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Lab Stations: How to Make Them Work for You!

Lab stations can be a fantastic tool in our teaching arsenal!

Teaching science requires a multi-faceted approach. Students are all over the place in terms of their learning styles, their ability levels, and their attitudes toward learning.  Great science teachers mix it up every day in terms of teaching strategies and approaches for getting across the concepts we need to teach.  Using only one teaching style or strategy, no matter how wonderful it is, will become old and stale if used day after day after day.

In this article, I'll discuss a strategy that has been around since the dark ages, but seems to be all the rage lately.  LAB STATIONS!

What is the lab station approach?

The term "lab station" has come to have different meanings for different people.  Lab stations are a method of instruction where small groups of students work together on a task or activity in order to learn, review or reinforce a concept.  These small groups move or rotate through a series of lab stations or science centers, and complete an activity at each station.  The term "lab practical" is also familiar to many of us, but in my mind, there is a difference between a lab practical and lab stations.  While both practices require rotating or moving between stations, lab practicals are used as tests and assessments.  For example, in an anatomy class one would rotate through the stations of a lab practical in a testing format to demonstrate proficiency in a particular area of animal anatomy and physiology.  The use of lab stations, on the other hand, is a teaching technique that is used to teach, review or reinforce concepts being covered before a test is taken.

Should lab stations be used as first-day instruction, or saved for a review activity at the end of a unit?  The answer is:  Yes and yes!  On the very first day of school, I have my students complete a lab station activity called Science Chat.  Students are always delighted to learn that they are doing an activity that allows them to be out of their desks.  If lab stations are to be used as first-day instruction, great care must be taken in the way the stations are designed and written.  If no prior instruction has been given, students must have a way to complete the tasks and build upon their pre-existing knowledge.  Lab stations used on the first day of new unit should involve activities that are self-guided inquiry or exploration type lessons.  Lab stations are also a fantastic way to review and reinforce the content of a unit just before an upcoming unit test.  Lab stations used in this way should be written in a style that assumes a certain knowledge base, but challenges the students to use higher order thinking.

What are the benefits of using lab stations?

When used with a combination and variety of other teaching techniques, the use of lab stations is very effective, and because it is so different from other teaching strategies, the benefits are many.

  • One of the most important benefits is that students are up and moving.  Students often need a short "brain break" during class.  It is a very rare student who can sit still for an hour and remain fully engaged the entire time.
  • Lab stations break up the concepts and information into smaller, more manageable, units of learning.  Students often become overwhelmed in a science class when faced with large chunks of new information.  A well-written lab station activity addresses a single concept or task at each station.  For many students, this reduces stress and builds confidence by enabling them to master the smaller units of information.
  • Lab stations allow students to work at their own pace ... within reason, of course!
  • Students enjoy working in a self supervised manner.  
  • Lab stations allow the teacher to interact more freely with students on an individual or small group basis.
  • Lab stations are perfect for labs that have limited resources.  If, for example, your lab has only one spectrophotometer or only a few pH meters, lab stations can be set up to allow all students to rotate to those stations in order to use those limited pieces of equipment.  
  • Peer teaching and tutoring is very effective! Students often learn better from their peers than they do from adults.  Small cooperate learning groups reduce fear and anxiety amongst students.  
  • Hands-on lab experiments and activities increase mastery of concepts and retention of large amounts of information.
  • Lab stations keep students engaged.  When students know that they are about to move to another location, they are more focused and eager to finish the work at one station in order to move to the next.  When the next lab station involves a completely different type of activity, students are less likely to be off-task.  In other words, the change keeps them on their toes.
  • The transition process gives the students a short mental break.

Planning and Set-up Tips:

Teachers who have never written, set up, or utilized lab stations in their teaching are often afraid to give it a try.  Rather than setting up one lab activity, inexperienced teachers may feel as if they have to set up 8 or 10 lab activities in the same class period. The thought of this raises much anxiety!  Rest assured, setting up a lab station activity is no harder or more time consuming than setting up any lab activity.  In fact, often the prep time is greatly reduced!  I find that setting up one of each station is faster than setting up 15 of the same station.  These additional planning and set up tips will help get you started:

  • Does the activity have goals and objectives that advance the education of your students?  If it is just busy work to keep your students occupied for a day, don't do it.
  • The lab stations should involve a good mix of teaching techniques and learning styles.  Having 10 lab stations that require students to draw and label a diagram at every station will not be effective. Instead, involve the students in different types of activities. Possibilities include small experiments, building structures, reading passages, paper and pencil games, manipulation and ordering of objects, discussion stations, internet research stations, modeling stations or task card stations.  Studies show that varying the types of learning activities greatly increases our ability to master and retain information.
  • Each station should be independent of all other stations.  In other words, it should not matter the order in which they are completed.  
  • How will you place the students in small groups? Should you allow the students to choose their own partners?  Should you place students in groups of YOUR choosing?  Should you have groups of 2 or 4?  Every lab is different.  You know your students and you know what you can expect from them.  One class may be mature enough to allow you to let the students choose their own partner, while this would never work in another class.  I sometimes allow students to choose their own groups, but I most often choose the student groups myself.  At the beginning of the school year I place the name of each student on an index card.  Prior to the lab activity I place these index cards at the lab stations.  As the students enter the room they look for their card.  This allows me to quickly and easily place students in lab groups.  Life lessons are also learned by having students work in a different group each lab period.
  • Each station requires clear signage and complete instructions.  Laminate everything you can so that it can be used year after year.  If students are given a packet of worksheets to complete, make it clear which worksheet is used at each station.  Placing a symbol or piece of clip art on the lab station sign and the same symbol on the corresponding worksheet is a simple and easy solution.
  • Make sure that lab safety precautions are clearly posted at each station.
  • All groups do not have to be the same size.  You know your students and how to group them to maximize the instruction of all.
  • Common sense dictates that all stations should require the same amount of time to complete. Personally, I have found this very difficult to accomplish.  The best solution is to set up multiples of the stations that require more time.
  • You must manage class time effectively.  Continuous monitoring is required to make sure that students are on task and are moving through the stations at the pace you deem appropriate.
  • All students will not finish at the same time.  I suggest setting up an "enrichment" station for the early finishers.  You do not want some students loitering while other students are trying to complete their work.
  • Prior to the lab station activity, decide how you will manage the amount of paper required for the activity.  You might provide each student with a complete packet of handouts, or you might consider placing one set of handouts at the lab station and requiring students to complete the work on their own notebook paper.
  • Students should be required to turn in their own work.  Allowing a group to turn in one worksheet or lab report for the entire group usually results in one person doing the work, and the other group members doing little.
  • Make a rotation plan.  Will you allow the students to move randomly to other lab stations, or will you require them to rotate in a particular order?  
  • Know your space and how to make it work to your advantage.  For example, will the lab station require water or electricity? Or can it be completed at a student desk?
  • Be organized for next year.  Take the time to laminate lab station signs and instruction cards so that you can use them again.  Place all items needed for the activity in a plastic box, or file them  away in your filing cabinet. Include in the box or file folder your notes on what worked well and what didn't work well.  Make a list of any supplies that need to be re-ordered for next year. You will thank yourself for this next school year!

Need to Differentiate?  No Problem!

For inclusion classes (classes containing learners of widely varying ability levels) lab stations can easily be differentiated to meet the needs of all students.  Students with IEP's can participate in the same lab stations by making some minor modifications.  Ways to accommodate special needs learners  might include:

  • All students participate in the same lab stations, but they are given different sets of handouts or worksheets to complete.
  • Because of the random movement of students through the lab stations, you can select which lab stations students will complete. There is no need for a student with special learning modifications to complete every single station.
  • By carefully selecting the small groups, you can create groups that are supportive and will provide an educational atmosphere that will benefit all members of the group.

What is keeping you from trying lab stations?

The most common concerns I hear from new teachers are that they are worried about student behavior as well as the amount of time required to set up and complete an activity.  As for student behavior, students have to be taught and trained from the beginning of the school year in all classroom rules and procedures.  Lab stations are no different.  Refrain from using large groups, and make sure that your expectations are clear and consistent. Teach the students how the process works and what their responsibilities are. Have a set of rules and stick with them.

I hope that if you are new to the idea of lab stations, this article has provided you with some tips and tricks on how to get started.  Has this teaching technique replaced my used of the tradition hour-long lab activity? Absolutely not! Carrying out a full-length lab is VERY important.  But I do enjoy having another "weapon" in my teaching arsenal.

Use this link to view my lab station activities on TpT.

Taking Students to the Laboratory? How to Plan and Execute the Perfect Lab Activity.

Use this teacher checklist when planning ANY lab activity!

Recently I had the opportunity to work with a small group of science teachers in an inservice-type situation.  The group ranged in their teaching experience. Some were brand new teachers, while others had a few years under their belt.  None were what I would call "knowledgeable veterans." As our time together progressed, it quickly became obvious to me that these teachers needed help with "the lab."  For the inexperienced science teacher, "the lab" can be a scary and potentially dangerous place.

There seems to be a diverse spectrum in science teaching in regard to the laboratory.  At one extreme end of the spectrum are the teachers whose fear of the lab prevents them from ever taking a group of students into the lab.  At the opposite extreme are the science teachers who forge blindly ahead without giving thought to a set of basic guidelines and procedures concerning laboratory activities.  To be fair, I have certainly just described polar opposites in science teachers.  Almost all science teachers will fall in the middle somewhere, and all of us could use a refresher course when it comes to taking students into the lab.

After giving this topic much thought, I have developed a "Laboratory Checklist" of items we science teachers need to consider before taking our classes into the lab.

Begin with a very easy test by asking yourself two simple questions:

1.  Is this lab activity age appropriate?  All science students need to be challenged with activities that are appropriate for their age, and that push them to the next level of critical thinking and problem solving.

2.  Does this lab meet an educational goal or objective? (Pardon me, while I get up on my soapbox...)  The lab activity must meet an educational objective or goal.  There has to be a REASON for doing the lab. The lab should be related to the concepts being taught in the classroom, and should reinforce and/or further the student's understanding of those concepts.

If you can answer "yes" to both of these questions, then proceed with the lab. If you answer "no" to one or both of these questions, you should throw out the lab idea and look for another, more appropriate, lab activity.

Assuming that the lab has met the standards posed by the first two questions, it is time to plan the lab activity.  Consider the following items before lab day arrives.

3.  Safety First!  The safety of the students should be your first thought when planning a lab activity. Are the items on the materials list appropriate for your students?  Think long and hard about the potential hazards of the lab, and identify the areas in which an accident might be possible. (It is assumed that you carried out lab safety instruction with students in the first week of school!)  In planning your lab activity, identify areas of concern and develop a plan of action in the event of an accident.

4.  Using chemicals?  Read the MSDS!!  A Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) should be on hand for every chemical you use in the lab. When chemicals are ordered, each will arrive with an MSDS.  Read each page and place them in a three-ring binder for easy and immediate access.  This binder should always be present in the lab.  The MSDS will alert you to any dangers associated with the chemical, and list first aid instructions in the event they are needed.

5.  Carry out the lab yourself before trying it out with the students!  Teachers who are doing the lab for the first time in the presence of students are asking for trouble.  By carrying out the experiment prior to lab day, the teacher can:   (1) Make sure that all equipment and supplies are on hand and in good working order, (2) Identify the problem areas in which students will need to be alerted,  (3) Determine if the experiment will actually work, (4) Look for alternative supplies if needed, and (5) Make any adjustments needed in the lab procedural steps.

6.  How much time will the lab take?  If students finish the lab experiment quickly, no problem!  They can spend the remaining minutes cleaning their lab area and preparing their lab reports.  But what will you do if class time runs out before students can finish the experiment?  This will surely happen on some lab days.  Have a plan.

7.  How will you set up the lab stations and/or the supply area?  An effective and meaningful lab runs like clockwork.  Identify the traffic flow problems beforehand and set up the supply areas in a way that reduces student traffic jams. You may decide that each lab station should be supplied with every item needed for the experiment, or it may work better to have a general supply area that students go to for the items they need.  No two labs are the same.  Identify the best solution for each lab.

Once steps 3 - 7 have been checked off, you are ready to take the kids to the lab.  The following items on the checklist will ensure that your lab activity is a huge success!

8.  Provide the students with written instructions.  Students must receive lab handouts that clearly identify the safety precautions and the exact procedure for the experiment. Giving oral instructions that reinforce the information on the lab handout is okay, great even.  Giving oral instructions instead of providing a lab handout?  NOT okay.

9.  Always schedule pre-lab time. During the pre-lab time, provide the students with the lab handouts they will be using during the lab.  Go over your expectations for the lab, and explain what is to be accomplished by doing the lab.  You may want to use a "Pre-Lab Worksheet" as a homework assignment so that students will be prepared on lab day.  Review the lab safety rules for each and every lab!

10.  How will you group the students?  There is no correct answer to this question.  Should you allow the students to choose their own partners?  Should you place students in groups of YOUR choosing?  Should you have groups of 2 or 4?  Every lab is different.  You know your students and you know what you can expect from them.  One class may be mature enough to allow you to let the students choose their own partner, while this would never work in another class.  I sometimes allow students to choose their own groups, but I most often choose the student groups myself.  At the beginning of the school year I place the name of each student on an index card.  Prior to the lab activity I place these index cards at the lab stations.  As the students enter the room they look for their card.  This allows me to quickly and easily place students in lab groups.  Life lessons are also learned by having students work in a different group each lab period.

11.  Monitor and keep a watchful eye during the lab.  There will be many students in the lab, and there will only be one of you.  You must be confident that you can control and manage the class in situations involving chemicals, sharp items, glassware, hot plates / Bunsen burners, etc.  Do not carry out a lab activity if the equipment and supplies being used causes you worry. Simply find another lab activity.  During the lab activity, be vigilant in monitoring and interacting with the students.  You are the person in the room that has the ability to ward off and prevent accidents from occurring.

12.  Allow enough time at the end of the class for students to clean up their lab station.  At 5 minutes before the bell, the lab activity must end. If students are still working, you must instruct them to stop, and begin their clean up procedures. You do not want the students in the next class to walk in and see a huge mess. You want the next class to walk in and see a highly efficient and organized lab set up. It sets the tone. It makes a difference.

13.  Be timely in breaking down the lab.  As a courtesy to your fellow science teachers who use the same lab, make sure to break down your lab quickly so the lab will be ready to use by the next person. Wash the glassware, wipe down the lab tables, put away all equipment, and make sure to dispose of chemicals correctly.  Your team mates will be most appreciative!

14.  Make an assessment plan.  How are you going to evaluate the work done by the students on the lab activity?   Will they write a lab report? Will there be lab questions on the upcoming chapter test?  Will there be a lab quiz?  Assessment is an important part of the process.  It tells the student that the activity was important.  If you never give a grade, lab report, or take any type of assessment on the lab activity, it sends the message that lab activities are just "fun times / free times."  This will lead to horseplay and behavior problems on future lab activities.

15.  Make a plan for students who are absent on lab day.  I wish I could offer the perfect solution to this problem.  If you have developed a plan of action that works, please let the rest of us know.  The simple truth is that when students are absent, they have missed valuable instruction time that cannot be recovered.  I have scheduled lab make up days after school, given alternate assignments, and given absent students sample data to analyze.  I am still looking for a better solution.  Any thoughts?

Lab days are my favorite days at school.  Being proactive and organized in your approach to lab activities will ensure that your day is smooth, and that students are highly engaged in the learning process.

Happy Lab Day!

Make the first Day the BEST Day!

It is so easy to get kids excited about science!  We get to "play" with so many cool gadgets and gizmos in our lab activities.  Why not make the FIRST day of school the BEST day of school for our students?  Let them know on the very first day that your class is going to be great!

I have developed three lab station "first day of school" icebreaker activities that I think your science students will love.  

You can use the links below to find the one that is best for your subject area:

Science Chat for Biology and Life Science

Chemistry Chat

Physics Chat

Tips for New (and Experienced!) Science Teachers

These tips will serve you well your entire teaching career!

Learning is a life-long experience.  We are never too young or too old to learn new things.  After teaching for 31 years, I am still learning how to be a better teacher.  Along the way I had wonderful mentors and colleagues who helped me develop my teaching skills, and I discovered a few things for myself as well.

The tips and tricks below will serve you well.  Remember them.  Incorporate them into your daily teaching routine.  Refine them and make them your own.

Never this.  Please, never this!
1.  Safety first.  Safety always.
Develop a lab safety unit and teach it the first week of school.  Stress laboratory safety every single day of the year.

2.  Before students arrive for back-to-school, do an analysis of your lab and classroom.  Check all equipment and furniture.  Remove unusable items.  CLEAN everything!

3.  Check your safety equipment often.
Have you flushed your eyewash station?  When was the last time you checked the safety shower?  Is your fire extinguisher fully charged?  Is the first aid kit fully stocked?

4.  Stay on top of repairs.  Turn in work orders for those leaky faucets, stopped up gas jets, and burned out lights.  Follow up on work orders once they have been submitted.  Be relentless in getting things fixed.

5.  The custodians and plant managers are your best friends.
Treat them well and with respect.  They will save you many, many times during the school year.

6.  Never do a lab with students until you have tried the lab yourself.
You can never predict what will happen or how things will work until you carry out the experiment yourself.  If you are seeing a lab unfold for the first time while students are doing the lab, this is a recipe for EPIC FAIL.

7.  Make out your lab order all year long.  Keep a lab notebook handy, and constantly make notes in it.  Record supplies that are running low and need to be ordered for the next school year.  At the end of the year, grab the catalogs and make out your lab order before you go home for the summer.

8.  Don't go home at the end of the day until everything is ready for tomorrow.  This is a hard one because we are exhausted at the end of the day!  Before you leave in the afternoon, your lab should be set up, all handouts should be copied, all phone calls should be returned, and you put your desk in order.  If you wait until the next morning, Murphy's Law will set in. "Things" always happen when you get to school.  The copier will break, your principal will ask for a meeting, students come in to ask questions, the teacher next door will not quit talking, etc.  Be sure everything is ready before you get to school!

9.  Make sure the classroom is neat and orderly.  This is actually a great science experiment!  A wise teacher once told me to straighten the desks after each class period before the next class enters.  Student behavior is affected by the environment.  The class is much more productive and well behaved if there is order in the room as they enter.  If the rows are crooked, the desks are scattered around, papers are all over the floor, and the pencil sharpener is overflowing, student behavior will be different.  Sounds crazy, but this is true.  Try it and see for yourself.

10.  Study.  Study.  Study.  
Study some more!  Never teach a lesson that you are not prepared to teach.  Science is complex stuff, and it is always changing!  You will embarrass yourself if you stumble around with the content and are unable to explain concepts to the students.  Our students are brilliant at picking up on the fact that we are unprepared, and they will be relentless to point this out during your class.

11.  Make it fun, but please make it educational!  Science classes are so much fun!  We get to use all sorts of neat equipment and cool gadgets!  Our students are depending on us to give them a great science education.  Let's use all of our fun "science toys" to further their education.  If you want to make silly putty or glue in the lab, make sure the students learn something from it.

12.  Go as deep into the subject matter content as your students can handle.  There is a fine line between "too easy" and "too hard."  Neither should be happening in your class.  Determine the ability level and knowledge base of your students, and push them to the next level.  Know that the students you have next year will be different.

13.  Don't be afraid to say "I don't know."  All of us, even the best prepared of us, will be asked questions that we do not know the answer to.  How you handle these questions makes all the difference. Sometimes you just have to say "I don't know."  But you need to have an answer the next day when the students arrive.  They will appreciate that you went the extra mile to answer their questions.

14.  Know your limitations.  Work as hard as you can every single day.  Do all you can do for your students.  But know that you can't do everything. Don't take on more than you can handle, and don't be afraid to say "no."

15.  Find a mentor.  Find an amazing teacher that you trust and respect. Talk with him/her often! Someone on the faculty has already had the problem you are facing, and they can help you through it.  A good mentor has a wealth of valuable knowledge and experience, and the support they can give is invaluable!

16.  They're your students, not your friends!  Cultivate a great relationship with your students.  Know your students likes and dislikes. Attend their sports events, band concerts and theater productions.  Make sure they know that you care for them, and that you are willing to help them.  But remember that you are the teacher and they are the students, and a certainly boundary must be maintained.

17.  Respect must be earned.  Always treat your students with respect and dignity.  The lessons we teach in citizenship and tolerance of others are as important as the science lessons we teach.  Be the role model for the behaviors you want to see in your students.

18.  Call the parents before they call you.  If you initiate the contact, then you are in control of the direction and flow of the conversation.  If the parent is calling you, they are probably already upset or mad, and it will be more difficult to get them back on your side.

19.  Take home the work, but not the problems.
Working at home is a given for teachers.  We know we are going to be grading papers and preparing lessons on our personal time.  But try to leave the problems and stresses of the day at work.  If you have a problem with a student, colleague or administrator, solve it before you leave for the day. If you don't, you will worry about it all day (or week end) long.  Better to get the stress and worry out of your head before you leave for the day.

20.  Excitement in the classroom is contagious.
You have to love your subject and let it show to your students how much you love your subject.  If you are excited about what you are teaching, the students will be too.

It is my sincere hope that some of these tips will help you through the long days of the school year.  Good luck with your teaching, and have a great school year.  And remember ..... Have fun teaching!


Super Secondary Science Giveaway

Welcome Back to School Science Teachers!

16 Secondary Science Authors have teamed up for one ENORMOUS giveaway!!

If you are a science teacher in grades 6 and up, you are not going to want to miss out on this fantastic giveaway!

As a group of 16 teacher-authors on we are giving away FOUR $100 gift cards to TpT.  In addition, each of us is hosting our own individual giveaways.

(PSSSSSST ..... While you are here, be sure to click on the "Freebie" tab at the top of the page!)

We want to say "THANK YOU" for supporting our TpT stores and "HOPE YOU HAVE A GREAT SCHOOL YEAR" all in one huge giveaway!

There are TWO Rafflecopters below:

  • Group Giveaway Rafflecopter 
  • My Individual Giveaway Rafflecopter.
Simply follow the instructions in each rafflecopter to enter multiple times. Each seller is hosting their own individual giveaway so be sure to hop from blog to blog and enter them all.  Check out the linky at the bottom of the post for a list of all participating sellers.
Ready to enter?  
Follow the directions below to win the prizes in my individual giveaway.

I will be picking three winners at random.  If you win, I'll email you and ask you what resources you would like from my store!  Then you can email me back which resources you want, and I'll email them to you.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

       Follow the directions below to enter the group giveaway!

In addition to individual store giveaways, all of us have joined forces to put together one HUGE blog hop scavenger hunt, just for science teachers teaching grades 6-12: Four $100 TeachersPayTeachers gift cards! Each blog post has a secret code word and a number.  The number tells you the word order in the secret sentence. Collect the words from each blog (links below), write them down in number order, and copy the secret sentence into the second rafflecopter giveaway. This rafflecopter form is the same on every blog, so you only need to enter once from any one of our blogs!  (Please only enter if you are a science teacher!)  

My code word is "THE" and it's the FOURTH word in the sentence.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Be sure to visit each of the blogs below to enter each individual giveaway and to collect the scavenger hunt words for the group giveaway!  Thanks for participating and from all of us...

Have a Great School Year!!