How To Set Up Science Stations In Your Classroom

Using science stations is a great way to increase student engagement and responsibility. They encourage students to become active participants in their learning and move them toward greater ownership and agency. (Read more about why I use science stations here!) But how do you set them up? How do you use them effectively? In this post, let’s dig into how you can set up science stations in your middle and secondary classrooms.

 The “Right” Activities For Science Stations

While any activity can really be set up as a science station, there are obviously some factors to consider as you prepare your stations and organize your set-up. I recommend considering each activity in light of its complexity, stage of learning, and expected timing.

Evaluate The Complexity Of Each Task

While you shouldn’t fear including complex tasks in your science stations, consider the collection of activities as a whole (if you are using more than one task). Because you cannot be at every station all of the time, your students must be able to work through the tasks more or less independently. This means:

  • they can understand and follow the task’s directions
  • they have the skills and/or content knowledge to complete the given task
  • and/or they have resources and supports available to troubleshoot when challenges arise
Selecting Tasks Students Can Complete Independently

While understandably there will be times that groups will need your guidance and support (that’s what you are there for, after all!), the goal is that students can also meet their own needs (and thereby own their learning) in the moments you are not right there.

With that in mind, ensure that each task has clear, written instructions available at the station. (With all of the technology available in the classroom today, you may even want to record audio or video instructions for students as well!) If there are several steps to a task, you may want to provide a checklist to keep students on track and moving forward. Finally, ensure that all students know how to “reset” the station — returning materials, cleaning up messes, and so on — as well as what to do when they complete the tasks.

These strategies can address “directional complexity” (I know that’s not a word but run with it here) — the type of complexity that comes from tasks that require following several directions, completing multiple steps, dealing with a variety of materials, etc.

Selecting Tasks For Small Group, Guided Learning

But what about tasks that are intellectually complex? That require a high degree of thinking, that push your students to the brink of their mastered skills (the place where they start to grow)?

You can absolutely include these types of task into your science stations! In fact, science stations are one of my favorite ways of incorporating these tasks, because they allow me to support students through the task in a smaller group setting.

With that in mind, when choosing my science station activities with complexity in mind, my goal was to select just one activity that greatly challenged students. My intention was to work more extensively with students at this more challenging station – a station that often involved an exploration-based task that was ready to move into the meaning-making phase — while allowing the other groups to work more independently on activities that focused more on review, application, extension or elaboration, or even exploration still at an earlier stage. Students at these stations had the tools to accomplish the tasks presented, so they required less of my attention and freed me up to guide learners through the more challenging activity.

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 cultivating your classroom culture and strengthening your relationships with students as you give your students opportunities for greater independence. {Check out this blog post from Sadler Science for seven strategies to increase student 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 it out” on their own. {But this episode from the Teaching Science In 3D Podcast might help!}

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 in a way that does not require your immediate attention. (Read more about those here.)

Lastly, remember to keep things clear. 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. (You may even want to consider including audio or video instructions as well! Hello, QR codes!) 

All that said, when you’re just starting out, it may be helpful to avoid activities that require multiple steps or extensive setup and cleanup. There *may* be some value in giving your students a chance to acclimate to the more student-led approach — focusing on the simple procedures and expectations that help science stations run smoothly — before diving into complicated learning tasks.

Consider Your Students’ Stage Of Learning

While I no longer adhere rigidly to the 5E Model for instructional design, I found it so helpful early on as a way to think about how my students are moving through their understanding of concepts. {Learn about the 5E Model here!} I still typically think about activities in relation to where they “fall” in the 5E Model stages as I consider the purposes of various lessons.

When it comes to the 5E Model, I have found that science station work is well aligned to several of the learning phases. For example, science stations are great places to incorporate exploration.

Exploration Stations

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!)

Additionally, the opportunity for small group work means you, as the educator, can guide the explorations by facilitating discussion and questioning. This is a great way to move students from that initial exploration into the sense-making phase.

Explanation Stations

Science stations also work great for (what I consider) the second part of the “explanation” phase of learning. While “explanation” or sense-making is really meant to be led by the students {see more here}, there is a place for independent stations work following the consensus-building and understanding-developing discussions that happen during “explain.”

At this point, students are expanding their initial explanations and understandings — adding details, reviewing material, and clarifying concepts — through tools like texts, videos, note-taking, and so on. These tasks are perfect for stations work (especially the particularly independent kind), because students are already familiar with the core concepts and are simply reinforcing their understanding. They often can complete these tasks with minimal support, relying on whatever resources you have provided ahead of time (think: peer support, hints, “cheat sheets).

Elaboration Stations

Elaboration — the point at which your students begin taking their learning and applying it to new situations (new phenomena) — also lends itself to stations work. Again, students are already familiar with core concepts, they already have the resources (notebooks, texts, videos, etc), and they are simply using this time to practice and apply.

Keep Pacing In Mind

Order In Station Activities

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

Alternatively, students can be working at “stations” to complete the same activity (or a series of activities) that are differentiated to meet learners at various levels. With this set up, students would not rotate. These stations may not be what you typically consider as “stations work.” However, since my students were already familiar with the procedures of “stations work” when we moved to our lab tables, it made sense to continue to call this work “stations” to convey the same expectations.

Pacing Your Science Stations

Additionally, each of your science stations should require roughly the same amount of time to complete. That said, because that is not always possible(and students work at different paces anyway), it is important to have a plan for students who finish early.

In my classroom, I provided students with a workbook at the beginning of the unit that they could work through during this downtime. They were able to complete the sections that aligned to the content they had already explored and discovered as a way to reinforce their blooming understanding.

What do these types of workbooks look like?

These workbooks reviewed the anchor phenomenon before providing an interactive text that focused specifically on unit topics that were relevant to the unit storyline. These workbooks supplemented the exploration and discovery-based lessons we completed in the classroom by reinforcing unit concepts by offering another method of communicating the science ideas. Throughout the text, students make connections back to the unit phenomenon — providing opportunities to demonstrate their understanding of general science concepts.

Check out the examples below on TeachersPayTeachers. {These are all available inside the Spark Subscription as well!}

– The Rock Files: Rock Strata, Fossil Record, & K-Pg Dinosaur Extinction Workbook

– Endangered Genomes: Conservation Genetics & Heredity Workbook

– Chemical Kitchen: Matter, Atoms, Molecules, & Thermal Energy Workbook

Alternatively, each station (or the short ones, at least) could have a quick, fun extension activity for students who finish early (think: game), or you could give students some time to explore topics of interest to them — simplified “genius hour” time.

Self-Paced Rotations

Lastly, when your students get really good at working in stations, you can have them move when they see fit.

To keep this manageable, I personally set a limit — no more than three to four students at a station — and I instructed students to simply find a new, open station to work at when they completed their initial assignment. (I did start them off somewhere myself.) If I noticed a group of students “stuck” at one station, I typically 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.)

Setting these boundaries and expectations helped students in my urban secondary classroom utilize their growing independence effectively to advance their learning and maintained a sense of order even amidst the “learning chaos” in my classroom.

How To Prepare Your Classroom And Students For Science Stations

Setting Up Science Stations

Stations With Group Size In Mind

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.

Stations With Teacher Guided Learning In Mind

I have also used science stations to facilitate small group teacher-guided 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 station work 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, 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.


Prepare Students For Transition Times

You must have a system for transitioning. Students should know where they are moving next, when they are expected to move, and even how they are meant to carry out that rotation. (Seriously,  whether you teach fourth grade or eleventh, students need to be reminded of the most basic expectations when they enter your class. Obviously, as the year goes on, the goal is less reminding is required. *fingers crossed*)

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.

Keep Stations Effective With Clear Procedures

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.  {Learn more about procedures here.}

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 aspects 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 During Station Work

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 do you 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 students’ work to note that it was attempted.  

This is not a check for correctness but rather, very simply, 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.

 Science Stations Support Student-Owned Science

title for post - how i set up science stations in my secondary classroom

Science stations are one way to create a more student-centered learning experience — a student-owned science classroom. You can learn more about shifting your classroom to student-led, three-dimensional learning in this free workshop. Alternatively, read all about it right here!

Learn More About Supporting Students In Their Station Work:

Group Roles That Really Work

Questioning To Support Discovery Through Exploration

NGSS Support Stations: Better Than Sliced Bread