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11 December 2015

Starting a Physics Lab From Scratch -- What Equipment Do You Buy?

In their December 2015 issue, the journal The Physics Teacher attempted to answer an important question that new teachers -- and teachers new to a school -- regularly ask:  "I don't have any equipment at all.  What do I need to order?"

Problem is, TPT asked the question of a university lab manager, who had ideas as far removed from a typical high school teaching situation as the troposphere is from the mantle.  No, sorry, you should NOT order $1400 AC power supplies, infrared cameras, or cloud chambers as your first purchases, unless, say, your top priority in setting up a banking office from scratch would be purchasing lie-flat seats for the executive jet.

No, folks, you want fundamental equipment to start your high school lab, equipment that is simple to use, durable, and (where possible) multi-use.  You want equipment that allows you to do demonstrations and laboratory activities in line with the first-year physics curriculum you cover.  

Here's my rough list of equipment, with caveats below.  You may think of other things; great.  Post a comment.  But be aware of my goal, here -- I'm not trying to be truly comprehensive in this list, and I'm not listing equipment for everyone's pet experiment.  

Rather, I'm answering the question: What would I buy for a high school's introductory physics program, given a one-time, not that big, start-up budget?

Enough for multiple lab groups:
PASCO carts and tracks with pulleys
PASCO hanging mass sets
Vernier Labquests, with motion sensors
Ohaus spring scales (just the 2.5 N and 5 N sizes)
Cheap breadboards, digital multimeters, resistors, and connecting wires
Lenses / curved mirrors
Batteries, miniature light bulbs with holders

Demonstration equipment*
Variable DC power supply, up to 20 V*
"Decade box" variable resistor
PASCO fan cart
Happy/sad balls
Vernier force probe*
Vernier force plate
Vernier light sensor*
Laser/fish tank
PASCO projectile launcher
PASCO string wave generator

*Where marked with an asterisk, it's worth getting enough for multiple lab groups if you have the money; otherwise, just get one unit for use in demonstrations.

Things not to get
Stopwatches (phones and watches will perform this function)
air tracks (PASCO tracks work better for 1/4 the price and 1/1000 the noise)

I'm assuming basics like metersticks, rulers, protractors, ringstands, string, computer printer with projector, copy machine, white or chalk board, desks, etc.  

I'm also not including things that can be found around the school, or jury-rigged for cheap: like using PVC pipe for waves or rotation demonstrations/labs; clear rectangular plastic containers filled with water instead of commercial plastic blocks for refraction labs; tennis balls and marbles; etc.

And finally, I'm assuming topic coverage approximately equal to the AP Physics 1 exam, regents exam, or my conceptual physics exam.  Obviously if you're not teaching lenses and mirrors, don't buy them; if you are teaching magnetism in your first year course, you might include other materials (like magnets, perhaps).

I'm sure I've left out some things.  Post a note in the comments.  Perhaps I'll edit based on your suggestion; regardless, readers of this post would benefit from other folks' different perspectives.  



  1. - motor from a scrapped treadmill
    - microwave oven
    - bow and arrow or slingshot
    - hydraulic jack, screw jack
    - balloons, springs, elastics, coffee stirrers, glue, duct tape, paper clips, pipes
    - I inherited a LOT of fancy Pasco equipment and don't use much of it. For example the fancy pasco tracks are not as good as an 8' foot section of U-channel or V-channel aluminum which cost $4.
    - DC power supplies are a must IMHO. You can buy as kits which saves $$. Have the students assemble them.
    - A vacuum pump is really handy

  2. Great list! I've recently found a cheaper way to do the light bulbs: hacked up strands of Christmas lights, like so They're a bit harder to remove than a screw-in incandescent, but they're way more readily available.

  3. Great list, Greg. I'd add in holders for the batteries especially if you don't have a class set of DC power supplies (I prefer the single-battery holders, but other prefer the ones that hold four batteries), sturdy rope (not just string), and a pair of wire cutters. I'm not sure if you use lasers for refraction labs, but we're required (by law!) to use ray boxes, so they go on my list too.

  4. If you do get stopwatches, MyChron are the best ones, simply because they have no alarms the students can set. For the more modern physics classroom, though, the best way to take the time of anything is to use a smartphone to video something and catch the time stamp at the exact frames desired.