Engaging Students on a Budget

When aiming to engage students in a productive and meaningful way, looking at how to incorporate the 5E’s learning cycle can set your lesson off on the right foot. By engaging, exploring, explaining, elaborating and evaluating, teachers and students can start to make a deeper connection with the content they are learning. The first step, engage, is what we will be focusing on today for our students. As a teacher, sparking a students’ interest in a topic will not only encourage them to engage with the content more, but drive the classroom into a place of innovation and critical thinking.

The 5E Instructional Model | NASA eClips

Let’s talk engagement on a budget

  • Demonstrations

Demonstrations can be a greta way to get classroom excitement up and grasp student attention. High School Science Experiments lists a few different ways to have student led demonstrations or experiments. From What Makes Ice Melt Fastest, to Does Color Affect Taste, these are all ways to start making students think critically about the different phenomena they are observing. Students will also have practice with making observations and inferences. These demos are all equipped with easy DIY materials, making it more assessable for students and teachers alike.

Lesson plan idea: What Makes Ice Melt Fastest?

For the engage portion of this lesson, have students observe ice melting with different environments (this can be done with different temperatures, but including salt would be beneficial to start discussion on bonding and boiling/freezing points). For the explore portion, have students engage in group discussions about what was different during the demonstration of ice melting, and why some ice melted faster/slower. For the explain portion, define terms such as boiling and freezing point. Explanations of chemical bonding patterns can also be incorporated. For students to further elaborate on their understanding of these topics, have them conduct an ice cream lab in groups that allow them to observe this phenomena in a different setting. For the evaluate portion, an assessment over their knowledge of chemical bonding and freezing/boiling point would be appropriate.

  • Brain busters or riddles

Brain busters can be a cheap, easy way to get students to start to think critically in school. I would personally use these in the beginning of class, perhaps catering to a lesson that you plan on covering for the day/week. Students should be encouraged to discuss, ask questions, and collaborate with their peers on what they think the answer could be. While you can create your own or find online recourses, here are some brain teasers that can be catered towards secondary students.

  • Youtube

Students love the internet. In a world where almost everything is at their fingertips, finding engaging ways to incorporate the use of videos or Youtube in schools may resonate with students fairly well. In this video, physical science topics such as friction and motion are covered. This would be a great introductory video to present to your class before introducing the topic of friction. By showing students Youtube videos that segue into content that will be covered, they have already started to think creatively on how they will begin to explore, explain, and elaborate on different topics. Youtube is a free (if you do not want to pay for a subscription) tool that all teachers can utilize to make their classroom that much more exciting.

  • Readings

Capturing student interest with a quick passage or reading can be an engaging resource in any science classroom. Whether it is a snippet from a published research article or a paragraph from NASA about the discovery of a new planet, students will have the opportunity to become exposed to scientific literature. This not only helps them become familiar with the writing style, but deepen their understanding about the scientific process of publishing research. For example, After Three Years on Mars, NASA’s Ingenuity Helicopter Mission Ends is a quick, 5 minute read that could help spark conversation on space travel or other astronomy topics.

  • Thought provoking discussion questions

While a discussion based activity could also be used in the elaborate phase of this learning cycle, a thought provoking discussion could have its benefits in the engage portion as well. Thinking Science has provided a list of questions and resources that could spark student discussion in a science classroom. I also think this would be a good activity to start with and monitor how student’s answers may change throughout the other four stages of the learning cycle. Some examples include, “If we found a planet that humans could live on, would we have a right to move there?” or “You can’t live without the bacteria inside of you, so are they apart of you as a living organism?” These questions will spark students’ imaginations and cause them to think critically about science concepts they are familiar with, but open the door for them to learn more about different concepts and potentially change their mind.

Lesson plan idea: “You can’t live without the bacteria inside of you, so are they apart of you as a living organism?”

When using these thought provoking discussion questions as engagement, segue into having students explore ecological relationships between different organisms they may be familiar with. Next, explain and define parasitism, commensalism, and mutualistic relationships. To elaborate, have students research a specific ecological relationship between two species and share to the class their findings and why the classification of that relationship is supported by scientific research. For the evaluate portion, a discussion rendering back to human-bacteria relationship can be conducted. Participation should be accounted for in the evaluate portion.


  1. Hey Maddie! This is a very well done post, I enjoyed reading your thoughts and ideas. I liked how you introduced the 5 E’s and their importance as well as your transition to the different resources. Which resources do you think you will use the most in your future classroom.

  2. Maddie, great post. Your descriptions of how to use each of your resources are very thoughtful and potentially useful. I especially liked your section about asking though provoking questions as a budget friendly alternative way to engage. I think it is important to think about that if done correctly, these questions may be even more effective at engaging than more costly options. I did have one questions about your post though. When you use discussion questions, how will you go about making sure you get even participation from students. Will you able to prevent certain kids from dominating conversations?

    • Hey Max! To answer your question, I think I would make sure I facilitate the discussion in a way where every student has an opportunity to speak. Encouraging student participation and an environment where all ideas are treated with respect is also important. This could take some trial and error, and I will definitely have to see what works in my own class one day.

  3. Hi Maddie, thank you for your thoughtful post and your thorough description of the various engagement ideas you provided. When you think about doing discussion questions as engagement, where do you see this being set in a daily plan? I have seen some teachers that pose a question on the board as students enter the classroom which gets them talking with each other. This was really fun and some big debates would break out within seconds of students entering the class.

    • Hi Melinda! I think I could use a daily question in the beginning of the class, having students write down on a sticky note their thoughts. Before placing their note on the board to create a class discussion, they could discuss with their table groups or peers to get an idea on other perspectives.

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