In response to the provisions of Section 7027 of the America COMPETES Act, which requires the NSF to conduct a study of laboratory equipment donations to elementary and secondary schools, this study will survey selected institutions of higher education (IHEs) and entities in the private sector to obtain data on their donations of surplus scientific instruments for K-12 classroom use.

The objectives of the study are to determine: (1) How often, how much, and what type of equipment is donated; (2) What criteria or guidelines the institutions and entities are using to determine what types of equipment can be donated, what condition the equipment should be in, and which schools receive the equipment; (3) Whether the donating institutions provide any support to, or follow-up with, the recipient schools; and (4) How appropriate donations can be encouraged.

The survey will employ a purposive sample drawn from three lists of NSF awardees in 2008-09: 1) the 100 top-funded NSF awardees overall; 2) the 100 top-funded Directorate for Education and Human Resources (EHR) awardees; and 3) up to 100 top-funded awardees from 35 EHR programs (stratified by program). A sample of approximately 300 awardees will be drawn to ensure that it includes 75% IHEs and 25% private entities. Basic analyses will include descriptive statistics on each category of information requested by Congress broken out by Carnegie classification of IHEs, type and size of private entities, NSF organization funding awards, and levels of schooling.

Project Report

In 2010, the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded a grant to the American Institutes for Research (AIR) to conduct a survey in response to a Congressional request for information about the extent to which institutions of higher education (IHEs) donated used science laboratory equipment to elementary and secondary schools. AIR drew a sample from a national database of IHEs stratified by types of institutions (i.e., public/private, research, masters, bachelors, associates, and specialty) and designed an online survey that addressed the questions raised in the Congressional request. In the Fall of 2011, AIR contacted sample institutions by phone and email to determine institutional eligibility (i.e., whether the institution offered laboratory courses), identify the most appropriate survey respondent at each institution, and obtain contact information for those individuals. In 2014, NSF requested that AIR not proceed with conducting the survey, but instead report on the information we collected while contacting sample institutions in 2011. This information was entered into a database that included comments made by potential respondents regarding institutional donations of laboratory equipment to schools in FY 2010-2011. This report summarizes that information. It is important for the reader to understand that the original survey was never administered. Further, the sample of IHEs was not drawn on a random basis—we oversampled institutions with higher research spending—and was limited to just those institutions for which we could obtain contact formation for potential survey respondents. Therefore, our findings are limited in scope and cannot be generalized to IHEs beyond those in the sample. The survey database included information from 207 eligible IHEs. According to comments made by potential survey respondents who where aware of their institution’s donation practices, 28 percent of all eligible institutions donated science laboratory equipment to K-12 schools in FY 2010 or 2011. The majority of potential respondents (72 percent) reported that their institutions did not donate. Potential survey respondents often explained why their institution did not donate (two-thirds did so). The most frequent reason for not donating was auction or sale of equipment (45 percent), followed by prohibitions due to state law (39 percent, combining cases where a state agency handled all surplus equipment—18 percent—and cases where the state prohibited donations—21 percent). It should be noted that some institutions were compelled to auction or sell equipment rather than make donations because of state law. Thus it appears that state law played an important role in limiting IHE donations of science laboratory equipment to schools. These data should be considered suggestive only for the reasons given above. We calculated the proportion of donors by type of institution among those IHEs whose potential survey respondents were knowledgeable about their institution’s donation status. The data suggest that private IHEs donate more than do public IHEs. This is likely the case because private institutions were neither bound by state law to convey their equipment to a state agency for disposal, nor prohibited from donating by state law. Our analysis of comments revealed that over one-third (39 percent) of potential respondents—all representing public IHEs—reported one or the other of these state restrictions. AIR learned valuable lessons about conducting studies pertaining to laboratory equipment donations. The Intellectual Merits of this study—specifically advancing knowledge and understanding within the field of science policy and science education—are these lessons. We recommend the following: Partner with the Academic Facilities Council of the International Facility Management Association, the professional group representing the types of individuals contacted in the study sample. Access to this organization’s member database would greatly expedite the survey administration process. Conduct a review of state policies regarding donations of public IHE equipment. Interviews with relevant state agency personnel would provide valuable information, and the sample of public IHEs could be streamlined to include only those that do not restrict IHE donations. Consider serving K-12 schools about the source of their equipment donations rather than IHEs. We found that many donor institutions did not track equipment donations. The study had high potential for Broader Impacts by enhancing the infrastructure for education, specifically with respect to facilities and instrumentation. Had the survey yielded findings consistent with those reported here, and had these findings been disseminated and their policy implications explored, more IHEs may have begun to donate and some state education agencies may have revised their policies on limiting IHE donations. The study’s results would have had particular relevance for schools serving large numbers of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch (i.e., children from poorer families), which often have fewer resources for science education than do schools serving more affluent student populations.

Project Start
Project End
Budget Start
Budget End
Support Year
Fiscal Year
Total Cost
Indirect Cost
American Institutes for Research in the Behavioral Sciences
United States
Zip Code