Prepare your classroom for learning stations to engage students, differentiate activities, and transform your classroom instruction.

How To Set Up Science Stations In Your Classroom

How did I transform my instruction, engage my students, cut out the

Science Stations are a great way to increase student engagement and responsibility.  They encourage them to become active participants in their learning and moving them toward ownership and agency. You can read more about WHY I use stations in this blog post, but for now – let’s chat about HOW I prepare for stations.

How To Choose Your Activities:


For your science stations, choose activities that students can work through more or less independently. You can’t be at every station all of the time, so it’s important that students can understand what to do at the station and complete their work on their own while you circulate to troubleshoot, manage the room, and facilitate deeper learning.

While students may struggle with this type of independence initially, as you use science stations more frequently, they will become accustomed to doing some “figuring out” on their own.  You may also want to institute an “Ask Three Before Me” rule. You can learn more about that strategy at the Teaching Channel.

Lastly, each science station should have simple instructions. Provide these instructions briefly before you begin but also include a written set of instructions at the table.  Avoid activities that require multiple steps or extensive setup and cleanup.


Read characteristics of Earth's layers and sort them into the appropriate category to learn about Earth's interior structure in the 5E Explore science activity.  Analyze claims, evidence, and reasoning to learn how scientists know what is inside of Earth in this evidence-based NGSS-aligned 5E Explore activity.


The 5E instructional model is an evidence-based approach to foster deeper understanding in science lessons. I use the 5E instructional model in my classroom, and I have found that science station work is perfect for Explore activities.  Because students are not expected to master anything at the Explore stage, you can emphasize that it’s okay for students to make mistakes, take guesses, and work through the tasks on their own.  This reduces the “Is this the right answer?” questions and student frustration that can build when students are working on their own.

I also use it for initial Explain activities, but I always follow up with a whole-group review.  When using it for Explain activities, I often provide “Support Stations” and “Cheat Sheets” where students can check their understanding. To find out how you can incorporate Learning Support Stations in your classroom, access my Types of Learning Support Stations resource.

 Checking stations are a must have for station work.


This may go without saying but just for the sake of absolute clarity, it is important that science stations can be completed in any order.  All students will have different starting points, and each activity must essentially “stand alone.”

Additionally, each of your science stations should require about the same amount of time to complete. That said, because that cannot always be the case (and students work at different paces anyway), it is important to have something for students to work on if they finish early.  I provide students with a workbook at the beginning of the unit that they can work through during this downtime. Alternatively, each station (or the short ones at least) could have a quick extension activity for students who finish early.

How To Prepare Your Classroom and Students For Science Stations:

Setting Up science stations:

I typically set up science stations so that students complete a different task at each station. I consider my ideal student grouping (typically 2 to 3) and create enough stations to facilitate that split.  If I don’t have enough activities for that number of science stations, I may create two parallel tracks. For example, if I need six stations but I only have 3 activities, I have two science stations for each activity and run two parallel circuits.

I have also used science stations to facilitate small group teacher-led instruction.  I split my class into two groups — then, I work with one group personally on a more difficult task, while the other group completes stations independently.  This has been a great way to lead students through an activity (for example, graphing seismic waves to provide evidence for Earth’s interior structure) without engaging in the “whole group instruction” attention battle.

Students graph seismic waves as evidence for Earth's interior structure. Additionally, since graphing activities can require some troubleshooting (especially for students who struggle in math), splitting the students up into these groups allowed me to provide additional, one-on-one support.  While I worked closely with the group in the front, my students worked at their stations in the back of the room. Because they were already familiar with station work, behavior issues were minimal.  (I would not recommend doing this until students are accustomed to the procedures and responsibilities of station work

This setup could also work really well with lab activities.  I love that you can not only guide students through the activity more easily but also engage with them more personally as they work to guide their thinking and understanding.

Transitioning through science stations:

You must have a system for transitioning. Students should know where they are moving next and when they are expected to move.  You could use a bell, flicker the lights, or use a call and response to indicate it is time to move. I usually just used the timer on my iPad.  Students could see the time remaining displayed and were also listening for the alarm. So that students know where they are going next, you may want to number your tables or station areas and review the direction of movement before beginning.

Procedures for science stations:

Classroom management is key when using science stations in your classroom.  Aside from establishing strong relationships with your students, it is important to set clear procedures for students to follow.  Consider things like, how and when should students rotate? What should students do before they transition (reset supplies? turn in their work?) How should students handle sharpening pencils, getting supplies, or using the restroom? When is it okay to access the Support Stations or Cheat Sheets? Should students be talking with other groups? How should students get your attention?  If you address these issues ahead of time, your stations will run significantly more smoothly.  I recommend posting a code of conduct for stations where students will be working, as well.

Accountability in science stations:

Aside from managing student behavior, it is important to hold students accountable for their learning.  Because science station activities are typically not designed to result in immediate mastery of the subject (working independently, students may walk away with some misconceptions that still need addressed), grading for right or wrong answers may not be the way to go.  Additionally, if you provide Support Stations or Cheat Sheets, what is to keep students from simply copying the answers? Lastly, how to ensure students remain on task and complete their work in a timely fashion?

How to set up stations in your science classroom!I have found one strategy that works well is the stamp, sticker, or “sign off” method. After completing the work at a station but before making any corrections (whether as a class or using a Cheat Sheet), the teacher can stamp the students’ work to note that it was attempted.  This is not a check for correct or incorrectness but rather just – did they try? In the same way, you can use a stamp to denote where students left off — did they finish the assigned task in the allotted time? Where did they stop?  Similarly, if students are working through a project, you could include a “teacher check” to ensure that students are on the right track before continuing to invest their time and energy into the task.

Do you have any tips or tricks for using stations in the classroom? Join the conversation in our Private facebook community today!

How station work in the middle and secondary classroom can open doors to higher engagement and student ownership of their learning!

Why I Use Classroom Stations For Science Instruction

Classroom stations in middle and secondary science instruction can lead to higher engagement, motivation, and performance by students. Make your life easier and adopt station learning strategies.One of the great things about the Next Generation Science Standards is the shift to focus on what students can do! I truly believe this shift forces us as teachers to put more ownership into students hands. They are the ones working in the classroom. We are there to facilitate. Using classroom stations is a perfect way to do that.

I’ve found that classroom stations are a great way to engage students in the types of activities that support the NGSS, and they are perfect for the 5E Model. Both my students and I benefited when I switched to station work. Why?

Why are Classroom stations central to my classroom Routine?


Classroom stations provide opportunities for students to work collaboratively with other students, exploring new concepts and making sense of their ideas. Students can develop their own ideas while learning from others.

Teacher Benefit:

Students want to talk anyway. How many of you have wasted minutes or breath trying to get a class to quiet down so you could teach? With stations, you don’t have to. Yes, there will be times you will need their attention as a whole (although I tried to limit myself to 5-10 minute increments).  That said, the majority of class is spent in learning activities that allow students to interact and socialize as they are learning. You no longer have to fight the “quiet down now” battle. Teaching in a chatty urban school, I can tell you – this drastically reduced my stress levels and made my classes so much more enjoyable!


Classroom stations allow students to work at their own pace.  Stations can be a way to differentiate for your quick and slow learners. Quick learners can move quickly through the stations and required tasks, while slower learners can take their time completing their work. It is important to fill the gap for your quick finishers though.  You can provide time for silent reading, extension activities, or ongoing projects (20% time?). Your slower learners will have time to actually explore the content and build their understanding – instead of simply “running out of time” and being given the answer during review.

Teacher Benefit:

You have built-in differentiation without making significantly more work for yourself! Next time your principal stops in for a walk-through, you can point out that your class is built on differentiating for students needs and interests.  

Small Group Work:

Classroom stations provide you the opportunity to work with students in small group instruction. Stations are a great way to work with small groups on a difficult task while the remainder of the class works through engaging, self-directed activities.

Teacher Benefit:

This is where you can really get your teach on, and you can do it in a way that is more effective and enjoyable. Again, you don’t have to fight the “quiet down now” battle, you can ensure your small group is paying attention, and you can address each students’ misunderstandings or struggles.


Station work allows for regular movement. You can easily incorporate brain breaks in the transition between stations. Physical movement is an important facet of learning that we often overlook.  Classroom stations allow structured opportunities for students to get out of their seat. You can learn more about the importance of moving in class at this article by the Washington Post.

If you’re interested in getting some great brain breaks ideas specifically for the science classroom, you can join my email list for access to my bi-monthly newsletter. It’s full of ideas for brain breaks, anchoring phenomena, formative assessments, science literacy highlights, and engaging projects and instructional strategies. It also provides you access to my All The Things Library (aka free things for you)! [And don’t worry, I won’t blow up your inbox.]

Teacher Benefit:

Students want – even need – to move. You are structuring and controlling that movement, instead of letting it sneak out in unproductive trips to the pencil sharpener, bathroom, or the ’round-the-room wander.

Student Ownership:

Lastly, classroom stations put ownership of the learning back into students’ hands. They must take responsibility for their work, for completing it on time, and for doing their best to make sense of the material. Stations require students to do a bit of puzzling it out on their own, since you can’t be there for every student at every second. While students may resist at first, this will benefit them (and you!) in the long run. To ease the transition, I suggest starting with simple activities that have crystal clear instructions.  You can also set up Support Stations or Cheat Sheets to reduce content-related frustration.  Lastly, I highly recommend instituting a “Ask Three Before Me” rule.

Teacher Benefit:

The more you can put on your students, the less you have on you. It’s every teachers dream to have their students engaged and motivated, working hard to understand the content and complete the learning task. Utilizing high-quality activities and classroom stations in your instructional routine can move you in that direction.


Using classroom stations is a valuable instructional tool that every teacher can utilize.  That’s not to say it is an easy practice to establish, though.  To be effective, it requires a strong classroom management system, clear procedures, and positive student rapport.  It also requires a good understanding of the types of activities that lend themselves well to stations.  I have found that it is well worth the challenges, though.  Once established, classroom stations drastically reduce the work of the teacher by shifting it to the students.  No longer is it the “one man (or woman) teacher show.”  The students are responsible for the learning.

has station work improved your classroom experience? Have you run into challenges with station work? Please join the conversation in our facebook community!

Both teachers and students benefit from using science stations in their instructional routine! I love using stations - find out why in this blog post!

Biomes: Teaching An NGSS-Aligned Unit

While you won’t find biomes in the NGSS, you can still fully align a unit on biomes to the NGSS. Check out how in this blog post about teaching biomes.Biomes is a topic I have often seen on the course curriculum sheets provided by schools and districts, yet it is not a topic that is anywhere in the Next Generation Science Standards.  Whether it is on your mandated course curriculum or you just like the topic, you may be wondering — how can I reconcile teaching this topic with the NGSS?

Don’t worry, you can! And I’m going to show you how.

The Standard

Biomes (the topic) doesn’t easily align with any particular standard, but there’s obvious connections to ecology and climate.  Because I am working with a life science course, I decided to go with the ecology connection. (Plus, the PEs that relate to climate don’t really apply to biomes well.)

The standard I identified that most easily aligned was:

LS2.A.1 Organisms, and populations of organisms, are dependent on their environmental interactions both with other living things and with nonliving factors.  with the accompanying Performance Expectation:

MS-LS2-1 Analyze and interpret data to provide evidence for the effects of resource availability on organisms and populations of organisms in an ecosystem.

So biomes is the lens through which I will be teaching that standard. Since the thing that makes one biome different than another biome is the nonliving factors in the environment (particularly the climate and geology), my focus is on how organisms and populations interact with factors related to the climate and geology.

[Note: This unit is based on the 5E Model. If you are not familiar (or find yourself confused as you read on), you may want to check out this Quick Guide to the 5E Model.]

Engage with Biomes:

I chose as my anchoring phenomena, Why can’t a cactus live in Pennsylvania? because I live in Pennsylvania.  We often have cactus plants inside, but you’re typically not going to find any outdoors. (I know there are technically some exceptions in some mountains somewhere in eastern Pennsylvania, but I’m ignoring that.)  As an anchoring phenomena, this connects to prior knowledge (cacti, home state) and gets them wondering.  I start the unit by discussing this idea with students, giving them time to generate and record their ideas.

Then, they dive into a jigsaw activity where they are introduced to one biome.  They learn about their assigned biome and decide, can a cactus live here? Then, they present their biome to the class along with their conclusions.


Introduce students to interactions between biotic and abiotic factors in this NGSS-aligned unit on biomes.

This gives students a quick overview of the biomes, and it gets them thinking about the interaction between living things and their nonliving environment.


Explore Biomes:

In the Explore phase, students are introduced to the idea that there are two types of factors within an environment (or biome or ecosystem).  Labels are not yet applied in this phase.

I love doing card sorts during the Explore phase, especially in relation to classification or organization. I think it’s a great way for students to begin making sense of the different categories.  If they begin to identify those differences themselves, they are more likely to remember those categories later.

For this activity, I had students identify factors in the biome. I provided them with a bunch of words – some were nonliving things (abiotic factors) and some were living things. My initial instruction was just – sort these cards into two groups. I did not even tell them living vs nonliving.  My goal is to see, what can they come up with?

Card sorts make great Explore activities in your 5E instructional sequence. This card sort focuses on biotic and abiotic factors in biomes.

After giving them a few minutes to do this, I would typically ask students to share their ideas.  Hopefully, a student suggests sorting the items into living and nonliving (although they may not use those exact terms).  If students don’t suggest that, I would try to guide them to that idea.

See It In Action


First, I might break apart the classifications students came up with by identifying cards that don’t fit. I don’t recommend saying, “You’re wrong. Where does this one go?” Rather, I might say, “That’s an interesting way to sort the cards! Where did you put _____?”

Alternatively, if students came up with a category that was too specific, I might try to broaden their category by building on their response.  If they said “animals,” I might say: “I like that you identified a few of those cards are animals. I wonder if there’s a way we could combine your category with this card that says trees?”

Once students are all on the same page – our two categories are living and nonliving – I would make sure we all are in agreement on which cards are living and which cards are nonliving.  Then, the goal is to move students back toward the standard – interactions between living factors and their nonliving environment.

See It In Action

I would ask students to examine the living factors. I might say, “  What are some things these organisms need to survive? What are some things they have that help them to survive in their environment?” I always have students at least jot down some key points of our discussion in their notebooks.

Then, we would look at the non-living factors we identified — temperature, precipitation, latitutde, etc. I would ask students, “How do you think these non-living things connect to the living things we just discussed? How might temperature affect an animal’s survival? What might an animal do or have that would help them to survive in certain temperatures? How might water or sunlight affect an animal’s survival?” My goal is for students to connect some of the characteristics and needs of living things to the environmental conditions of the biome we are examining.


Explain Biomes:

Explain is where you are going to start applying labels.  I vary my Explain phase activities. Sometimes, I use PowerPoint presentations.  Other times, we will analyze an image, graph, or text using a document camera. I typically also incorporate some sort of stations activity, where students can work independently to develop their own explanations.  This may be by taking notes from a video they watch on iPads or creating a graphic organizer with student-constructed definitions.

how to teach biomes with the NGSS


Introduce students to interactions between biotic and abiotic factors in this NGSS-aligned unit on biomes.



Students need time to work with the concepts independently to really reinforce their learning.  The Elaborate phase allows for this. For my first Elaborate activity, I break students into groups and give each group a Biome Card and Sort Terms very similar to the previous Explore activity.  Students are asked to apply that same process – sorting the cards into biotic and abiotic factors – using new information. To connect the interactions aspect, I asked students to answer a few analysis questions. Using an example from your cards, how might organisms interact with abiotic factors in your biome?


Explore biomes again:

Wait, what!? You may be asking, why are we back to Explore? Well, the 5E Model is NOT linear.  It is cyclical, in the same sense that the rock cycle or carbon cycle are cyclical. There are many paths that you can follow.

After students have mastered (more or less) biomes and biotic and abiotic factors, students can dive deeper into the interactions between those factors within a biome.

Again, I break students into stations. (I LOVE stations.  If you do – or if you don’t – stay tuned on the blog to learn about some tips and tricks for implementing stations in your classroom.) At this point, I bring in the SEP “analyzing data” as well.

The NGSS performance expectations are designed for three dimensional learning. The Science and Engineering Practices and Crosscutting Concepts are already bundled right into the standard!

In their groups, students develop visual literacy and explore cause and effect relationships.  They are asked to read an introduction/background information card and then to examine the graphs provided.  The analysis sheets I provide walk students through this data analysis process. (If you’d like to get your hands on a Data Analysis freebie that you can use with ANY graph or map, subscribe to my email list. You’ll get it right in your inbox, along with access to a bunch of other resources!)

These Explore activities are vital, because they provide additional, real-world examples of the phenomena we are studying – the interaction between abiotic and biotic factors in a biome.


Explain biomes again:

After an Explore activity, you always have to have an Explain. Students must digest what they have encountered and make sense of what they observed.  While the student analysis sheets in the Explore activity walk students through the process, it’s important to make sure they “followed the right path” — aka their conclusions made sense.

I typically use a document camera to essentially repeat this process with students. Students share their observations and the conclusions they came to, and we simply discuss their ideas.  If necessary, we correct misconceptions. Students record this all in their notebooks, so that they have a hard copy they can refer back to and draw from later.

This Explain activity breaks down the concepts students explored related to the interactions between biotic and abiotic factors. It also ties in the Science and Engineering Practices by focusing on analyzing data.

These two activities directly build towards their unit Performance Expectation MS-LS2-1.


Elaborate on biomes:

I like to give students another opportunity to apply their new understandings before any summative evaluations, so we are back to Elaborate.  Again breaking students into small groups (I love collaborate work!), students discuss scenarios about changes to abiotic factors in a biome and make predictions about the effects on the growth and reproduction of biotic factors.



Evaluate student understanding of biomes:

Evaluate should really be occuring throughout the unit.  I am constantly looking at Science Starters, Exit Tickets, and student responses during activities and discussions to formatively evaluate understanding. That said, the summative assessment comes at the end of a unit.  I typically assess students in two ways — a project of some sort and a traditional paper/pencil quiz or exam.

For the biomes unit, I decided to build on an old favorite of many teachers – the biome diorama – to create a project better aligned to the NGSS. The project is an opportunity to integrate the SEPs and the content.  I ask students to research a biome, which aligns to the Evaluating, Obtaining, and Communicating Information SEP, and then construct a Biome In A Box to present their findings. In order to truly meet the SEP, students must not just “google” information but also evaluate their sources.  I provide resources for the research portion of this assignment that scaffold students through this process.

Biome In A Box Project is an opportunity for students to demonstrate their understanding of Earth’s biomes and the interactions between biotic and abiotic factors to address the Next Generation Science Standards Disciplinary Core Idea: LS2.AThe Biome In A Box project itself incorporates the content – the biome they were assigned, the idea of biotic and abiotic factors, and how those factors interact. A written component ensures that this is not just an art project. It asks students to use the model they created to understand interactions and make predictions should changes occur.

I use a rubric to evaluate the project. By providing this to students at the start, students know exactly what to do. We also explicitly discuss what an A+ project would look like (I even show examples, if I can!).  I also add authenticity to the project by incorporating a gallery walk assignment, and I am sure to tell students about this component at the beginning.


Why do a gallery walk?  Displaying student work is something most of us probably do in our classroom, but oftentimes, no one actually looks at it once it’s hanging up.  Gallery Walks are a way to focus student attention on the hard work of others. It adds legitimacy to tasks, because let’s be honest – who wants to invest time and energy into something NO ONE is going to see? Plus, doing a gallery walk here benefits other students, because they get a review of the content.  If you can do this prior to the test, you’re in even better shape!


Wrap Up

So that is my Biomes Unit.  I typically spend about 1-2 weeks, depending on whether or not students complete most of their project at home or in class.  I can finish the actual activities in about 5 days with my typical students (urban school). If you have high achievers, you may be able to power through it even more quickly, while slower learners may need additional time.

Biomes (the topic) is tricky, because it is not an area that completely aligns with the NGSS — at least, not in the same way that things like “photosynthesis” and “natural selection” do.  That said, the NGSS is not a curriculum. They are standards, and you can be creative with how you teach those standards. So if you really love biomes – or if you have to teach it as a part of your school’s curriculum – you don’t need to quit the NGSS to do it.

Finding A Good Anchor Phenomenon For Your NGSS Unit

How to find a good anchoring phenomenon for your NGSS unit!One of the big shifts with the Next Generation Science Standards is that you are no longer teaching content for content’s sake — science instruction is no longer based around a list of facts, but rather, the focus is on the broader concepts that connect those facts together and the skill development necessary to investigate and understand those concepts. One way of focusing students on the “big picture” in a unit is to present an anchoring phenomenon that students work toward understanding and explaining.

When I first learned about anchors, I will be honest – I didn’t know what the heck they were talking about. I mean, I understood that doing a demo in a physical science classroom could be an anchor that students could explore throughout the unit — but what about my life science class? What about my earth science class?

Since then, I have spent some time learning about anchoring phenomenon, and I really feel my students benefited from what I was able to implement. Whenever we started a unit, students were immediately engaged in the content and prior knowledge began to surface. They were able to connect with what we were learning about, and they were able to see how one concept connected to the next by seeing how it all related to our anchor.

And in terms of planning, I actually always identify the anchoring phenomenon before I develop any activities in a unit. I want to be sure that my activities are tied into the anchor and providing the information they need to solve that problem or answer that question. The anchors literally hold the content together, in a way.

Obviously, choosing a good anchor is important!

So What Is An Anchor?

An anchoring phenomenon (or “anchor”) is either a fascinating natural phenomenon or a meaningful design problem that studnets must engage in science and engineering practices to investigate. Anchors can keep instructional sequences coherent and on target, allowing a storyline to develop that help students understand the concepts they are learning and how they are all interconnected.

What Makes A Good Anchor?

Choosing an anchor is an important step when you are designing your units and instructional sequences, and not every natural phenomenon makes a good anchor. So what does make a good anchor?

  • an anchor builds upon student experiences. Ideally, students should have some prior knowledge of or experience with the material. This does not mean they must fully understand it or be able to explain it — in fact, that wouldn’t be a good anchor at all! — but they should be able to connect with it in some way. For example, all students have probably watched rainwater run down the road, carrying dirt and debris with it. An anchor for a watershed unit could simply be that very description, along with the question: where does all the water go?
  • an anchor connects multiple NGSS performance expectations. When you lay out your units, you should be developing a storyline that takes you from one performance expectation to another. The anchor phenomenon should be able to flow through each of those PEs. For our watershed example above, your instructional sequence may move from the properties of water and their effects on Earth’s surfaces (HS-ESS2-5) to how changes in Earth’s surfaces affect water resources (HS-ESS2-2) to reducing the impact of human activity on watersheds (HS-ESS3-4).
  • an anchor is too complex to explain or solve after just one lesson. Students aren’t able to figure out an answer without instruction, and an online search can’t provide a quick answer that students could copy.
  • an anchor is observable — whether it is through a demo, a video presentation, through the use of a scientific procedure or technological tool (telescope, microscope, computer to see patterns, etc.).
  • an anchor should have resources available that students can explore for themselves: data, images, and texts that can provide students with what they need to know to explain the phenomenon or solve the problem. Students should be able to learn about the anchoring phenomenon and related concepts through first-hand or second-hand investigations. (First hand investigations: students conduct the investigation and collect the data; second-hand investigations: students utilize others data to draw their own conclusions or examine others’ conclusions to evaluate their reasoning.

Give Me Examples, Please!

My husband can attest to this – I am an examples person. I really need examples to understand what someone means. So what are some types of anchoring phenomena that I use in my lessons?

  • case studies (pine beetle infestation, cane toad invasive species, algal blooms in the Great Lakes, water shortages in California),
  • a problem and a challenge (how to eradicate an invasive species? how to provide clean water after a natural disaster?)
  • something puzzling (is there life on other planets? or why is Earth the only planet with life? why aren’t earthquakes common here? why do we get so much snow?),
  • or something students may be curious about (how do we know what Earth was like millions of years ago? how do we know what’s inside of Earth? why do I have blue eyes but my parents don’t? why does a giraffe have a long neck?)
  • demos (Newton’s Cradle and the transfer of energy; using elements to change the color of a flame; changing the color of flowers; osmosis demo)

What are your favorite anchoring phenomena to use in your classroom? Hop over to our Facebook COMMUNITY to join the conversation. I’d LOVE to hear what’s working for you!

Up your assessment game with these creative formative assessments. Who doesn't love #FormativeFriday!

Formative Friday: Formative Assessments To Mix It Up!

The Basics: There are two types of assessments – formative and summative. Formative assessments are used during the learning cycle to inform instruction.  Summative assessments are the, “DID YOU LEARN IT?!” moments. There are tons of ways to formatively assess your students, but like most people, teachers tend to fall into using the same strategies over and over. While there isn’t anything wrong with that, I know I like to mix things up sometimes.  I’ve compiled just a few ideas here, and I’ll be posting more in the future!

*Please excuse my art. I didn’t keep any of my student’s notebooks from the last two years, so I had to recreate it myself… I’m still working on that beautiful calligraphy thing.*

Odd One OUt

Select ideas/concepts you are studying that group together and add one that justifiably does not fit. Make sure to choose items where the relationship requires some deeper thinking to make the connection – don’t make it too easy! You can provide the list on a handout or just post on the board, but make sure to give students a focus for their thinking — characteristics of matter, organism classifications, the periodic table, geologic processes. Have students spend some time thinking alone before adding in a partner, and provide enough time for students to consider many possibilities. Then, feel free to reveal the “odd one out” and see if students agree!


Paint THe Picture

Paint the Picture is perfect for identifying student misconceptions at any point in the learning cycle – prior to the unit, after the explore cycle, or as a final evaluation. Use it in your #interactivenotebooks to track understanding and progress toward student #learninggoals. Paint the Picture allows students to express their conceptual model in a visual format – often revealing facets of understanding not easily expressed in words. In this picture, the student understands the molecules are moving toward each other, but they may mistakenly believe they are also getting smaller. Would you have caught that in a written response?


annotated drawings

Annotated drawings are a great way to see what’s going on in students brains, especially when they may not have the vocabulary to fully explain their ideas. It opens up opportunities to catch misconceptions and identify exactly where students are in their understanding of a concept – especially when it’s a struggle to get students to write anything at all! I love using annotated drawings as both an assessment (formative, summative, you name it!) AND as a way to take notes!


First word, last word

This is an awesome way to assess prior knowledge and assess understanding at the end of a unit. The gist is that you give students a term, and they use each letter of the word to express one thing they know about that term. You repeat the activity at the end of the lesson or unit to see how their understanding has changed.

glasses on book, quote saying designing instruction from the ngss

Designing 5E Instruction: Unpacking The Standard

glasses on book, quote saying designing instruction from the ngss

Top Three Takeaways

  1. Identify the Performance Expectation you are focusing on, and its accompanying Disciplinary Core Ideas, Science and Engineering Practices, and Crosscutting Concepts. You can find this on the NGSS site.
  2. Use the Evidence Statements (available on the NGSS site or via Google Search) to clarify what students should be able to do. You can use these to build your assignment and your rubric.
  3. Develop the assessment before planning any further unit activities. This backwards design approach will focus your instruction so that you, your students, and the activities planned are all working toward the same learning goal.

I started my first public school job as an Earth Science teacher at an urban high school.  I was coming from a private school where I kind of “owned” the science domain as the veteran science teacher in the school. I taught fifth and sixth grade general science, planned the school’s science fair (turned STEM Expo under my direction!), and developed summer science camps for school students.  I was used to “doing my own thing,” to say the least.

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But, I will be honest, it was hard making ends meet on a private school salary (I made less per day than public school substitutes!), and after attending the interview, I had a HUGE “boss-crush” on the public school’s principal. I knew this was an administrator I wanted to work for.

So when they offered me the job, I jumped on it! I knew it would be a huge change — wealthy middle school students to urban high school students, general science to earth/space science, and private school to public school — but I was excited for a new challenge. It didn’t occur to me right off the bat that I might lose some autonomy when it came to lesson planning.

Like many teachers, I spent the few weeks before school started preparing my classroom and planning my first lessons. I examined the curriculum my school provided (a list of basic objectives and the NGSS standards the course should cover) and began to piece together units. I had it all mapped out in my head!

So when I first heard that I had to participate in team planning, I freaked out a little inside. Was all the work I had put into planning my course going to be wasted? Was I going to be stuck doing dumb activities from a dumb textbook from a dumb curriculum? (Can you sense the “pout” here?)

Well, as it turns out, I lucked out. There were two other teachers who had earth/space science courses.  One of them was, like me, a new teacher to the district. She, also like me, was a veteran teacher. And also like me, she was all about the NGSS, 5E learning, technology, so on and so forth. She was on board! The other teacher was an older gentleman who might not have been entirely on board EXCEPT for the fact that, if we wrote the lessons – he didn’t have to! So basically, in that first meeting, I pretty much volunteered to write all of our lessons. Because I’m insane. And also, because I love it.

Oh, do I love it! I love lessons and planning and standards! I could probably go on and on about it, but I’ll refrain. Let’s move on to the real purpose of this post, which is to provide some information on how I develop my lessons and units.  While there are absolutely many approaches, and there are absolutely many experts, I have found that this way is relatively quick, definitely efficient, and it’s something any teacher can do! You DON’T need to be a NGSS-expert to put together a unit plan aligned to the standards.  Yes, ideally, curriculum should be developed by a team of teachers who can examine the standards and combine their many years of experience to develop engaging, authentic topics and investigations, three-dimensional assessments, so on and so forth. But realistically, how many of you have the TIME to do that, let alone the resources?

Since many of us work for schools and districts with outdated curriculums, ancient textbooks, and high demands, developing amazing curricular materials when you need them can be a challenge. So consider that this is simply a starting point — something you can do as you work through the year (you know, how EVERY teacher spends the first few years). That said, you SHOULD go back each year and improve your investigations, strengthen your assessments, and incorporate additional opportunities for interdisciplinary learning. But in the meantime, you have to do what you need to in order to get by — while still providing high-quality, standards-aligned instruction, of course.

So let’s get to it.

Starting With A Standard

So each Next Generation Science Standard is built on a three dimensional structure — basically, there are three components to each standard: the science and engineering practices, the science concepts (aka disciplinary core ideas), and overarching themes (aka crosscutting concepts).  We’re going to look at MS-LS2-4 Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics, because I just got familiar with it this past week while working on an (extensive) update of one of my best-selling resources.

So the standard itself is Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics, but what does that mean? To get an idea of the content you’ll be covering, you would want to check out the Disciplinary Core Ideas section of the standard. Now, if you look below, there’s a whole big long list. You aren’t going to cover every single one of those points in the same unit — more likely, you are going to break those up into the Performance Expectations you see at the top of the page.

NGSS MS-LS2 Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics

Performance Expectations are statements about what a student should be able to do. They are, essentially, your unit assessment.  For that reason, if you were to fully align to the NGSS, you would really have between three and five mini-units as a part of an ecosystems unit. (I say three to five because you can usually bundle a few performance standards together into a single assessment.)

So like I said, PEs are basically what you are going to build your unit assessment on. I always start here – I need to know what I’m going to be assessing before I can start building my unit. There’s tons of wonderful information out there, but I simply don’t have time to cover it all. And while I will likely touch on other PEs in my final assessment, the PE we are looking at right now is, “MS-LS2-4. Construct an argument supported by empirical evidence that changes to physical or biological components of an ecosystem affect populations.”

NGSS standard LS2.C

To get a better idea what that means, I’ll take a look at those boxes at the bottom again. The information that aligns with that standard under DCI includes: LS2.C: Ecosystem Dynamics, Functioning, and Resilience “Ecosystems are dynamic in nature; their characteristics can vary over time. Disruptions to any physical or biological component of an ecosystem can lead to shifts in all its populations. (MS-LS2-4)” So that’s the general idea we want students to walk away with: ecosystems change, and any change in an ecosystem can lead to changes in its populations.

science and engineering practices NGSS MS-LS2-4 We also want students to have some skills — the skills included in the PE are pretty obvious, “construct an argument supported by evidence.” The Science and Engineering Practices (blue) box gives you a little more information on that – Engaging in Argument from Evidence:
Engaging in argument from evidence in 6–8 builds on K–5 experiences and progresses to constructing a convincing argument that supports or refutes claims for either explanations or solutions about the natural and designed world(s). “Construct an oral and written argument supported by empirical evidence and scientific reasoning to support or refute an explanation or a model for a phenomenon or a solution to a problem. (MS-LS2-4)”

Lastly, the overarching themes (green box, crosscutting concepts) for this standard include Stability and Change, i.e. small changes can lead to large changes. That is basically a “lens” through which you can examine information and issues.  

So anyway, we want students to be able to argue that populations are affected by physical and biological components of ecosystems.  We want them to use evidence to do that. And we want them to understand that even small changes can result in large changes.  While it took a little bit of deciphering, the NGSS does a lot of the work of figuring out, “well what should I teach!?” for us!

NGSS standards - how to find evidence statementsAnd in case you didn’t already know, they give you even more information to help you construct an actual assessment! If you venture on over to the right side margin of the standards page, you’ll see “Related Evidence Statements.”  When you choose the set of statements for your PE (MS-LS2-4 for us), it opens up a PDF that shows you the standard information relevant to specifically our PE. So basically everything we found above, we could have just skipped the searching and clicked on Evidence Statements. Well, now you know.

But you’ll find the real reason we are here if you scroll down a little farther on this Evidence Statement page.  The creators of the NGSS basically tell you what students need to be able to do in order to meet this part of the standard — this makes both the construction of the assessment and the construction of your entire unit incredibly easy!

Using Evidence Statements

I always like to print out my Evidence Statements and start breaking it down before I construct the assessment itself. It helps me to put everything in the simplest terms possible, and it allows me to list out some of the important information students need to know.

For example, looking just at that first box, I jotted down — “changes to phys/bio components lead to changes in population.” And I also bulleted, “population, biotic and abiotic factors.” Those are two topics we will need to discuss during the unit to meet this standard.

annotations on NGSS MS-LS2-4

In the next box, it states that students must identify and describe changes in an ecosystem, and then it provides a bunch of examples. This part really helps to clarify the topics you will study — you can choose the “case study” you want to work with (or work with several) over the course of the unit.  MS-LS2-4 suggests “rainfall, predator removal, species introduction.” These suggestions offhand bring to mind possible case studies related to global warming, the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone, or any number of invasive species scenarios.  While I ended up providing examples of many of these changes in ecosystems in my mini-unit, I focused my end-of-unit activities on the introduction of cane toads in Australia — the introduction of an invasive species.

Side Note: As much as possible, you want to incorporate real data and scenarios into your NGSS standards.  While it might take some digging, you can find real data tables and graphs online that you can use in your assessments. Another great resource for data – and simplified data designed just for student use – is Data Nuggets. So before you select your case study, I highly suggest finding the data you will have students use as evidence.

After students explain the change that occurred (introduction of cane toads), they will need to be able to describe how populations in the ecosystem changed as a result. For my assessment, cane toad populations rose, native frog populations dropped. During a unit activity, students concluded this consequence themselves by examining graphs I found from a study conducted in Australia.

Lastly, they will need to provide evidence that there is a causal or correlational relationship between those two events — the arrival of cane toads and the decline in native frog populations.  These are concepts students would need to be introduced to during the unit – cause vs. correlation.

How can you tell the difference between causation versus correlation? It can be tricky. Some things you might want to point out for students:

  • Plausability: Considering the cause, does the effect make sense? For example, we know cane toads eat native frogs. Therefore, it is logical that an increase in cane toad (predator) populations would cause a decrease in native frog (prey) populations.
  • Consistency: Could this relationship be replicated? Obviously, we aren’t testing it.  That said, we can look at other examples of the introduction of new species to an area. Do native species often decline as a result of the introduction of a new species?
  • Specificity: Could there be any other likely cause? This requires additional research.  Were there any other changes in the ecosystem at the same time that could have resulted in a decrease in the native frog population?

When evaluating cause and effect, students will not have all of the answers. That said, students can discuss these ideas, what they do know, and even what questions remain as a part of their assessment to demonstrate their understanding of this concept.

blog post title building assessments

Don’t forget to pin this for later!

I continue to break down the standard in this fashion.  Because this is a “construct an argument” PE, I developed a Claim-Evidence-Reasoning writing task to assess the PE.  While I chose writing, students could alternatively participate in a debate, a Socratic Seminar, or complete an oral presentation to present their argument. Either way, after students have engaged in some learning activities about the general concepts (physical and biological components aka biotic/abiotic factors, ecological structure, interactions in ecosystems, invasive species, specifically cane toads, etc), they will have the knowledge and resources they need to “construct an argument based on evidence.”  

No matter what means you will have students present their arguments, I have found that they typically need some guidance.  I always try to scaffold the task so it is very clear what I expect.  I use the C-E-R format to guide student writing, and I use a graphic organizer with specific questions to help them prepare.  This way, they have a better understanding of the information they should be including. And how do I create those questions? By looking at those Evidence Statements. It is all based on what the Evidence Statement asks for, and I likewise use the Evidence Statements to develop my rubric.


For MS-LS2-4, the questions I asked students to address in the Reasoning section include:

  • How can a change in a biotic factor – like the introduction of invasive cane toads – result in changes in other populations?
  • Explain how a single change in a biotic factor can cause a chain reaction of changes in an ecosystem

Then, the top level of my rubric asks for:

  • States that a change in one factor can affect the likelihood of survival of other species. Uses the example of the cane toad to illustrate this concept. Explains how the arrival of the cane toads led to hardship for native frogs, which led to decreases in their populations.
  • Provides detailed examples of other potential biotic and abiotic factors that can impact an ecosystem.
  • Describes how the immediate effect on native frogs could have long term consequences for the ecosystem. Provides detailed examples.

Voila! Standard unpacked, and assessment complete.  Check back in soon to see how I continue to develop a 5E, NGSS-aligned science unit.


3 Myths About The 5E Model

While the 5E Model seems pretty self-explanatory — engage students, explore stuff, explain it, elaborate or extend the learning, and evaluate — I’ve personally seen many seasoned teachers and competent administrators alike misunderstand some key concepts about the model.  Are YOU using it correctly?

Myth #1: Each class period should follow the 5E model.

No. Unless you and your students don’t need to do things like eat or sleep (and can therefore remain in class for SUPER extended periods of time), the entire model should NOT fit into a single class.  The 5E model is designed for use with instructional sequences — thus a UNIT may be planned using the 5E as a template — but there is no way to adequately meet the expectations of each stage between your daily classroom bells.

When implementing an instructional sequence based on the 5E model, you may spend an entire class participating in an ENGAGE activity.  Alternatively, you may spend just five minutes with an engagement activity and use the rest of your class time that day exploring the content.  To truly use the model as it was intended, students need time to delve into their current understandings and develop new understandings.  For that reason, it is important teachers are not rushing through EXPLORE and EXPLAIN activities in order to fit the model into a single class period.  That was NOT the authors’ intentions.

Myth #2: The 5E Model is linear.

Although it is often listed as five steps, the 5E model was not intended to be a linear sequence.  Sure, the majority of units will start with an engagement activity and move to a period of exploration.  After that, students should begin to make sense of their learning by developing their explanations.  But just remember, there are options.  Will the students evaluate their learning through a formative assessment? Will they extend what they have learned by applying it to new situations? Will they return to their earlier explorations to delve deeper into the concept? Perhaps, as the teacher, you will direct their attention back to the engagement activity to better understand the phenomena they had witnessed.


In my own classroom, I frequently use a zig zag approach, bouncing back and forth between EXPLORE and EXPLAIN.  I throw in quick evaluations – both teacher and student assessed – to check for understanding.  After students have established a firm grasp of the content, we move into extension activities to elaborate on their learning.  Like all units, we will wrap up with a summative assessment. While this is what I often do in my classroom, the exact paths I take are determined in part by the content but also by the students and their needs. In the same way, the progression you follow through the 5E model should likewise remain flexible.

Myth #3: The EXPLAIN phase is where the teaching starts.

This is probably the biggest misunderstanding of the 5E model.  Most educators understand that students are grappling with the content in the exploration phase, and many educators quickly pick up that evaluation should be interspersed throughout the instructional sequence. We’ve all heard the words formative assessment, right?

But many great teachers struggle with what is truly intended in the EXPLAIN stage of the 5E model, because it’s in our nature to TEACH! Right? That’s what we signed up for. We want to share what we know with students! Unfortunately, that’s not how students learn.  Learning is not a process of transmission — it is a process of meaning-making, and it is the students that must do the making-of-the-meaning. If you know what I mean?

The EXPLAIN phase is where students reflect on their experiences, take their observations, examine their data, and FIND THE MEANING! As the teacher, your job is to ask the right questions, to direct or redirect when necessary, to help them find the patterns or the key points.  To truly learn, the students must be the ones that put those pieces together – to complete the picture.

Just like in all the other phases, the students are doing the work explaining, and your job is simply to help them do that.  Provide the terminology they may be searching for, point them to the data they have already collected, clarify the explanations they are providing, and simply help them work their way toward understanding.


Whatever you do, just know: the EXPLAIN phase is NOT where you step on stage.  In the 5E Model, it is NOT your job to provide all of the answers.

That said, it can be difficult for students who have long been TAUGHT what to know and believe to make their own meanings.  Many students would prefer you simply “give them the answer” — it’s easier, after all. What can you do? If you’re struggling with this in your own classroom, try out my FREE resource that helps students make meaning from their own observations and data: Making Meaning From Data.

Meaning-Making From Data

Quick Guide: The 5E Model


The BSCS 5E Model was developed in the late 1980s and built on the work of other educators, particularly the Karplus and Thier learning cycle. It approaches education from a constructivist perspective and is rooted in the works of John Dewey.

Constructivism is essentially a theory about how people learn.  According to this theory, people construct their own understanding of the world through their experiences and reflections.  It is the role of the teacher to help students construct accurate understandings.

The 5E Model is a framework created to help teachers design instructional sequences that guide students through the necessary steps toward the construction of new knowledge.  The creators of the 5E Model wanted a framework that was easy to remember (thus the 5 E’s) and relatively self-explanatory — Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate, and Evaluate.

In this post, I will briefly introduce each stage. In subsequent posts, we will delve deeper into each stage, as well as some of the common misunderstandings about the model.


The purpose of the Engage stage is simply to catch the student’s attention.  It may be a situation or event, a problem or puzzle, or an interesting demonstration.  The Engage activity, which may or may not be a full lesson in length, is designed to pique student interest and get them thinking about relevant content.  It can also be a great opportunity for teachers to assess prior knowledge and identify misconceptions.


In this phase, students are given the time and opportunity to “explore” their current understanding and demonstrate what they already know as they attempt to make sense of the Engage activity.  Students are investigating phenomena, discussing their ideas, and beginning to formulate possible explanations.  The teacher’s role in this stage is to provide the appropriate background information and materials for students to carry out the activity.  Then, the teacher becomes a facilitator — listening, observing, and guiding students as they attempt to make sense of what they had observed.


In the Explain phase, the concepts introduced in Engage are made clear and understandable. At this phase, scientific vocabulary is applied and the explanations formulated in the Explore phase are refined.  The teacher’s role is to guide students’ attention to key aspects and elicit their explanations.  The goal is to guide students to construct an accurate understanding independently, but when that is not possible, the teacher should clearly and explicitly present the key concepts.  This can be done verbally or through videos, readings, websites, or other technologies.


The goal of the Elaborate phase is for students to apply their understanding of the basic concepts to similar but new situations.  The activities should be challenging but still within their reach. This can also be the stage where students independently practice and apply what they have learned.


In the Evaluate phase, students are engaging in activities that are consistent with those presented in prior phases but with the goal of assessing their explanations.  As with all assessment, teachers should have a clear understanding of evidence of student learning and what to “look for” in student work.

original-3646958-1Think you might already be using the 5E Model in your classroom? Wondering where you may need to improve? Complete iExploreScience’s 5E Classroom Quick Check to evaluate how your own teaching practices align to the 5E Model.