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Inventor’s Inventory

April 26th, 2012 by


As we encourage our students to be exposed to a broad variety of STEM fields, the activities and projects that take place in our class rooms need just as broad a variety of materials to choose from.

One way to have materials for a particular project or course is to carefully plan ahead, order what you think you will need and go from there. This is the idealized option, but it does not account for changes you would like to make in the curriculum, student numbers or even course changes that may occur in your teaching schedule as administration deems necessary.

Building an organized inventory of parts and materials over the course of several years will permit you the freedom to choose the STEM projects that interest you personally and are most relevant to the students in the particular courses you teach.

An inventory of electronic parts is a great first step in this direction, and can usually be obtained quickly, inexpensively and in a fun, engaging way for students. You can get hundreds of dollars worth of parts from things that you, your district and your students already have.

Get Them While You Can

If you have not spent the time developing a good relationship with the person or persons in charge of district surplus items and disposal, Now is a good time. Every school district gets rid of obsolete and malfunctioning electronics on a regular basis. These include computers, dvd players, vcrs, and the mother lode of parts, the copy machine. Some store the items in a warehouse or unused class room, some have them picked up for recycling and others may attempt to sell these pieces at auction.

Most districts are more than happy to unload these discards at your class room doorstep. Just be sure that they understand you will only be extracting what you need from these devices, and the remainder will still need to be disposed of in a safe and legal manner by the district.

You can add to the mix as well by asking friends and colleagues for their broken electronics, and visiting a garage sale once in a while should yield some good finds as well. If appropriate for your particular school, students can be an excellent resource for broken electronics. Be sure to send home a note explaining what it is you are trying to accomplish, the need for proper safety precautions, and a list of wanted items that students may bring. You will be amazed at how many old dvd players and video game consoles you can get this way.

Do’s and Dont’s

Electronics can be somewhat dangerous if mishandled. Be sure that no cords are plugged, and they have sat unplugged for at least several days before working on electronic devices.
What exactly will you need to provide you with a useful variety of inventory in electronics? The key question is simple: Does it have moving parts? If the answer is yes, you can probably use something from that machine.  This means saying no to TVs, Monitors, and the like. They can be a dangerous source of high voltage even if not plugged in, and do not provide much in the way of useful parts for most teachers.

Pulling Parts
You can pull the parts yourself if your situation warrants it. It is a great way to familiarize yourself with the process and get ideas on how to organize and make use of the items you will find. The best way is if students can be directly involved in extracting parts. It takes on a treasure hunt-like atmosphere, and students exclaim proudly about their latest find, trying to out do each other as quickly as possible. Most importantly, they develop questions about what these parts are, how they work, and use hand tools to get them out. Students should also be a part of organizing the parts, and classifying what they find into a system is a valuable lesson in and of itself. Form or function? Color or size? Let students decide until later when you help fill in exactly what these strange looking parts really are.

Students will need to wear protective goggles during any and all activities related to pulling parts from electronics. That includes anyone in the room, because pieces do occasionally fly at a high rate of speed across the room as they are being worked on. In addition, inexpensive gloves to protect the hands from cuts and scrapes is a good idea.


Common hand tools will be enough to retrieve just about any part. Take the opportunity to explain to students how to use these tools. Many have never held a screwdriver or wrench before! A variety of sizes of philips screwdrivers will be the most used tools. Flat head screwdrivers will come in handy to pry off plastic pieces, but are rarely needed to turn a screw. A pair or two of wire cutters should be enough, as well as a couple of pairs of pliers. You should also have on hand several Torx drivers, and hex head (also known as Allen) wrenches.  For the most part electronics are imported and use metric sized screws and bolts, so be sure any tools you buy are metric as well. Students should be certain to use correctly sized and types of tools when pulling parts, or the tool may be ruined and the screw head stripped rendered unmovable without cutting them out.

Best of the Best

Be sure and express your enthusiasm when student make a particularly good find. Remember, this is fun! Here are some of the most useful things you should expect to get from electronic devices to add to your Inventor’s Inventory:
Gears and Gear Shafts
Drive Belts and Pulleys
Cooling Fans and Motors
Wires and Connectors
Buttons and Switches

Stay tuned for further TeachSTEMNow.com articles and turnkey lessons on how to use these parts now in your STEM classroom.

4 Trackbacks

  1. […] up perhaps designing a CNC with an arduino or other microcontroller and open source software and hardware scavenged from discarded electronics. Others may modify a classroom 3D printer and replace the toolhead with the Fresnel lens. The only […]

  2. […] use them for their own projects and organize them for future use. This will be the start of an “Inventor’s Inventory” of parts they will have readily available at no cost for future […]

  3. […] available materials thanks to a handy tutorial posted on eLABZ.com.   In conjunction with your Inventor’s Inventory, this project can provide a learning experience in its construction for a more advanced class and […]

  4. […] When students disassemble salvaged electronics to repurpose the parts into their own projects, create circuits to run an animatronic display, repair a robot during the heat of competition, or anything in between, they apply the laws of electricity in ways that solving Ohm’s law problems on paper can not replicate. Instead, ideas can come to life that enable students to create moving, talking, roving projects that demonstrate proficiency in real science and engineering practices. Knowing how to solder means that the need to look for kits that exclaim ‘No Soldering Required’ is well, no longer required. In fact, the expense of kits of any kit is reduced to purchasing individual parts or expanding the use of the class ‘inventor’s inventory’. […]

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