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Ways I Can Help You with the Messes in STEM

Do you follow me on Instagram? If you do, you may note that almost all my photos are project-oriented or contain tips. The photos are typical of that platform. But, are they the truth?

Well, content-wise, the answer is yes. The words are the truth, but like most posts on Instagram, you are seeing the ‘pretty’ version. Mind you, I don’t mean staged photos, just the photos that look the best out of the ten million I snapped.

So, if the photos are only the best ones, what do the rest look like?

Ha, I have a post for you about the messes we make and I am including tips for you about organization and clean up.

Pardon Our Mess

Sometimes we do have a lot going on in the lab. I see three grade levels with multiple classes of each. As much as possible I plan around a theme so all grades are using some of the same materials. Our favorite week is water week- 3rd grade builds water slides, 4th grade builds water towers, and 5th grade builds pipelines. This theme means we are using the same towels to dry off the tables and the same pitchers to fill up our water supply bins.

Sounds like a great plan, right? Well, it is, but it is not always possible. Sometimes every grade is doing something very different from the others and it gets a little chaotic and messy.

Let’s cover some basic areas:

  • Storage bins
  • Wet Things
  • Supply tables
  • Washing Dishes
  • Just Some Basic Tips

Are you ready?

Storage Bins

I know I have mentioned this in numerous posts, but you need some storage bins. The bins I use most often are:

  • dishpans
  • plastic shoeboxes
  • plastic baskets

I find those white dishpans at the dollar store. We use them for so many things. We carry materials to our worktables with those bins, we store projects that are not finished in them, and we use them anything that is going to be wet.

The photos above and below are showing the dishpans that we used with a flood barrier challenge. Students used sand as a barrier to block flooding. My original plan was for them to use sandbags, but students poured the sand out of the bag right into the bottom of the pans. Guess what?

Sand floats on water when there is a small amount of it. The pans were a mess to clean up because of the sand. We could have just poured the wet sand into garbage cans, but I don’t waste anything! So, what did I do?

I solved this wet sand dilemma in two different ways. One day I placed all the bins right outside the classroom door where the sun dried out the sand. The next day it was raining and I resorted to just placing all the pans on countertops around the room. 


  • Have enough storage bins in several sizes. You will use them!
  • If you have wet items that need to dry so you can reuse them do what I did! Place the bins in the sun or spread the wet items out on countertops or trays.
  • Notice that green tray in the photo above. It is from a school cafeteria and we have about 40 of them. They are the perfect size for carrying items or to use a drying method for wet materials. A dollar store cookie sheet would also work great.

Wet Things

Speaking of wet things…

Check this photo. You are not going to believe what that is!

It is Play-dough. We used it the flood barrier challenge as a possible way to stop the flow of water. It does work, but students thought mashing it into the pan would make a greater seal. It probably did, but getting it out of the pan meant scraping it. Since the play-dough was wet we had a gooey, gloppy mess to scrape out. 

TIP: Don’t use play-dough and water together. I like to reuse materials and the scraped out wet play-dough was thrown away.

Supply Tables

Now, to be honest, the photo above doesn’t look messy to me. It looks like a classroom that is really busy! (And maybe a teacher that has not had time to put things away yet!)


  • Have a plan for what is going to happen with used bins. As each group finishes for the day have students place those bins where they need to go. It would help if they would neatly stack them, too!
  • Think ahead and know how you will store unfinished projects. I can’t tell you how many times we have started something and then a fire drill happens. We can’t finish the challenge for the day so I have to scramble to find storage bins and decide where to put them. Plan ahead for this!

Washing Dishes

If you use plastic dishes in your classroom, do you have a plan for cleaning up?

We do! Guess what? I do not do those dishes.

The students do!

Ignore the plant that is in the sink. The photo above has all the water containers that students used for the flood barrier challenge. At the end of class, each team sent a student with the containers to the sink areas. That student rinsed the containers and placed them upside down on a draining mat or a towel to dry.

TIP: Let students complete the clean up whenever you can. They actually love it! There are always students that love to do this type of chore and they will volunteer!

Basic Messes and Tips

Can I just share how much I dislike clutter? Seriously, I do not like countertops that are covered with junk. Inevitably, it happens as we get busy during the day. Below you can see the aftermath of students choosing pieces of wood and other materials for a challenge.

The wood was a choice for building our flood barriers, but we found that flexible materials worked better, so the wood went back in the closet.


  • The wood came from a wooden pallet that my husband cut up for me. My original plan was to build birdhouses with them, but we found that cardboard pieces worked better. (It was easier to paint.) Store wood like this in empty copy paper boxes! Our office saves boxes for me whenever they empty out the reams of paper. Those boxes are a perfect size!
  • Notice the plastic bin of a mixture of materials in the photo. Here is a great idea for recycling materials. At the end of class, I place a number of bins on my supply table and the students bring their unused or gently used materials and sort them into those bins. Ready to use next time!

What about simple materials- like index cards?

We use construction paper, index cards, and cardstock all the time!

The challenge in the photos is an Index Card Bridge. Students fold or roll the index cards to build their bridges.


  • At the end of class, I place bins for flat cards, rolled cards, and folded cards on a table. Students take apart their bridges and sort the cards into the appropriate bin. I bundle the cards together into large zippered bags and we use them again.
  • For construction paper and cardstock I have a large plastic container that is labeled as the scrap box. We use that bin a lot! When students need just a tiny piece of a certain color they can usually find it in the scrap box.

A Quick Recap

You need storage bins in many sizes. These are easy to stack and store on the top of your cabinets or in a closet. I also used carts with drawers for storage and these are also stackable. Label your bins and get students involved in sorting materials back into the correct places. Have a plan for everything! Again, involve students in putting materials away and packing the group’s materials to save for the next class time. Students can wash dishes, dry items that are wet, or sweep the floor. Keep them busy. You cannot do it all by yourself- unless you have superpowers!

Don’t forget- no matter how messy the classroom seems to be – the kids are learning and that is what matters!
Blog post about ways to plan for those messy days and tips for things you can do in the STEM Lab!
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