What Do You Look For When Selecting Science Phenomena?
On the way home from a camping trip last summer, we stopped at McDonald’s for lunch. I asked my daughter what she wanted, and she was very clear: “I want nuggets and french fries and apple juice and sauce.” OK. 👍🏻 She knows what she wants.
When it comes to phenomena, do you know what you want?
While there are a number of factors that go into choosing your phenomenon, here are three things to get you started:
❓ Your phenomena spark the questions that your content answers.
If you’re teaching “Cells have organelles,” then your phenomenon should spark a question like, “What’s that inside that thing there?” (AKA What’s that [organelle] inside that [cell] there?)
When we don’t do this, we end up a) confusing students, or b) totally losing them. The lesson we planned to be student-driven ends up totally disconnected from the phenomenon designed to spark the experience. I’ve seen this happen myself with that very lesson – “Cells have organelles.” The phenomenon the teacher had selected was a short video that showed a macrophage eating a bacterium. While this video was certainly fascinating, students didn’t come up with any of the questions the teacher had aimed the lesson to answer. And it wasn’t the students’ fault or any lack of curiosity in this instance — the video just didn’t set them up to.
(That said, if that video were part of a lesson on the immune system or immune cells – like Pathogens Attack! What Does The Immune System Do? inside the Spark Subscription – bingo! There’s an alignment between the phenomenon and the content!)
The phenomena we choose – and how we present it – needs to spark the questions our lessons are designed to answer.
🔗 Your phenomena are relevant and relatable to your students.
When I first started learning about phenomena, I was on the struggle-bus. I couldn’t see how to incorporate it into my life science and earth science units because all I saw when talk of “phenomena” arose was the flash-bang-fizz stuff. You know, elephant toothpaste and exploding junk and flying magnets and whatever. (Now, I feel like I tie everything back to a “life science” or “earth science” topic. 😅)
While those are certainly fun things to do in class, and they are definitely going to get you a woah! response… that engagement isn’t designed to last. It’s shallow. Whether we’re talking about dogs with a new bone or kids with a new toy, we know that novelty gets old fast. We can’t rely on that flash-bang-wow stuff to provide the type of long-term, intrinsic motivation we need to cultivate to drive student learning through an entire unit storyline.
Instead, focus your phenomena on relevance and emotion. Choose something that your students can connect to long-term, that they’ve personally experienced, and/or that they can otherwise relate to on an interest- or emotions-level. Cultivate those feelings and that drive by bringing story and society into your science classroom.
Give your students something to care about.
(Because textbook facts just aren’t going to do it.)
🔍 Your phenomena are observable.
For practical purposes, your students have to experience the anchor. Otherwise, how can they ask questions at all? How can they connect?
Oftentimes, I see teachers provide the phenomenon and the questions. Sometimes, it’s a “quick example” or a “little discussion.” And while discussions and examples have their place in our science classes, we can’t rely on those to spark interest and launch a student-driven storyline.
Learning – the deep conceptual kind – requires us to encounter something new, connect it to something we already know or believe or understand, and as necessary, break down what we currently believe/understand and replace it with a new, more accurate understanding. For that reason, our students have to encounter something new themselves — and they do this by observing the phenomenon “with their own eyes.”
Now that said, I am of the opinion that there are many ways to observe. Our students can certainly see or experience something themselves (like when students bake cookies in the Spark Subscription‘s Chemical Kitchen), or they can examine pictures or videos. These are the “traditional” ways of presenting anchor experiences. That said, I’ve personally found that other avenues work just as well — analyzing data (like in this sample Spark you can grab for free – Let’s Talk Trash), literature connections (like in Body Wars), and even current events science news like in the Rising Tides anchor experience (yes, those can be engaging too, when done right!). Phenomena can be presented in so many ways, and personal preference here, I like to mix it up.
The important thing though is that students experience the phenomenon, and students ask the questions. Remember, your phenomenon is not the question. It’s the thing that sparks the question.
What questions do you have about choosing your next phenomenon?
Want To 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.