by Allison Breeze

s an educator, I believe that learning happens when students are applying their knowledge in practice. To this end, I am always looking for activities that engage students in hands-on ways with whatever topic they are learning about. Exploration and experience can provide immensely beneficial learning opportunities for students that give them context to process information. For this to work effectively, students must be positioned in such a way that allows them to take action, and the instructor must be willing to take a step back from holding control over the learning. One effective method for structuring such an environment is stations.

In stations-based activities, students are asked to complete a task in a certain location, and then repeatedly move to a new location to complete a different task, until they have visited all the locations, or within a specific timeframe. Oftentimes, there will be a rotation to allow for multiple students to experience different stations simultaneously. Stations offer the structure of spatial and task-based boundaries to keep students safe, while providing the opportunity for them to have agency and independence in completing the assigned task. Additionally, stations can be done individually or in small groups, to either allow students some independent processing time, or as a way to foster collaboration.

Instructors can often set up the stations ahead of time so that they don’t have to give as many directions to introduce an activity. This way, students are spending most of their time actually engaged in the learning, as opposed to waiting for it to begin. This also means that instructors can feel less rushed and give students the space they need to be successful.

Stations often set students up to be more independent than teacher-led instruction. For some students, this agency is very natural to their preferred structure for learning and helps them express themselves more easily. For other students, this independence requires them to engage in productive struggle to figure out the task and collaborate with their peers rather than relying on the teacher for help. In both situations, the stations model is promoting student growth by offering another mode for learning and asking students to try something new.

Stations in Practice:
I find stations to be an effective structure in which to conduct investigations with my students. It helps data collection happen faster, it means students are less likely to be left waiting with nothing to do, and it requires students to independently make connections between their actions and the overarching inquiry that is being investigated.

One such example investigation I have done with students focuses on the different ways that decomposition occurs in compost. At IslandWood, we have three types of compost bins: an EarthFlow that uses mechanical and bacterial decomposition, a high-volume vermicompost that uses worms and other macroinvertebrates, and a garden compost that uses macroinvertebrates and special fiber mats for insulation. In the investigation, students form three groups that rotate between each compost bin and collect data about each bin — temperature, soil color, material, number and type of macroinvertebrates — to understand how natural material breaks down into nutrient-rich soil in different ways. Each compost station has a set of directions and tools available, and every student has a journal with a data table to record their observations. At the end of the data collection, all students come together to synthesize their information as a whole group and debrief what they learned during the activity.

In this activity, I find that using stations can make scientific inquiry more accessible to students, because it offers many entry points to engaging with the material. It also allows me more time as an instructor to check in with specific students. I make sure to include multiple ways of recording data, such as numerically, through written expression, verbalization, and drawing, to ensure that all students have a way of participating. I have also found that students are more willing to challenge themselves if they are engaged in peer-to-peer interactions while learning, which the stations format allows for better than lecture or instructor-modeled kinesthesis. If a student who is concerned about touching bugs sees a friend holding a worm, they might be more inclined to try touching it, because they can see that behavior being modeled with safe and comfortable consequences.

Overall, I have seen stations as a great way to help students experience more agency and collaboration within an intentional environment set up by the instructor. Using stations can be a nice break from a traditional activity format that provides a balance between flexibility and structure to prioritize student engagement.

Lesson Plan:

Students will collect data at three different compost bins to compare and contrast the ways that decomposition happens at each. They will record and synthesize the data they find and draw conclusions.

Students are in an outdoor educational setting with three compost systems. They have been introduced to the concept of producers, consumers, and decomposers in a food web. They are curious about the differences between the three compost systems.

● Students will understand the role of compost in a food web
● Students will be able to give examples of how decomposition occurs
● Students will know how to collect data in an investigation
● Students will be aware of the different kinds of compost systems

● Understanding energy transfer in a food web system
● Taking observed phenomenon and drawing conclusions
● Creating models of data to explore it further
● Exploring the process of decomposition of natural materials

● Journals with data tables (one for each student)
● Pens/pencils
● Drawing utensils
● Direction sheets for each compost bin*
● Large sheet of paper (for whole group data table)
● Thermometers
● Microscopes/magnifying lenses (optional)
*note: the direction sheets can include instructions for collecting the type of data that feels most meaningful to your students. An example has been included at the end of this lesson plan.
1. Familiarize students with each of the three compost bins – their locations, how to access the compost, and what they immediately notice about the differences of each
2. Ask students to consider the question – why do we have three different compost bins?
3. Explain that the students will be scientists conducting an investigation on each of the compost systems to learn about decomposition

1. Break students into three groups, one for each compost bin station
2. Send each group of students to a different station, with a direction sheet, thermometer, and magnifying tool (optional)
3. Students should record their data in their journal data table according to the direction sheet for their station
4. Signal to the groups to rotate to the next compost station, and collect data there
5. Once all groups have collected data at all stations, have the group come together as a whole and write in their data on the large sheet data table

Debrief (students sharing with someone from a different group):
1. Ask students what the differences and similarities between the three compost stations were
2. Ask students what evidence of decomposition they saw at each station
3. Have students come up with a representation — visual, physical, written, artistic — of what happens to natural waste (food scraps, dead plants, etc)
4. Revisit the initial question: Why do we have three compost bins?
5. Connect their answers to the larger food web of IslandWood

*Direction Sheet Example:
Earth Flow
1. Take a compost sample and rub it in the box labeled “earth flow” on page 11 of your journal
2. Stick the thermometer deep into the compost. Wait until the indicator stops moving, then record the temperature
3. Count the number of macroinvertebrates (bugs!) you see, and record
4. Draw the largest piece of material you see in the compost
5. Draw the different macroinvertebrates you see
6. Match the macros with those listed on page 18 of your journal

Allison Breeze is an elementary educator in the Puget Sound, currently working and learning as a graduate student at IslandWood.

Resources for further information:
Aydogmus, M., & Senturk, C. (2019). The effects of learning stations technique on academic achievement: A Meta-analytic study. Research in Pedagogy, 9(1), 1–15.
Chawla, L., & Cushing, D. F. (2007). Education for strategic environmental behavior. Environmental Education Research, 13 (4), 437-452. DOI: 10.1080/13504620701581539.
Gerçek, C., & Özcan, Ö. (2016). Determining the students’ views towards the learning stations developed for the environmental education. Problems of Education in the 21st Century, 69, 29. DOI: 10.33225/pec/16.69.29.