The Cost of At-Home Science Kits Goes Beyond Money


Students are able to use available lab tools while on campus, something that was difficult during virtual learning. Photo courtesy of Marc Allard.

Ella Hartmanis, A&L Editor

Virtual learning challenged multiple Menlo departments that rely on hands-on activities. For science courses, conducting experiments can be a critical aspect of learning, yet it also requires materials that were inaccessible while students were learning at home. So, the science department was faced with a decision: rely on lectures to teach students or provide them with the materials to perform labs at home. They chose to send kits to students at home; however, these kits had a cost, both economic and environmental.

Many classes had take-home kits including arts, science and Whitaker lab classes. For science, head of Science Lab Tech Midori Hosobuchi created 340 kits with the help of her colleagues for Conceptual Chemistry, Accelerated Chemistry, Biology and Advanced Topics in Biology. Each kit cost $150 to create and mainly duplicated equipment Menlo already had in the classroom. “If you were in a lab, we already had an electric scale, but I had to buy 300 electric scales, 150 torches, thermometers and all that stuff to go home. All of that duplication of equipment costs money,” Hosobuchi said.

Planning for the kits began in April of 2020, and many considerations were made concerning the waste that would be generated by the kits. “We really tried to focus on recyclable materials. So, for example, all of the lab packets were manila folders, which are recyclable, and the boxes were cardboard,” Hosobuchi said. 

These decisions extended beyond just cardboard and paper and impacted the type of plastic that would be used in each kit. Polypropylene is a thermoplastic polymer that has many different plastic materials, such as tubes that could hold chemicals. “Polypropylene was a choice that we made because we knew that it had a waste stream for which there is a market,” Hosobuchi said.

With the kits, some waste proved to be unavoidable. The packaging and shipment of products to Menlo created both plastic waste and resulted in carbon dioxide emissions. “A lot of the materials we bought were from Amazon, and of course there is the carbon load of the shipment. Also, the packaging which was mostly cardboard but also some bubble wrap and paper material, which is a mixed waste, can be difficult to recycle,” Hosobuchi said.

However, the science department felt that there must be a trade-off because it is critical for learning to be engaging. “The most important part of what you teach isn’t the facts that you’re memorizing in the lecture — it’s the actual performing [and] designing of experiments that you do when you’re doing a lab. We felt as a department that it was really important to not take that aspect of science away because of critical thinking and being able to understand how experimentation works is like the most important thing you need to take away from science in general,” Hosobuchi said.

Now, as students return their lab kits, Hosobuchi is taking apart and cleaning the kits, sending what can be recycled to the Palo Alto recycling plant and storing what can be reused in the future. However, with students back on campus, many of the materials that were used at home are no longer needed for labs. 

“I’m cleaning and storing everything, and I’m not sure like if a ton of new [COVID-19] variants come out and we might have to go back to square one and make the kits again,” Hosobuchi said. However, she has a backup plan to ensure that the materials don’t go to waste. “If we go five years and don’t have anything like this again, and we need the storage space, another avenue is to donate these items because they are useful for other schools […] if there is a school that doesn’t have a budget for science but they’d love to get the materials.”