Frequently Asked Questions

See also our homeschool tips page.

Click on any of the questions below to view the answer to that question.

Q: What does TOPS stand for?
A: TOPS stands for Task Oriented Physical Science. We adopted this acronym way back in 1977 when we first started publishing science experiments. Our idea was to emphasize science as a process of inquiry. Since we have expanded far beyond physical science, we kept the name TOPS and added Learning Systems to emphasize our hands-on approach. Now we cheerfully answer to TOPS, or TOPS Learning Systems, or TOPS Ideas, or TOPScience.org.
Q: Are your materials guaranteed?
A: Yes. Your satisfaction is important to us. If you look over your order and find that it just doesn’t meet your needs, send any or all of it back in new, resalable condition for a full refund of your purchase price.
Be sure to include a copy of our invoice or packing slip so we can credit you correctly. No pre-authorization is required, and we have no time limit on this offer. But do pack return materials carefully, please. Unpadded envelopes or boxes that allow books to slide around simply won’t do the job.
Q: Do you still offer free magazine subscriptions?
A: We regret that rising printing and mailing costs prohibit us from continuing this service. We still do offer our TOPS IDEAS magazine/catalog free and post paid, but BY REQUEST ONLY, in whatever quantities you may need for a workshop, convention, or distribution to colleagues. Thanks for helping us spread the word. Your support means a great deal to us and keeps our costs down.
Q: I’d like to avoid math-heavy subjects, and still let my students experience real hands-on science. Any suggestions?
A: We have great choices just for situations where too much math might boggle student enthusiasm. Under Combo Discounts > package deals > Easy Eight, find programs that require little math. And when it’s there, it’s the kind of math-as-process that makes exhilarating good sense and boosts comprehension, confidence and competency. Upper elementary and homeschool teachers appreciate these titles. Even better, young learners love these titles and ask for more!
For younger students, Primary Lentil Science #71 and Intermediate Lentil Science #72 are inviting options. These titles have chapters on math process that you can use or not, but why skip? Math is fun when it is concrete and three-dimensional. A similar approach to math is the focus of Get a Grip #73, which emphasizes independent learning. Students who hate math will really love solving these math puzzles. Math as play! What a concept!
Q: I’m not confident that my science or math background are strong enough to teach TOPS labs. What if I get stuck?
A: Users comment that our lesson notes are thorough and thoughtful. That’s because these notes arise from our experience working with real, live students. When appropriate, we also include helpful background and introductory material. As a new feature on this website, you can look up any book title to see what additional teaching tips, if any, we have uncovered. Please email us your ideas and innovations to include on these pages.
TOPS instructions are written specifically to students (not for teachers to translate to students), in clear, concise language with helpful illustrations. And good news -- students are remarkably good at figuring out what they need to know when they are enthusiastically engaged in their own learning. (See our Rave Reviews for unsolicited comments.) You may well find yourself relaxing, inquiring and exploring right along with your students. They may find that unusual, but will enjoy being the experts and showing you what they learn!
You can trust TOPS to give you and your students what you need to succeed. But if you really feel stuck, you can email Ron and Peg for a little personalized coaching. (For efficiency, we will need to know what book, lesson, and the age level you are teaching.) We can happily say that few educators or students have needed extra help!
Q: I recently requested free examination copies of your books to keep on hand in my science methods class. You declined! Don’t you folks value my influence upon my teachers-to-be?
A: Your recommendations are like gold to us! And we will gladly ship you free copies of our TOPS Ideas magazine which includes adapted samples from 10 programs. Please understand that we are a 3-person, home-based, non-profit educational publisher running on a thin and bony budget. We are not a big corporation selling science textbooks in expensive class sets. Own an ‘examination copy’ and you own a whole reproducible program with nothing more to buy. We do hope you will continue to recommend TOPS, not for the benefits to you, or to us, but for all those kids out there who become excited about hands-on science.
Q: But you do sometimes give your books away free, don’t you?
A: Yes, we do. The purpose of our work is to make low-cost creative, hands-on science available to students everywhere, rich and poor. That’s also why our labs use such inexpensive materials! If you or your school simply can’t afford our books, write us about your special circumstances, and we will do what we can to help out.
Q: I’m doubtful about the wide age ranges listed for you TOPS books. Grades 3-10? Grades 7-12? How can this be?
A: Educators know by experience that each child learns at a unique level of competence and understanding. TOPS books define 'learning systems' for science and math process skills to develop at ALL levels. Our activities are wonderfully flexible, and adapt easily to differentiated instruction. Educators with all sorts of teaching styles love how their students take to TOPS. And students of all ages and aptitudes send us rave reviews.
Q: Why the focus on improvising and recycling simple materials? Don’t you think students prefer sleek, modern tools straight out of the box?
A: Our experience is that students truly understand and 'own' the models and tools that they build themselves. And they learn valuable design and engineering skills in the process. Typically, TOPS labs are structured in a build-then-use sequence that begin with design and engineering followed by scientific inquiry. A few notable programs among many include:
Triple Magnifier Kit #100: Students build cheap, yet powerful single lens microscopes, then explore the world of "small" with numerous starter activities.
Weighing #05: Students build a gram balance, accurate to a tenth of a gram, that works in most TOPS experiments requiring mass measure. Then they develop a system of gram masses and do all kind of weighing experiments.
Corn and Beans #39: Students construct journals, tools and planters in preparation for a 4-week investigation of monocots and dicots.
Q: I love my science textbook. It systematically covers every concept in my state’s syllabus. Each chapter is capped off with good questions, which are answered right there in my Teacher’s Edition. And hey, any student who wants to learn about science can read all about it. Simple, easy, efficient. So why should I mess around with hands-on uncertainties?
A: Of course a good textbook has value! But reading can’t displace doing, and it certainly doesn’t address different learning styles. So many educators write us — thrilled! — about their students’ growing curiosity, focus, competence and confidence when doing TOPS. What your students learn by actually doing science will be remembered long after the chapter quiz!
Q: You sent me a book with a 1991 copyright. Don’t you have a more current version?
A: Some of our copyright dates are a decade or more old. We do revise and update as needed with every reprint, but don’t apply for new copyrights unless the revisions are substantial. (In the interest of selling “new” editions, many publishers obtain new copyrights even if they only change the cover or reorganize their text, but this seems liked deceptive practice to us, and we don’t do it.)
TOPS labs are perennially the friendliest, most creative and do-able hands-on activities you’ll find anywhere. The peoplets who help illustrate activities are timeless; they don’t even wear clothing that goes out of date. In the best sense of the word “classic,” we are confident you’ll find that the quality of our books is timeless.
Q: Will TOPS activities work as a whole science curriculum, or are TOPS titles meant to be used as supplementary materials?
A: Teachers use TOPS both ways. The best answer for you depends on your philosophy of teaching and your personal teaching style. If you agree with us that understanding how to DO science and LOVE the subject is more important than systematically covering all science content areas, then you'll stand current classroom practice on its head by making TOPS basic and using traditional classroom text as supplementary reference material.
Q: How much time should I schedule for each TOPS lesson?
A: For purposes of overall planning, budget about one class period per TOPS lesson. Expect individual lesson to vary considerably from this average. If you individualize learning, students can set aside unfinished experiments-in-progress to continue the next day. You can encourage students to speed their progress through TOPS units by completing experiment write-ups at home.
Q: How are your Task Cards differ from your Activity Sheets?
A: See lesson formats of a detailed look at our various program styles.