113 Incorporating Student-Centered Science Stations

July 12, 2022

Traditional classrooms put teachers as tellers front and center. But, transitioning to the Next Generation Science Standards and a more student-driven approach to science instruction moves the work of students to the main stage. Incorporating science stations is one way to create a classroom that values and emphasizes active learning. Also, it shifts ownership and responsibility for student work where it belongs: to your students! Finally, it creates an environment where teachers can more easily meet the needs of individual students and small groups.

What are science stations?

Traditionally, students rotate between tables that contain different tasks during a class period. However, it’s okay to think creatively about the way that you organize and use science stations in your classroom. This might look different depending on your goals and where you are in your lesson sequence.

Lab station in a science classroom covered in beakers, test tubes and other equipment.
Traditionally, students rotate around the classroom during stations. However, its okay if they stay in place and the activity changes.

If you aren’t familiar with the 5E model, it’s a good idea to take a look at this overview before reviewing our examples of how we use stations in our classes.

What are the benefits of science stations?

There are several benefits to using stations in your science class. Below, we discuss just a few of the biggest benefits we’ve seen.

Stations limit the time you spend at the front of the classroom.

When Nicole started teaching, she had a certain vision of how her classroom would look.  And, unsurprisingly, it was very teacher-centered.  She didn’t love the idea of putting herself at the front of the classroom, she couldn’t envision a different way to teach.   It was what she’d always known.   

When she used this approach in her classroom it didn’t work.  Disruptions were common.  Students were disengaged.  Heads were on desks and she was constantly having to ask students to put cell phones away.  Even when she used her best classroom management strategies, students acted out.  She knew she had to do something different.  

Then, she attended an NSTA session on using stations in her classroom.  She was blown away by the potential applications for her classroom.   Science stations allowed her to minimize her time in front of the classroom.

Stations allow for more active participation and discourse.

Often, students are passive learners in the classroom. They sit and listen to teacher-led instruction, but aren’t given the opportunity to actively engaged with the material.

Two students sitting at a science station with a microscope in front of them.
Science stations give students the opportunity to engage in discourse.

However, when students work at stations, they work in groups to make sense of the material. This provides more opportunity for discourse. And, students spend more time actively working on material.

Stations make it easier to provide targeted support.

There are several ways that stations make it easier to provide more targeted support. First, the teacher is able to differentiate tasks for groups without drawing much attention to the differences between assignments.

Teacher and student at a desk working on task with gadgets and wires.
Using science stations frees the teacher up to work directly with students.

Secondly, this classroom structure allows science teachers to do small group instruction. This can occur in several different ways. For example, the teacher can occupy one of the stations. Then, the students rotate to work with the teacher. Or, teachers may choose to work with select groups.

How to Structure Lessons that Use Science Stations

There are so many ways that you can structure your lessons. Again, this really depends on your lesson objectives and your students.

Here is the basic structure that Nicole uses on Station days in her classroom;

  • Start class with a bell ringer.
  • Provide a Snap Shot of the Instructions (no more than 5 minutes)
  • Ask students to move to stations and complete the assigned task.
  • Do frequent check-ins, walk around to answer questions, and check for understanding.
  • Wrap up with a whole group discussion.

Setting Up Your Space for Stations

It’s important to think about the physical structure of your space and how you will use it for stations. In many cases, science classrooms have different spaces for lectures and labs. In this case, stations are done in the lab portion of the classroom.

Science station style lab table in the foreground with molecular model on top.  In the immediate area following you can see several students desks.
Many science classrooms have lab stations at the back. If your classroom only consists of desks or stationary lab tables, you can still do stations in your classroom. Consider making a separate seating chart for “station time” to help students visually make the transition.

If you don’t have this luxury, consider a different seating configuration for students during stations. This doesn’t mean you have to move furniture. Instead, simply give students a different seat for station work. This helps students make the mental transition between when they have to be quiet and watch the teacher and when they are allowed to have more free-flowing conversations.

To consider other aspects of setting up your classroom, check out this post.

Tips for Successful Science Stations

Here are a few other tips to make your science stations as successful as possible:

Start off small.

Have students work alone for a few minutes at a time. Then, work your way up from there. Asking students to work independently for long periods of time will likely lead to disaster. Instead, build their capacity for working in groups over time.

If you need students to work for longer periods of time, break these up into smaller chunks. Give them a specific task to complete within that timeframe.

Use a visual timer to keep students on task.

When providing students with a task, set a timer. Students, especially those in middle school, struggle with time management. Providing them with a timer lets them know exactly how much time they have to work on a task and eliminates the guesswork.

Provide instructions in multiple forms.

Students process information in different ways. Nicole includes all written instructions on student worksheets. But, she also places a copy at each station. She suggests giving students a plastic sleeve and a whiteboard marker so that they can cross off tasks as they complete them.

Also, if you have time, it’s a great idea to create a short video explaining the task. For some students, it’s helpful for them to hear the instructions. And, they are able to pause and rewind the video if they have questions. Ultimately, this helps them to be more self-sufficient and frees the teacher up for other tasks.

Technology makes this easy to do. Screencastify, WeVideo, and other programs allow you to record and post these videos directly into Google Classroom or any other learning management platform in minutes.

Provide stamps or other rewards when students stay on task.

Nicole explains that stamping students’ work when they complete a task helps them to stay on task. It validates the work they have completed. And, it shows them that they are meeting your expectations. This is a great way to “catch” students making good choices and is an example of positive classroom practice. 

You don’t have to have the same number of stations as you have groups.

If you only have two activities, you can still do stations. Instead of having students rotate throughout the classroom, they will swap midway through the allotted time with a group doing the other activity. This can work in just about any configuration. Just change the number of time students switch groups.

What do you do if students don’t complete station work during class?

Though you don’t want to leave students behind, you also don’t want to slow the entire class down because one group has fallen behind. In reality, it’s not always necessary for students to make up the work. This depends on the purpose of the activity and where you are in your lesson sequence.

When following the 5E model, engage activities don’t necessarily need to be made up. For example, if the activity is a simple observation, your students will likely catch the key ideas during the whole group discussion. But, if it is an essential task, you’ll need to provide makeup time. Here is what Nicole suggests.

Provide In-Class Makeup Time

Not all students have the ability to come in to make up their work after school. And, you might not want to give up your lunch break. Nicole suggests a creative solution: in-class makeup.

Hands-on activities can’t be completed at home. So, Nicole suggests finding a time when students ARE doing a task that can easily be made up at home. This may include 5E explain or elaborate activities like watching a video, reading an article, or writing a response.

During this time, Nicole sets up science stations for those who need to make up tasks.

Bringing Wonder Back

If you are interested in getting more support in your classroom, Nicole has created an on-demand series to get you ready to bring the wonder back into your science classroom. In this series you will:

Girl using binoculars
If you are intersted in getting addtional support, click here to learn more about Nicole’s program.
  • understand why “teaching topics” is killing curiosity and what to do instead
  • redefine your role as an educator and shift the work of learning where it belongs which means less work for you
  • transform your students into scientists which means creating a generation of creative, critical-thinkers
  • get a grip on the Next Generation Science Standards and what *three dimensional teaching* is really all about

Science Stations Using the 5E model

Again, we suggest taking a look at our episode on the 5E model so that you have an idea of what each “E” represents. This doesn’t mean you need to follow the 5E model in your classroom. However, we find it a good way of explaining where an activity falls within a lesson sequence.

Below, we discuss several activities to use based on the 5E model. If you would like more ideas, check out this post by Nicole.

“Engage” Activities

For engage activities, it makes sense to distribute students into groups and have them rotate through the activities. These centers would have different activities at each. For example, one station could contain a notice and wonder activity about the phenomenon. Another station might have data related to the phenomenon. And, yet another station could have a video related to the phenomenon.

These activities are all related to a given phenomenon but don’t need to be completed in a certain order. That makes them excellent for stations.

To learn more about using phenomena in your class, check out this post.

“Explore” Activities

During the Explore phase of the 5E model, students begin making sense of phenomena. Often, there are several activities they will do in order to develop an understanding of the phenomenon. However, it’s not always necessary for these to be done in a particular order. When that’s the case, stations are a good fit for these activities.

Two female students wearing googles pouring green liquid from a flask to a test tube.
If tasks don’t need to be completed in a specific order, consider using science stations.

For example, both the rain shadow effect and latitude affect climate change. But, it doesn’t matter what order students learn about them.

“Explain” Activities

As Nicole discussed in episode 8, she breaks the Explain phase into 2 parts. In the first part, students explain what they discovered during the explore phase. In the second part, the teacher provides additional information to clarify their response.

At this point, you’ll probably need to be more creative about structuring your stations. For example, you may have some students exploring a new investigative phenomenon while others are explaining one introduced earlier in the lesson sequence. Or, pause station rotations during the explain phase.

“Elaborate” Activities

Elaborate activities provide a great opportunity for differentiation. For example, some groups can return to previous investigative phenomena if they are still having difficulty understanding concepts. In this case, the teacher keeps them in the explain part 2 phase.

At this point, students who have a strong understanding of the phenomenon can move on. For instance, they can investigate related phenomena and apply their understanding. Or, they can choose to answer a new question they have about the current phenomenon.

It’s important to recognize that not all students need to be doing the same activity at the same time.

“Evaluate” Activities

The way that you evaluate student learning is up to you. However, stations provide a great opportunity for formative assessment in small groups.

To learn more about assessments, check out this post.