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Using Phenomena to Engage Students

using phenomema

At the point in time in which I am writing this, the majority of states in the U.S. are either (1) Using the Next Generation Science Standards* or are (2) Using their state’s own standards that are almost identical to NGSS. Both of these require using phenomena to engage students.

But I know that oftentimes we get very little training as educators on HOW to actually do this – and that’s why I am writing this. I interviewed my friend Skipper, the Real Ms. Frizzle, on my podcast in January and our conversation inspired this post. Skipper is a science teacher turned instructional coach who has so much experience helping teachers move their instructional methods from 1-dimensional to 3-dimensional.

If you aren’t already familiar, the NGSS use a 3-dimensional learning strategy that incorporates:

  1. DCIs = Disciplinary Core Ideas (essentially the content you teach)
  2. SEPs = Science and Engineering Practices (skills to incorporate)
  3. CCCs = Crosscutting Concepts (themes and connections that integrate what we learn across units and subject areas)

Now if I am being perfectly honest, I don’t LOVE the NGSS. I think they leave a LOT to be desired when it comes to clarity and practicality (two things we love here at It’s Not Rocket Science and Secondary Science Simplified).

However I will say, there are two things I really love about the NGSS – (1) the 3D strategy for teaching, as listed above, and (2) using phenomena to engage students.

You can listen to my interview with Skipper here to hear more about 3-dimensional teaching, but for now, let’s dive into using phenomena to engage your students in a way that’s SIMPLE and PRACTICAL.

What phenomena are

using phenomena

According to www.nextgenscience.org phenomena are defined as “observable events that occur in the universe that we can use our science knowledge to explain or predict.”

Phenomena are NOT explanations of scientific information or the appropriate terminology behind what is happening, but instead are what can be experienced or documented by our students in order for them to have context and meaning in what they are learning.

According to the NGSS, phenomena can fall into 3 categories:

  • Anchoring phenomena provide a focus for an entire unit.
  • Investigative phenomena are used along the way to focus and provide meaningful context for an instructional lesson or sequence.
  • Everyday phenomena relate anchoring and investigative phenomena to personal experiences that our students may have.

Why I love using them (whether you use NGSS or not)

using phenomena

Simply put, phenomena engage students. 99.9% of their questions really boil down to a phenomenon they don’t understand. So let’s use their questions to guide how we teach! This is how learning has historically happened and THIS is the true nature of science – asking questions, collecting data and information, and seeking answers/conclusions.

Why I DON’T structure my units around them

using phenomena

In the original post, I wrote about using phenomena over 4 years ago, I mentioned that I think a big misconception for teachers surrounding phenomena-based teaching is that we have to throw out every instructional resource we’ve used and revamp our units entirely around these phenomena. This is not the case, teacher friend.

CAN you do this and be successful? Absolutely.

But do you HAVE to do this in order to use phenomena to engage your students? Definitely not.

I personally do NOT structure my units around specific phenomena. Instead, I have a list of phenomena relevant to each unit I teach (included in the NGSS alignment guide PDF that is in the Implementation folder for all of my units). I have found that using phenomena to engage students is MOST effective when the students have a role in the phenomena selection process.

When the phenomena we use are both relevant and meaningful to our students we will find that they are MUCH more engaged in them (and that’s the whole point for using them, right?!)

My best ideas for phenomena have come from the questions that my students ask year after year. I keep a running list on my phone to pull from in future years! This is the simplest way to gather ideas for phenomena without spending hours on Google or in NGSS teacher Facebook groups. I’ve shared a few of my favorites at the end of this post but again, listen to your students and use THEIR questions to guide your instruction!

How to get started using phenomena to engage students

using phenomena

As always, I am all about making your job EASIER and not HARDER so my best advice is to start small and start simple.

I think the easiest phenomena to start incorporating are investigative phenomena. Most likely, you have at least one lab activity or investigation in every unit you teach. Pretty much every lab is innately designed around students investigating an observable event – which is the definition of a phenomenon (see above). You can use that to provide focus and meaningful content for your students!!

From there once you feel more comfortable, you can start brainstorming anchoring phenomena for a unit. I like to think of anchoring phenomena as themes that will truly “anchor” the entire unit. Introduce the anchoring phenomena at the start of the unit and bring everything you do back to the phenomena.

For example, when teaching heredity in biology, a great anchoring phenomena is anything related to identical twins. Whether you are learning about Punnett squares to understand basic inheritance patterns, complex patterns like polygenic inheritance, mutations, or epigenetics, ALL of these topics can be tied back into the original phenomenon of the existence of identical twins that aren’t exactly identical.

So don’t throw out your lesson plans because a student asks a great question and you now want to rewrite your entire unit around it. Use that question to serve as an anchoring phenomenon for the remainder of the unit and tie EVERYTHING back to that!

My favorite phenomena to engage students with

using phenomena

Now I know you are desperately looking for phenomena ideas. I GET IT. Ask you and shall receive. But I will say it again – I truly think the best ideas come from the questions your students ask!! But here are a few of my favorites:

For Biology:

  • Anchoring phenomenon: Every day around us we see a vast array of living things, all so different from one another.  All living things, whether you are a human, a banana, a puppy, or a bacterium, all share the same “instruction manual”, if you will, for making us who we are.  This instruction manual is written with only 4 letters – A, T, C, and G.  How is it possible for only four different “letters” to make up the broad diversity of all organisms that exist?
  • Investigative phenomenon: Earth is a closed system, meaning matter and energy must cycle through living and nonliving things.

For Anatomy:

For Physical Science:

  • Everyday phenomenon: Rollercoasters are magnificent feats of engineering and design.  Initiate a discussion with students about roller coasters and the physics behind them.  Do this prior to conducting the pendulum lab activity.  If you have time, you can even have students design a rollercoaster (backed by calculations, of course!) that would have the most kinetic energy given specific parameters you assign.
  • Everyday phenomenon: Sometimes when you and your sister are blow drying your hair the power goes out in your bathrooms, but yet your mom can have the oven, lights, microwave, and dishwasher on in the kitchen and this doesn’t happen.  Why is this the case?  Use this discussion to introduce circuits.
  • Investigative phenomenon: If you scream in outer space, no one will hear you.  Initiate a student-led investigation for research into what it means for outer space to be a vacuum and how that affects the different types of waves that attempt to travel through it.
  • Investigative phenomenon: Law of conservation of matter and how matter is never created or destroyed. I love the classic popcorn lab (in my matter unit) to talk about where it “disappears”!

I hope after reading this you feel LESS overwhelmed and MORE equipped in using phenomena to engage your students this school year!

*Note: NGSS is a registered trademark of Achieve. Neither Achieve nor the lead states and partners that developed the Next Generation Science Standards were involved in the production of this blog post, and do not endorse it.

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