A strategy guide with three quick ways to implement science stations in your middle and secondary ed classrooms!

Using Science Stations In Your Classroom Routine

Science stations are a flexible instructional strategy. Which approach works best for your classroom?So we have covered why you should use science stations, and how to prepare for science stations – now let’s take a look at actually using science stationsScience

My use of station work evolved as my students and I became more familiar and comfortable with the concept.  I started initially using Simple Rotations, and then I decided to give my students greater responsibility by adopting Student-Paced Transitions.  I added Differentiated Activities into the mix in my classes that were heavy on high-needs learners as I became more comfortable with my curriculum.  Check out how you can use science station work in your classroom below.

Science Station Work Strategies:

Simple Rotations:

Students are divided into groups and given a task to complete at their station. They have an allotted period of time to complete that task. When the time is up, they move to the next science station.

*Cheat Sheets or Support Stations can be provided as a way for students to check their work independently before moving on. Cheat Sheets can be kept in a folder at the table with a set of correcting pens, and students can be given time to correct their work before transitioning. I ask students to leave their original response and simply add the revised version so I can see their original effort and thought process. Help Stations are areas set up away from the immediate students’ workspace. Students leave all papers and writing utensils at their table when they visit a Support Station – this way, they are truly only looking for support on one or two questions.

Student-Paced Transitions:

In this setup, students (or student groups) transition from one science station to the next at their own pace and in the order they prefer. This works best when students are working independently or in partners. I provide students with a checklist to keep track of the stations they have completed and still need to complete.  They then attach this checklist to their completed work at the end of the activity. Additionally, I always set up extra stations (if I have 4 tasks, I may double those to get 8 stations), and I have a rule regarding the maximum number of students allowed at a station at a time. I also typically use a timer to keep students moving forward — while they are not required to move at the bell, they can pace themselves a bit better if I’ve broken the class time into smaller chunks.

That said, I still monitor student movement. If I notice a group lagging at a station, I will assign them a time limit. I also have supplemental work for early finishers – typically the workbook students are working through.

Lastly, I would also recommend transitioning to this style only after students have become accustomed to station work.

Three ways to use station learning in your middle and secondary science classrooms!Differentiated Activities

Science stations make it easy to vary the level of the material without making it obvious to other students. For example, students can be assigned to just one station with the appropriate level of material.  There could be texts that are differentiated for high or low readers or jigsaw activities based on student interest.  Additionally, you can make actual changes to task cards, student response sheets, note taking work, or labs without drawing the attention of other students. This can be really important considering the social pressures of students in middle and high school.  With homogenous groupings at each station, these changes make the material accessible and appropriate for all learners.

In What other ways have you used science stations to improve instruction? Share your ideas in our Facebook Community today!

Engage students with science stations to deepen understanding and put responsibility and ownership in students' hands.

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.

Integrate Engineering: A How To Guide For Science Teachers

So far we’ve discussed WHY you should integrate engineering and how NOT to integrate engineering… so what SHOULD you do?! I’ve compiled a few ideas to get you started!

First, let’s define what engineering IS. According to the National Research Council’s “A Framework for K-12 Science Education” — which the NGSS are based on — engineering means “any engagement in a systematic practice of design to achieve solutions to particular human problems.” I know I have always thought of engineering in the sense of – let’s build something. While that is certainly a part of engineering, “engineering” encompasses a whole bunch more skills than just “building stuff.” So you can put that hard-hat wearing, steel-toed manufacturing man out of your head right now! Engineering is MORE than that.

Essentially, an engineering activity could be anything where students are working toward solving problems using a “systematic practice” — aka, not just blindly throwing things together but rather, approaching the task in a structured, focused way.

When you think of engineering in this way, it opens up TONS of opportunities for incorporating the engineering end of the Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs). So let’s dive in!

1 – Integrate Engineering as Practices

You don’t have to engage students in the entire engineering design process to integrate engineering. You can incorporate different parts of the process or just the skills that are used in the process through the very same activities that students are doing to explore the science content. How could that work?

Example 1: Defining Problems

The SEPs expect students to define problems. This is not quite as simple as telling you there’s a problem, but that’s a start. Students must take that a step further in middle school and specify criteria and constraints. Criteria are the requirements that would make the solution a success, while constraints are the limits on the solution.

How to integrate engineering into your science curriculum.

In practice, you could see students doing this when discussing earthquake safety measures. The problem people want to solve is earthquake-proof homes.  Criteria might include that it (obviously) can remain standing through an earthquake.  Additional criteria could be that it has several floors, doors, and windows. Why? Because these are all things that people would likely want to have in their homes. Constraints could relate to aesthetics, the technology and materials available, and the cost. Engaging students in discussions like these is one way to integrate engineering practices into your daily classroom. Plus, this type of activity would not take very long at all.

Example 2: Optimize A Solution

Another engineering practice that students can engage in is optimizing solutions. To build this skill, students would examine existing solutions, and identify their strengths and weaknesses. “Existing solutions” can be pieces of technology, systems, or even processes. They would consider how each solution stands up to the criteria and constraints in a structured manner.  They might use an evaluation tool or matrix to do this. To take the activity a step further, students could actually test several different designs against a set of criteria. They may then consider and develop ways to improve the proposed solutions.

For more ways to integrate engineering practices into your classroom, be sure to tune in to the workshop on July 12! Subscribe to the email list here to receive a reminder.

2 – Emphasize the Engineering Standards

The Next Generation Science Standards really set you up to integrate engineering, even if you may never have planned on it. How? They directly incorporate those practices into the content standards. Both the Middle School Physical Science and Life Science standards contain PEs that directly assess engineering practices.

A quick list of middle school NGSS standards that focus on engineering practices.

The best way to address these standards (actually, ANY NGSS standard) is to examine the Evidence Statements. These can help you structure the assessment and guide your instructional sequence.

Example 1: MS-LS2-5
Evaluate competing design solutions for maintaining biodiversity and ecosystem services.*

In the past, I have met this standard during my ecology unit through an Invasive Species Project. While it is the capstone activity of the ecology curriculum, I interweave the issues and practices through all of the instructional sequences leading up to the project. So before we even dive into ecology, we do some current events work with the issue of invasive species.  We get out into the community and do some service learning (want to pull garlic mustard, anyone?). And we set the stage for discussions of ecosystems by talking about disruptions in ecosystems. Only then do we dive into learning about ecosystem organization, interactions in ecosystems, food chains and food webs, and the cycling of matter. We wrap up the entire learning sequence with this project.

You can learn more about the project in my blog post, Teaching With Invasive Species. The gist is that students research an invasive species and then design a community action plan to address the problem of its presence or spread. Looking at it, you may be surprised this qualifies as an “engineering project” because it does not always involve designing some sort of prototype or tech gadget. Some students design their plans based on education or altering human behavior, while others may design an actual device to remove or prevent the spread of the invader — or otherwise aid native species. If you think about it though, either approach is developing engineering skills. Students identify and define problems. They describe criteria and constraints — economic, social, or technological.  They brainstorm and create solutions. Then, they evaluate the solutions proposed in relation to the criteria and constraints identified. In that sense, even the groups that focused on education and human behavior were working those engineering muscles.

Teaching with invasive species creates a connection to the local environment AND engage students in real world problems!

That said, a more traditional approach to an engineering standard would be something like the Save Peter Penguin! activity.

Example 2: MS-PS3-3
Apply scientific principles to design, construct, and test a device that either minimizes or maximizes thermal energy transfer.

In this project, students are tasked with building a home for a penguin ice cube that minimizes the transfer of thermal energy — and keeps Peter from melting. Before engaging in this project, students would undertake a unit that investigates thermal energy, temperature, the conservation of energy, energy transfer, and conductors and insulators. In order to fully align this project to the NGSS engineering practices, instruction and implementation should emphasize two things.  First, students should have a scientific rationale for design decisions and engaging students in a structured redesign process — not something added on “if there is time.” Evaluating and then redesigning solutions is a KEY part of the engineering process, and it should be a key part of the project as well.

3 – Connect With The Community

Lastly, you can integrate engineering into your curriculum by bringing your students into the community — from local to global. Locally, you can reach out to companies with a presence in your area and see if they offer any educational programs, field trip opportunities, or partnerships. In my hometown, there are a number of companies that love to pair with schools — from Eriez Magnetics to GE Transportation to BASF Corporation. You may even have some parents who work for companies like this that would be interested in making connections for you or even guest-speaking. The value here is that students can see the types of work and career options available to them if they pursue STEM fields.  Plus, these partnerships could lead to significant other opportunities for your classroom or district, in terms of programs and funding in the long run.

Beyond the corporate world, colleges and universities that offer engineering and technology majors may also have opportunities to work with their students or faculty. In Erie, Penn State Behrend offers engineering programming for preK through 12th grade students — both on-campus field trips and off-site school visits. Students get a taste of a college campus and get to work with real scientists and engineers in hands-on activities. You may be surprised what your local universities offer.  And if they don’t, you might be able to create your own opportunity by reaching out to faculty and staff. Don’t be shy! The worst they can say is no!

4 – Compete

On a more global scale, students can participate in national and international STEM competitions. My fifth grade students participated in Toshiba ExploraVision, where students research and design cutting edge technology to solve a real-world problem. A similar competition, eCybermission, asks students to work in teams to investigate and solve pressing international issues — from food security to energy resources to water quality.

Engage your students in engineering by participating in national and international competitions!

So What’s Next?

There are so many ways to integrate engineering into your classroom. You DON’T need to be an engineer yourself to succeed. Start with baby steps.  Incorporating engineering as practices. Then, work your way up to designing instruction to meet the engineering standards. Don’t be afraid to reach out to others for advice, support, and learning opportunities. Whatever you do – just do SOMETHING. Give it a try – it’s what engineering is all about!


If you are looking for support in incorporating the NGSS into your classroom, I’d love to have you join the community, NGSS for Middle and High School Science Teachers.

Engineering In Science: Why You Should Be Teaching It

Why you should be incorporating engineering standards and practices into your science classroom. For the science teachers amongst us (me!), engineering can be pretty intimidating.  There’s a very real possibility that your education did NOT prepare you to teach it. Yet if you’re following the Next Generation Science Standards, it’s your JOB to.  Engineering is woven into the NGSS across the board:

  • standing alone as Disciplinary Core Ideas,
  • represented in the Science and Engineering Practices,
  • popping up in a number of Performance Expectations,
  • and integrated into some of the Crosscutting Concepts.

You can’t align to the NGSS without addressing engineering.

But if that’s not enough to convince you to jump on the engineering bandwagon, here are THREE more reasons to get your butt in GEAR. (Does that count as an engineering joke?!)

1. engineering Engages students with Real-World Problems

Engineering activities are a great way to lend authenticity and urgency to your science content, because you can engage students in solving real-world problems. Even simply DEFINING the problems is an engineering practice that students can get into!

I firmly believe middle school students want to do things that matter. Both my own memories of middle school and my observations of my middle school students have proven this to me time and again.  Engagement skyrockets when middle school students have a real-world rationale to understand and apply, and engineering can be the vehicle through which you accomplish that.

Sure, learning about thermal transfer is great — but wouldn’t it be even more awesome if they had to use their understanding of thermal transfer to design a house for some over-heated penguins?

Science concepts are so much more engaging when students can apply them to solve real world problems — like learning about thermal transfer to design homes for over-heated penguins!


2. Engineering develops 21st Century Skills

I know we are all working really hard to move away from “drill and kill” methods of teaching, trying to pour content into empty receptacles (aka student brains) and hoping they can spit it back out when test day comes.  That’s what the NGSS is all about, right? Less content, bigger concepts, more depth, and more practices.  But even so, many of our classrooms still probably look pretty traditional.  We have students working at desks with pen and paper, reading and writing, some computer work, with the occasional presentation or project.  I get it. Not only is this how we were taught, but it’s also how most of our curriculums have been designed.  And on top of that, reading and writing is absolutely a critical skill our students must master.  No argument here.

But there are some other skills, too — like creativity, problem-solving, determination, and teamwork — that need to have a place in our classroom.  These skills are really just as vital, but they often don’t receive the focus they deserve.

Engineering develops ALL of those skills.  When you give students engineering challenges, they must think creatively to solve the problem.  They must work as a team.  They are bound to fail the first time around (especially if you throw in design changes, my favorite!), so they have to develop that grit and determination to keep on going and keep on trying.  In fact, engineering normalizes failure and can help develop the growth mindsets we all want our students to have! (For a free growth mindset poster set, be sure to access the Free Resource Library!)

The great thing about teaching these skills through engineering is you’re never sacrificing content for character. Students are learning and developing both simultaneously.

3. engineering is a lucrative career option

… that we aren’t preparing our students for.  Let’s be honest – engineers can make a lot of money.  They can make a lot of money with just FOUR years of post-secondary education.  I have a Bachelor’s, a Master’s, and some post-Master’s credits… and I made a third of what some engineers with a four year degree are making coming out of college. When I worked at a private, school, some engineers made EIGHT TIMES what my annual salary was! WHAT!?!

I’m not saying that all of your students are going to – or should – be engineers. But by failing to expose our students to the field, we are failing to prepare them for a career they may be perfect for.  On top of that, engineering might just be the perfect field for that student who can’t get into the novel you’re teaching or the documentary you showed, the student who can’t follow the step-by-step instructions you printed for that lab today.  By exposing them to a different kind of “science,” you could be opening a door to their future.

Great! I’m on board… now what?

I’m going to dive deeper into this subject over the next few weeks. My goal is to give you some practical tips, tricks, and resources to integrate engineering into your curriculum this year.

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Connect with a community of middle and high school science teachers to discover and share NGSS aligned and 5E model based instructional strategies and teaching resources.

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.

Teaching With Invasive Species

Meet NGSS standards with this place-based education project!One of my favorite ways to teach ecology is through the lens of invasive species. Because they are SO disruptive to ecosystems, it is incredibly easy to interweave all the “ecology concepts” into a unit about their introduction and consequences. It’s easy to add discussions about their effects on the environment, the food web, relationships in ecosystems, and so on as we learn about the basics of ecology.

To wrap up the unit and address the NGSS standard, my students complete a unit capstone – invasive species project.  They start by researching an invasive species in their local region and evaluate how it has affected biodiversity. Then, they work in groups to create a community action plan to address the problem, identifying criteria and constraints and evaluating several proposed solutions.

Students learn ecology by investigating invasive species!

The present their learning in two parts — a “WANTED” poster and then a presentation of their community action plan.  I just finished an update of my project a few weeks ago so that it is now COMPLETELY aligned to the NGSS! The update includes additional resources for organizing research, more detailed descriptions of the understanding to be demonstrated (based on the PE), and an improved rubric for both parts of the project (more fully aligned to the PE). It also includes more detailed teacher instructions.

Teaching with invasive species creates a connection to the local environment AND engage students in real world problems!

Learn how you can engage students and assess their understanding of ecology concepts through a mystery-based problem-solving activity.

Making Detectives in Middle School: Engaging Students In A Science Mystery

While I have spent time teaching everything from fifth grade physical science to high school earth science, environmental science has always been where my heart is. I actually never even liked science until I took Intro to Environmental Science in college! Becoming a science teacher was definitely at the bottom of my career choices prior to that course!

Anyway, environmental science is essentially an interdisciplinary field that looks at how humans and human systems fit into the “natural” world (granted, we are a part of that natural world).  While there’s all kinds of theories on different lenses through which to study environmental science, I’m not going to get into that here. I just want to say – I love environmental science, and so anytime I have the opportunity to incorporate some type of environmental theme into a unit, I do! In Earth Science, I build my atmospheric science unit around the issue of global warming and climate change, and I use a water resources unit to discuss water quality issues and pollution.

Ecology is another disciplinary area where it is SO EASY to incorporate environmental issues.  I actually frame my entire ecology unit around the issue of invasive species. Believe it or not, you can meet every single one of the performance expectations in the middle school Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics DCI by studying invasive species.

Check out this teaching strategy to engage middle and high school students in an ecology unit through puzzle-based mystery activities.While I can’t wait to share more with you about that in a future post (it’s coming soon, I promise!), today I just want to share one of my favorite activities in honor of April’s status as National Frog Month – an Ecology Mystery: Where Have All The Tree Frogs Gone?

After working through our ecology unit, and one students have a firm grasp on the many factors that can play a role in maintaining stability or causing change in ecosystems, my students will participate in this detective-style activity designed to solve an ecology mystery — a sudden decline in the tree frog population in a fictional Florida town.  That said, a decline in amphibian populations is NOT a fictional issue, as year after year scientists are seeing population levels plummet in response to a host of issues — from climate change to water pollution to habitat destruction.

Anyway, in this activity, students are provided with a stack of fictitious clues to explore — from advertisements from the local garden shop, company memos about the success of a recent sale, and diary entries, to newspaper articles and graphs of data collected by local scientists.  They have to use these clues to answer the question, What happened to the tree frogs in Mayberry? For this activity, there is not a right or wrong answer — a “right” answer is one they can support with evidence and reasoning. After working together to examine the clues, students use a graphic organizer to propose three plausible causes of the population decline, and then they write a Claim-Evidence-Reasoning argumentative response based on the theory they believe is best supported by the evidence.  

Students can demonstrate their understanding of ecology concepts in this problem-based learning assessment.

I created this project all the way back in 2014, so it is definitely in need of a revision. I plan to update the teacher and student instructions, add additional clues, and align the rubric to better meet the NGSS in the near future.  As it is, it does currently align with MS-LS2-4, “Construct an argument supported by empirical evidence that changes to physical and biological components of an ecosystem affect populations.” Until then, the activity is available in my TeachersPayTeachers store for a discounted price. If you purchase it before the update – or you already have it – don’t worry – I will send out the new version once I get it updated! That said, it is one of the most fun and engaging activities I have created, and I am so proud of it! I need to create more resources like it, actually…

If you’re interested in creating your own detective-style activity like this, you can follow the same steps I did below!

Step 1: Identify The Problem

For my ecology unit, using a change in population was a no-brainer.  I chose frogs because amphibian populations are actually declining in the real world, and I was able to find a ton of resources about that issue to help me build my clues.  That said, you could choose any number of animals to focus on — a fish population in a stream or the ocean, a population or community of macro-invertebrates, honey bees, or something larger like bald eagles.  The most important thing is to find a problem that could have several potential causes.

This could be done with other disciplinary areas as well.  For example, in an earth science class where students are learning about water resources, you could investigate water contamination.  What caused the contamination — mining? A hazardous waste site? Non point source pollution from nearby farms or fields? Factory dumping? Was the water contaminated as it traveled through the pipes? Was it a combination of factors? In a health science class, students could track the source of an epidemic, using clues about when symptoms started and where people traveled to work their way to patient zero and the disease’s source. Whatever topic you choose, it is important that there is some ambiguity in terms of the correct answer.  Students need to be able to argue their point – finding the evidence to support it – while still reasonably considering other options.

Step 2: Identify Several Possible Solutions

So you’ve picked a topic with several possible solutions — now, list those out. You’ll want to provide at least one – potentially two or three – clues for each solution.  Before you can construct the clues, you need to know what you’re “clueing” people into. So write out those solutions!

Step 3: Create Your Clues

Beneath each solution, start brainstorming clues.  For example, if we were looking at water contamination, I might include a brochure for historic mine tours, as well as a memo from the EPA (or a fictitious agency) about the dangers of acid mine drainage.  I could include a map of hazardous waste sites which indicates a site near the source of water (stream, lake, whatever). I could include a company email about factory dumping, as well as a diary entry from a young person who witnessed some sort of dumping event.  I may include research on how certain characteristics of water can degrade lead pipes and a note from a plumber about disposing of lead pipes he replaced at an old home. Lastly, I could provide graphs about land usage in the area, indicating a significant amount of farmland and fields, and a newspaper article with an interview of a farmer who discusses the challenges of farming and his use of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers.  These are some examples of clues that students can use to build a case. You could also include some actual news articles and research papers to provide supplemental information that could help students – information about the consequences of commercial farming, the difference between point source and nonpoint source pollution, or how hazardous waste is disposed of.

To maximize the “engagement” factor, make your clues look authentic.  Use notebook paper for the diary entries (or invest in some notebook paper clip art and handwritten fonts) and bright colors for the advertisements.  Format the memos and emails as they would appear in real life. Make the students believe they are truly science detectives!

Step 4: Teach

For this activity to be successful, students must have been introduced to these concepts before beginning.  They need to have an understanding of the content in order to recognize the clues for what they are and piece together their argument.  So make sure you cover the topics you are discussing — acid mine drainage, hazardous waste, agriculture, lead pollution, and so on.

Step 5: Create The Task

While exploring the clues is the fun part, to get some value from this activity, you will want to create some sort of assessment.  To understand my students’ thinking, I asked them to identify three possible solutions and list the pieces of evidence that supported that solution.  This showed me that they understood several different concepts that we had learned throughout the unit. To assess their ability to use that evidence to construct an argument, I had my students write a Claim-Evidence-Reasoning written response in which they identified the solution they thought best fit the evidence and then used the evidence to support it.  This is an exercise not only in the content itself but also in important science skills and content literacy.

You could also have students present their arguments or discuss them in a “Socratic Smackdown” type activity.  If you haven’t heard of it, it is an amazing activity to generate TRUE discussion and engage students in the content and issues they are learning about.  I’ll have to tell you more about that another time.

Anyway, there you go! You have an awesome and engaging activity to wrap up your unit, and if your students are anything like mine, they will love it! They might not even mind writing the essay at the end.

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.