Building Real, Relevant Science Teaching Through A Phenomena Focus

Using real, relevant science phenomena to build our instruction from is the first piece in this big puzzle of engaging our students in authentic science learning.

I’ve said it before – I’m sure you’ll hear me say it again – for much of my K-12 public education experience, I didn’t identify as a “science person.”  Considering my current career choice, this may surprise you.  In reflecting back to my early experiences in life and school, I too wonder when I stopped seeing myself in science.

What changed? And when did it “change back”? 

When I think back to my elementary school years, I loved science – in the sense of, studying the natural world, animals, bugs, weather, rocks, all of it. I loved attending Kids Nature Camp each summer at Asbury Woods Nature Center, catching aquatic critters in creeks, and learning all I could about the animals and environments that interested me. In my home and in after-school activities, we made weather instruments and collected data, we visited science museums and the zoo, and I’m pretty sure at some point or another I decided I wanted to be a marine biologist.

So what happened? 

The only thing I’m sure of is the shift happened in middle school. I don’t remember much about 6th grade science — I know I don’t remember doing a single lab. In 7th grade, I remember working with triple beam balances at some point and possibly some magnets. In 8th grade, we created a dead-bug-board, dissected worms and frogs, and I doodled on the black lab tables while the teacher lectured a lot

Nothing ever seemed to tie to a bigger picture… nothing was relevant to me.

However you want to classify what we did in elementary school, at the very least – it was rooted in our personal experiences, and it was fun. Whether it reflected “real science” or not (and certainly, the hope is that for future students it will), it certainly inspired me to love science and to see its relevance in my own life. 

What I did in middle school?

Not so much.

In middle school, science as a discipline could be characterized by textbooks, lectures, notes, and the occasional classroom lab.  My teachers were all wonderful people, but their science classes did not reflect the real work of scientists.

And so my passion for nature, for understanding the natural world, didn’t seem to be a part of science at all.  And it wasn’t until I discovered Environmental Science courses in college that I realized things could be different. (And that is true for all science disciplines, not just envi sci courses!)

So here’s my question to you: how does your class reflect the real work of scientists?

Things That Matter: Creating Real, Relevant Science Learning

One of the few tidbits of information I really remember from graduate school was from a course on adolescent development. I remembered the idea being presented that in adolescence, humans develop an innate desire to be involved in things that matterreal work. It resonated with me, because I remember feeling that drive myself in late elementary and middle school.

Case In Point: Science Fair 

When I was in middle school, I was so sick of the “canned” science experiments we were always encouraged to do – which parachute design works best?, what paper towel picks up the most liquid?, what color light do plants like best?

Like, who cares??? 

I wanted to do something that mattered — something that could make an impact on the world, that could tell us something new

(Let’s just leave it at… I did not succeed. 😅 But I did end up with a cute hamster and some improved sewing skills. Mostly don’t ask, but you can be confident no hamsters were harmed in my efforts. 🤦🏼‍♀️)

Anyway, the point was: We wanted to do something REAL! We wanted to do REAL SCIENCE, and to be frank, we weren’t getting the opportunity in our regular science classes.

So anyway, when I heard about this adolescent drive to do things that matter, it made absolute sense to me. I had experienced that drive myself.  Science Fair was just one of many examples. 

But The Need For REAL, Relevant Science Starts Even Earlier…

In grad school, I connected what I had learned about adolescent development to my own memories of middle and high school. So for many years, I thought this drive began in adolescence – as the grad school textbook suggested.

But the more I observe, the more I wonder – could this drive start even earlier?  Yes, I think so. My own observations suggest this drive is even more ingrained in us – in our students – than maybe we even realize. 

When I look at my own young children and the things they are drawn to – it’s not the toy set of tongs that draws their attention, it’s the real one. It’s not the toy shaker but the real bottle of sprinkles. 

I hear this from parent after parent, as we gripe good-naturedly about the silly toys that don’t get played with and our children’s preferences for tissue boxes and spoons instead. 

Pressing the “reset” button on the outlet is sure more fun than the button on the toy dino, I can tell you that much.


Because even young kids recognize what’s real and what’s not — and they value the real stuff. They want to do what “the big people do.” 

What we see in adolescence – the desire to do what matters – is really just an extension of what we see in very young children.  It never goes away.  It is a part of us, as humans. 

This is one thing that doesn’t change.

And really, that is amazing!

It is something we can use in our classrooms — to spark engagement, to draw out motivation, to connect our content to our students.  Because that desire to connect is all already in our students (somewhere!).  

If we recognize that young people want to do real things, we can center our classroom around those real things and tie our content and skills to those things that matter. 

Using real, relevant phenomena to build our instruction from is the first piece in this big puzzle. 

Learn More:

Check out the following blog posts to start bringing a phenomena focus to your classroom. Then, grab the Quick Start Phenomena Guide to access Why This?: Creating Anchored Science Experiences. In this workshop and guide, you can learn to create truly rooted science experiences with real-world phenomena. Your students won’t be asking, “Why are we learning this!?” because everything about your unit will answer that question. Phenomena is your first step toward real, relevant science teaching and your student-driven classroom. 

Using Anchoring Phenomena

What Every Lesson MUST Start With And Why

Building Student-Driven Science Storylines From Phenomena

4 Ways To Engage Students With Phenomena During Distance Learning