kits for simple electronics when I was a kid (when Radio Shack still existed), and that was a fun time. A variac, some lights, transformers, etc, maybe build some simple electronic items.

I would stay away from big science tools, I know several schools that spent on NMRs, MS, etc, and had no money to pay for maintenance, cryogens, gases, power, vacuum pumps, etc. If you really want an NMR, get a PicoSpin type one, there is someone on here with one. TLC, paper chrom, silica columns, and electrophoresis (old, large stuff, if you can find it) are all visible systems if you use nitro compounds, dyes, or other colored compounds. UV lamp (254 and 365 nm) for TLC and other stuff.

A simple centrifuge, oven and stir/hotplates. Some basic glassware for the lab. There are some good physics demos that have basic kits for high school/college labs for inertia, momentum, gravity, etc. An electroscope, ion chambers, and other basic physics instruments are great. Repeating old experiments like isolating elements (gases are easiest) are great and don;t require too much stuff.

For chemistry, a rotovap maybe, dist. system, maybe a few more interesting pieces like Dean Stark or Sohxlet extractor. If you want to make drugs a simple 2L soda bottle will do (that is a joke...). Pyrotechnics are always fun, so showing a few experiments like that, filmed outside, might be good, just try to avoid things the students can do inside at home... Calcium carbide and water, zinc and sulfur solid rocket, burning mg inside a block of dry ice, and so many more...

woelen - 2-7-2020 at 23:29

I agree with Dr.Bob that it is best to stay away from the bigger tools. These tools of course are fantastic things and have brought us a lot in the past decades, but I have severe doubt that they serve the purpose of your setup. You work at a high school level. What is most important in that area is making scientific concepts visible in a striking and appealing way. I remember from my time as a young boy that I was most impressed by simple things, which demonstrated a certain principle. That's why I do experiments with very basic electronics:

The above things are really basic and the cost is low, but they can be used for explaining theory and demonstrating that in practice. I actually use these things every now and then just to raise interest in kids (and sometimes also grown ups).
I also added a little more things (transistors, high power MOSFETs, high voltage capacitors and inductors) and some basic integrated circuits (opamps, analog multipliers). These things also can be used for demonstrating interesting concepts, like harmonic oscillators and chaos in physical systems:

The electronic circuit from this experiment I soldered on a little PCB with some switches and LEDs to make a more permanent setup, which can be tweaked in interesting ways.

Try to find things of high educational value. Highly advanced equipment and electronics burns up even a budget of $100000, but frequently has a hard time demonstrating the core concepts. And indeed, cost of operation and maintenance can also be a serious issue.

[Edited on 3-7-20 by woelen]

DavidJR - 3-7-2020 at 01:07

Maybe an FT-IR spectrometer or raman spec? Minimal maintenance requirements for those.

unionised - 3-7-2020 at 01:35

I'm tempted to suggest spending half the money on gold bullion.
Then, next year, when you find yourself thinking "Damn! I wish I had bought a such and such", you can sell some gold and buy it.

Seriously, is there a requirement that the money is spent this year? ( organisational accounting often means that there is).

If not, I suggest that you see how things go before you spend all of it.
Also, put a few bucks aside for getting on the phone and asking others about their experience. With luck you can avoid repeating their mistakes.

One point (which others have already made) which I would emphasise, maintenance/ running costs will kill you if you aren't careful.
And SEM is a great idea- as long as you can afford to pay a dedicated technician to keep it running.

Harristotle - 3-7-2020 at 05:34

Hi j_sum1, this is the space that I work in.

I reckon a class set of colourimeters and pipettes are a useful addition. Scientrific can help with the mystrica colorimeters - they are only about $400 ish and really open up a lot of STEM activities. A lot of old labs, and newer ones run well on this, from colorometric determination of iron in cereal to protein assays, all using reagents approved for school such as thiocyanate, or alkaline copper sulfate / tartrate.

Micropipettes are a great option. Dragon make good stepped (as opposed to gilsen continuous) for $25 USD each. These from ebay/alibaba. If you need an Au supplier, they go for down to 75 AUD through one of the supply houses Southern Biological or others.

I'd put some thought into kits and courseware. Plasticware, and glassware that is robust, will survive a round in the post, or at least a rough primary beating on it. Some form of easily washable bunding or tray, perhaps a returnable waste system too (think detergent sink, but with a lid and leakproof, that can be returned to base).

I reckon some money on chromatography would be nice. The kind of remote indigenous community might be interested in tlc on their favourite bush medicine (think Eremophilla in meths) plant. Liase with the Coolgardie baptist mob that CSIRO is supporting in WA to do this for the BHP Billiton Science Talent projects for ideas and contacts.

Microscopes are nice, but go robust. The biggest issue with 'scopes in schools is that teachers don't know how to use them - even down to adjusting condenser irises to get sharp images. As for phase contrast or other wow style systems, forget it. Once the lenses get out of alignment and the turret gets lost they are gone.

In your situation, I'd spend some time collecting some resources and courseware. What are they going to do with the stuff? A few good books in your library, from which you can extract and work up labs that are easy and engaging and road tested would be a big help.
Why don't you make contact with SciTech in WA who have a well established touring lab/ program and may be able to give you some tips and help.

Finally, whatever you do, build some redundancy into it. Kids kill kits! Buy maybe twice as many as spares so that you con maintain the fleet once they hit the roads. Think of your glass and instruments as consumables, and try to estimate a half life. Then purchase enough to keep the fleet operational for a couple of years, or at least until you are promoted !

Best, Harristotle.

[Edited on 3-7-2020 by Harristotle]

unionised - 3-7-2020 at 08:49

Quote: Originally posted by Harristotle  
If you need an Au supplier,

[Edited on 3-7-2020 by Harristotle]

I thought that was my idea :-)

SWIM - 3-7-2020 at 10:11

The effort and enthusiasm you put into your work shows in your posts, but it was'nt clear that you've been involved in building a science department from scratch over the last few years.
This must be an exciting time.

It's clear reading this thread that you've gotten advice from a number people who really know what they're talking about.
I'd just comment that you're playing a long game here.

Even if you don't end up staying there your imprint on the department will still influence it strongly in the future..

Be like Churchill: build the foundations for a castle and be secure in the knowledge that even if only a cottage gets built there that it will have an unassailable foundation.

(Hey, I'm from California. People in earthquake country REALLY like strong foundations.)

andy1988 - 4-7-2020 at 08:07

How to use a microscope hands-on was something I would've liked to have had in my secondary school education.

On the microscope subject maybe this may be worth considering. I don't know if the smartphone needs an optical zoom, a manual focus feature, so that it has the right focal length for a clear image (not relying on autofocus).

wg48temp9 - 4-7-2020 at 09:55

Quote: Originally posted by j_sum1  
I am fishing for some advice here.
Yesterday I received an interesting phone call from my boss informing me of a budget of $100 000 AUD which he wanted to spend on "science equipment" and asking me for ideas on how it could be spent.

If you have not already done so talk to other distance education organisations.

The OU in the UK started with half hour programmes on the TV at night which had impressive graphics along with printed material and home experimental kits.

Yttrium2 - 4-7-2020 at 11:04

everyone check out

j_sum1 - 9-7-2020 at 03:04

Bumping this.
My boss asked me today where things are up to. He is keen for a decision. I know I have some research to do. But if there are any additional ideas, I would be keen to hear them.

Two additional questions: What would you expect to pay for a benchtop ftir? What about a GCMS with all necessary attachments?

Dr.Bob - 9-7-2020 at 05:07

The costs depend a huge amount on brand, features, computer hookup, and more. They range over an entire magnitude. You will want to find items with good support and a long warranty, if at all possible. I do think the small permanent NMRs are pretty cool, but not sure if useful enough for your work.

For a GC, a new Agilent with a PC could cost anywhere from $20-50,000 I would think, used ones are about 1/4 of that. If you get a FID detector, it is pretty simple, not sure they even do simple GCs with thermal detectors now, like the old Gomacs, but they were simple and cheap, and now could be run via a cell phone, I bet. One example that looks simple is a GC for biodiesel testing, that is only $10,000, they also sell units for cannabinoid analysis. Shimatzu might also be good for you, given your closeness to Japan, .

I do agree that a simple spec20 or similar type spectrophotometer might be useful, as would be an IR, but I know nothing of current choices there.

Wish had had your problems, we can barely afford test tubes were I work now, I bring in much of my own glassware from home to have anything good. We had someone spend a huge chunk of money on a very expensive (to buy and maintain) specialized item that used up our budget for several years and is barely used, so I really understand the importance of not spending too much on one or two expensive items. I also do like the idea of buying common or commodity items that you may be able to trade with other schools in the future to barter for stuff once the money stops coming (it always does). I have been doing that with a few school instructors who got huge donations or purchases of items that they did not really need, so they trade me their surplus items for things that they can use and I sell their surplus. That is where I got a few of the items in my stock, trading glassware for things like stirbars, which someone gave them cases of. Speaking of that, a good collection of stirbars is worth buying, you can often get them in bulk for much less.

Sulaiman - 9-7-2020 at 08:16

I suppose that you will find that 100,000 is not as much as it sounds,
Basic equipment and consumables for each discipline,
Video enabling technologies,
Then, If time permits, making links with local businesses, that may pay for specific services.
e. g. Business - equipmemt
Mining - xrf
Agricultural - pest/didease/pathogen detection and analysis
Chemical - gc/ms

The above is just a quick idea - your local needs are an opportunity.
i. e. try to spend on something to help local business and pay for itself.

We always forget stuff, so keep a good portion for contingencies.

RedDwarf - 11-7-2020 at 09:50

I think you need to start from a different perspective, in terms of what you're trying to achieve (learning objectives etc). I'm not clear what age group and abilities you teach (this probably means that I haven't read enough of your posts for which I apologise!) but there's a huge difference in what you might use to develop skills in 18 year olds who already love science and are going off to uni to study science further and 11 - 15 year olds who've already decided that they hate science! Once you've decided which learning objectives for which group you need to address then you can move to the next stage of deciding whether you're looking for demo or participation equipment. What might be of use to the wider community should only be a question you ask yourself afterwards if you need to choose between multiple options that all deal equally well with your learning objectives.
As others have said the need for support, repairs and maintenance etc means that higher price items probably won't be financially viable ( could you afford a full time gc-ms technician if you decided to go this route etc?).
I hope all this doesn't feel too much like a bucket of cold water!
One piece that I think is useful in terms of both developing interest in science and being useful going further is a a decent thermal camera.

S.C. Wack - 12-7-2020 at 05:07

BUGSS relies on membership fees, admission tickets, grants and donated equipment

All I know is $100,000 buys a lot more used science equipment than new.

Open it to bored titans of industry: