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.
That said, not every station has to be super simple! One of the benefits of using stations is that it allows you to work with students in small groups. So typically, one or two of my stations were tasks that did require my presence — or at least, that I expected I would need to offer students more significant support. Because I designed the other stations to be more “independent” exploration or practice, I was freed up to work more intensively with students on the more challenging tasks. When you keep complexity in mind, you can set your stations up for greater success.
But what if my students can’t handle the independence?
That’s a real concern, and I get it. The first thing you will want to reflect on is your classroom relationships, procedures, and management system. Students want and need opportunities to practice independence, but we also need to create spaces where that can happen safely and efficiently. Expectations — from behavioral to simple procedural — need to be clear, and they need to be agreed upon (students need to buy-in!). Spend the time building your classroom culture and strengthening your relationships with students as you give your students opportunities for greater independence.
While they will likely struggle with this type of independence initially, as you use science stations (and exploration in general!) more frequently, you can also be sure they will become accustomed to doing some “figuring out” on their own.
On a more practical level, you could institute an “Ask Three Before Me” rule. (You can learn more about that strategy at the Teaching Channel.) Alternatively, support stations can provide scaffolding that does not require your immediate attention. (Read more about those here.) 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. When you’re just starting out, you may want to avoid activities that require multiple steps or extensive setup and cleanup.
I often used the 5E instructional model in my classroom as a way to think about how students were moving through their understanding of concepts, and I have found that science station work is perfect for Explore activities. It also works well in the second part of the Explain phase, where students are expanding their initial explanations/understandings through texts, videos, notetaking, etc.
During exploration, students are not expected to master anything, so it’s okay if they don’t “always have the right answer.” You can emphasize to students 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. (But again, support stations can help scaffold the initial transition to exploration stations!)
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, or you could give students some time to explore topics of interest to them — simplified “genius hour” time.
And when your students get really good at working in stations, you can have them move when they see fit. To manage this, I set a limit — 3-4 students at a station — and I instructed students to simply find a new, open station to work at when they completed where they were initially assigned. And if I noticed a group of students “stuck” at one station, I gave them a time limit to wrap up and move on. Whether they were done or not, they were done at that station (at least, for that moment.)
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.
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?
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.