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.
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.
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.
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.