It happens all the time: you’re out on a nature walk, and you see a tiny, pretty leaf or a dead bug or interesting rock or something else that you want to take back with you and investigate. But alas, you’re unprepared to transport your new discovery! Fear not. With a little planning and a handy Altoids tin, you could be prepared for all of your amateur scientist experiments.
Let me start this with the disclaimer that I’m not a scientist, though I do love science. What I’m suggesting here is a collection of items that should be easy enough to carry around in a tin that fits in most people’s pockets. If you’re teaching your kids about science, you may want to customize it for what they can safely handle, leaving out some elements, and perhaps including others. You’ll also want to customize based on what you plan to do with your specimens when you bring them to your secret lab.
You should be able to find many of these items around the house. If not, try a dollar store. Either way, I’d recommend that you bring along your Altoids tin, or whatever container you plan to use, to make sure the items you’re considering will all fit. You might need to cut a few things down to size, if possible, or make some substitutions if you can’t.
Start with the tin. While lots of people like Altoids tins, I prefer the kind that Sucrets used to come in. I’ve seen some metal tins that feature a tin held in place by pressure where the lid comes off completely, as opposed to the kind with a hinged lid that closes securely. Personally, I prefer a hinged lid; it’s easier to open and close. The outside measurements of my tin, when closed, are 2.5 inches wide by 3.25 inches long by 0.75 inches tall. As you fill your tin, make sure you can still close it securely!
We’ll start with tiny plastic bags, the kind that are two inches square and press securely closed. Most people who have beads or make jewelry have plenty of these. You’ll want four to six of these for transporting your specimens without making a mess. Tic tac containers might fit, but they take up too much room, and they don’t offer the kind of leak-resistant closure you get from a baggie.
How do you collect your samples? That depends on what you’re gathering. A tiny pair of scissors could help here; so could a pair of tweezers. If you’re comfortable with using one, you might add a razor blade to the kit (tape up one side so it can be handled more safely). I’ve seen tiny Swiss Army knife style items that might be put to use. If you’re collecting samples on someone else’s property, be sure you get permission before you cut anything…especially their prize roses.
Small cotton swabs are another obvious addition. You can use them for collecting a small bit of dirt or other messy sample. Get a good-sized dab with the cotton swab, stick the messy end into one of your sample baggies, cut off the end of the swab that’s sticking out of the bag, seal it shut, and you’re good. When you get the specimen to your secret lab, you can use your tweezers to remove it from the bag and smear your sample onto a slide for possible viewing under a microscope. Cotton swabs can also be useful for gently cleaning the dirt off of a specimen, though you might find that a small makeup brush does the job even better (many scientists use their own idiosyncratic collection of brushes and picks in the field, depending on what they’re trying to accomplish).
Every good scientist keeps records. If you can’t find a small notebook that fits into your tin, you can jury-rig one by cutting several index cards down to size and stapling them together. I found a folding pen that fits, but you can use a small pencil, such as the kind you’ll find at mini-golf for keeping score. Record the date, time, where you found the specimen, how it looked, and anything else that seems significant about your discovery.
You’re going to need a way to label your specimens. Ideally, this should be easy to reverse, so you can reuse the specimen baggies if you want to (once you’ve cleaned them, of course!). Here’s something to try: put a square of Scotch tape on each baggie before you put it in your tin. You can easily write in pencil on the tape, and it will remain visible. If you’re careful, you’ll be able to remove the tape afterward, when you’re done with your specimen and you’re ready to reuse your baggie. You don’t need to be elaborate in your labeling; if you keep careful notes, you can just use numbers, as long as you refer to the right numbers in your notes!
A magnifying glass could help with on-site observations. I’ve seen magnifiers that come in the form of a thin plastic film; it’s even possible to get these for free, as giveaways. You may need to cut one down to size to fit in your tin.
Another aid to on-site viewing is an LED light. You don’t even need to be out at night to make use of this; it can help you see into hidden nooks and crannies, especially when used with the magnifier. I’ve seen tiny LED flashlights small enough to fit on a key chain. Some even have switches, so you don’t need to keep constant pressure on the “on” button to keep it lit.
You might want to take a measurement for your records while you’re on-site, especially if you’re cutting a specimen off of a larger object. You could add a tape measure to your tin – or, if it’s getting too crowded, you could improvise one from string that you’ve knotted at set intervals (such as every inch or half-inch) before adding it to the tin. If you choose to do that, take care that these knots actually DO fall at the correct distances from each other. Remember, a scientist can only be as precise as the instruments being used!
Once you’ve collected your supplies, make sure they all fit in the tin at the same time. You’ll want to have a little breathing room in the tin for the samples you plan to collect. You may need to make adjustments, or choose to leave certain things behind on certain trips. You might decide that some things are important enough to take with you even if they don’t fit in the tin, and won’t get in the way out of it – like the magnifier, perhaps.
You may even come up with things you want to add, or create your own custom tools to go in the tin, depending on what you plan to do. For example, one item you might add is a small piece of unglazed tile, to streak test rocks, minerals, and possible meteorites. Come to think of it, if you’re hunting for meteorites, you’ll want to add a magnet to your tin.
So give this tin a try and let me know what you think. What would you put in your specimen collection tin to help you on your next scientific field trip?