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How to engage your students in science (without exhausting yourself with lab prep)

engage your students in science

One of the BEST parts about being a secondary science teacher is the labs you get to use to engage your students in science. But one of the HARDEST parts of being a secondary science teacher is the labs you have to prep to engage your students in science.

So how do you manage to do it all? How do you engage your students in science daily without completely exhausting yourself with all of the prep??

First and foremost let me say this – if you have 3 or more preps and are the only one teaching each of your preps then you ABSOLUTELY need to borderline beg your admin for curriculum. It’s way cheaper than textbooks and can be used again and again! It is a one-time investment for them to retain the health of a really great teacher. Here are my best tips for getting admin to buy you curriculum you actually want.

Confident that your admin won’t buy you curriculum or spend money on you at all to help you out? Here are 5 ways your admin can support you without spending any money (and if you are expected to teach 3+ preps, YOU SHOULD BE SUPPORTED!)

But I digress…

I also want to say this – one of the most draining things about using labs to engage your students in science is grading them. One of the best ways to set yourself up to NOT be exhausted by labs is to change how you assess them.

Be extremely intentional with what you choose to collect and grade. I grade most classwork for completion. When I collect labs, I often just grade very specific sections for accuracy (like just the graphs, or just the analyses). I rarely do lab reports, but when I do, I grade them with a rubric. For more tips on how to decrease grading time, click here.

Now that that’s covered, I want to share with you my 7 favorite ways to engage your students in science that aren’t quite as draining as labs (and lab prep), but are still just as effective for student engagement!

1. “Research and Report” activities

engage your students in science

I LOVE USING THESE! I started having my students do “Research and Report” when I found that they were asking me a TON of questions I didn’t know the answers to and were expecting me to basically be their Google or encyclopedia. I keep these REALLY simple. Usually, I have 2 slides I project on the whiteboard. The first question asks some sort of probing question to acquire background knowledge. The second gives them a task or topic to research.

For example, in my Reproduction unit in my anatomy class, I have a Research and Report activity on infertility. Most of my students knew that my husband and I struggled with “undiagnosed infertility”, and they have a TON of follow-up questions about it. This activity was born from that!

Slide 1 simply asks the class what do they already know about causes of infertility, and reproductive technologies used for treating it. I project this on a whiteboard and gather their background knowledge.

Slide 2 asks them what questions they still have about it. We list them all out. Then I send them out solo or in pairs to research one of the questions. After about 10 minutes they report their findings back to the class and we jot these down.

They may need help getting started with a list of questions for these.  The goal is to get them doing the “Ask questions and define problems” Science and Engineering practice for NGSS.  Help them get started by making sure to do the first slide, retrieving their background knowledge.  They may not have much background knowledge on the topic you choose at ALL, but hopefully, their curiosities will be inspired enough that they will come up with some questions. 

If you try this with your students and they aren’t giving you ANYTHING, try to think of a few questions in advance that you can introduce and throw out there to get them thinking, and see if they can come up with some of their own questions from there. For instance, with the infertility example, I tell them that 1/3rd of infertility issues are related to the mother, 1/3rd to the father, and 1/3rd are “unexplained”. This fact usually brings a LOT of questions, because they just assume all issues are related to the child-bearing female.

I LOVE these activities because they require VERY LITTLE prep on your part, and often you can do them spontaneously based on how the conversation is going in class and the questions your students are asking!

2. Partner work

engage your students in science

This may seem too simplistic, but hear me out. High school students love to talk, but thanks to technology, are pretty terrible at doing it nowadays. I love to create opportunities where they can work with a partner through something – either a research question, like listed above, or even a few practice problems.

I assign seats in my classes and switch seats at the start of each new unit so that students have different “neighbors” regularly. I have them do all partner work with their “next-door neighbor” and this helps with mixing the students up a lot (I can also be strategic when making the seating charts to ensure certain students aren’t together if it’s not a good combination). Partner work will engage your students and take some of the brunt of the workload off of you and put it onto your students!

3. Whiteboards

engage your students in science

Whiteboards – both mini ones for individual students and the large one you hopefully have at the front of your room – are SO great for engaging your students in science without exhausting yourself with a ton of prep work. I love to ask students questions and have them write their answers on their boards, and then show them to me. My students also love working out practice problems on them.

Even more, though, my students love coming up and writing on the board. Often I will assign students a practice problem or question from their classwork (that they’ve already done at their seats) and will send them all up to the board to write their answers out. Once everyone is seated, we go over each one. It is great for students to receive semi-anonymous peer feedback (I don’t have them label their work with their name!) and for some reason, they just find it incredibly fun to write on the big whiteboard.

4. Model building

engage your students in science

I think model building is one of the most underrated tools for engaging your students in science. I think when we think science we just immediately think LABS, and there is so much we can do to give our students hands-on learning experiences than just labs! Model building is one of those things.

A model is simply a representation of something. You can ask your students to make a model of just about anything. You can provide a bucket of random materials and have them make a 3D model, or keep it simple with play dough (here is an easy recipe to make it CHEAPLY at home!)

But it can even be simpler! Use chalk markers or neon Expo markers and let students write and draw on your lab tables – or mini whiteboards if you have those! I love giving students a list of vocabulary terms and having them make a concept map connecting them all together. They can then make a blank version and swap with a neighbor and see if they can “solve” each others’ map. Such a simple way to engage them and have them really critically and creatively think about the content – without wearing yourself out!

5. Walk, podcast, and reflect

engage your students in science

I recently saw this idea in a Facebook group of teachers I am in and absolutely LOVED it!!! While I can’t say I have been able to test this out with my own students, I can say that the next time I am in the classroom teaching full time I will 100% make this a once a quarter or once a month practice.

I am always looking for a way to get students outside when the weather is nice to stretch their legs, and this idea was invented by a teacher who was trying to engage their students while still maintaining strict social distancing practices. Essentially you assign your students a podcast to listen to, then all go outside and walk laps around the football field or campus and listen. Afterward, have students write a simple reflection to submit or share with the class.

When writing reflections, I like to keep it simple with a 3-2-1 framework. This means I have students tell me 3 things they learned, 2 connections they made to what they are learning in class, and 1 follow-up question they thought of while listening. This keeps the reflection simple and allows them to just enjoy listening and learning for the sake of learning!

Here are a few podcast recs that I’ve personally listened to and loved:

  • “Chemistry for your Life” for chemistry
  • “This podcast will kill you” for anatomy
  • “The Biology of Superheroes” for Biology

Additionally, my friend Becca has a long list of other podcast recs for high school science you can check out on her post here!

6. Projects!!

engage your students in science

I think oftentimes we can avoid doing projects because it seems like so much work on our part. But the whole point of this post is to help you engage your students in science WITHOUT exhausting yourself, so I want to take work OFF of your plate rather than add to it. You can still do that with projects!

Projects put the bulk of the learning back onto students, but we can also use students to plan the projects, too! All YOU need to do is come up with a topic you want them to learn about on their own. Then make a BRIEF bulleted list of what you expect. From there, let your students come up with the product/output! They can choose how to best represent their learning of the assigned topic.

Use a simple rubric to assess and it will save you even more time. I love to take existing rubrics I have and tweak them for new assignments I come up with. You can also find tons online for free. Rubrics are your friend, and even a 2-day in-class project can give you a much-needed break from prepping all the things and leading the class from up front!

7. Let your students teach!

engage your students in science

Last but not least, one of my favorite projects ever is my Teach the Class! Project. This was born from my absolute loathing of reviewing for exams, and has become a tradition each year that my students love as much as I do! I assign students to groups and each group gets a topic. From there they must come up with a lesson plan to teach the class on their assigned topic.

This is not only a great challenge for them, but it is a great break for you, and an easy way to engage your students in science without exhausting yourself!!

Which idea are you most excited to try? I would LOVE to hear. As always, you can reach out to me here or send me a DM on Instagram.

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