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20 Jun Spark with TJ McKenna: Using NGSS Phenomena to Engage Students

By Helen Maltese, Rubicon International. Featuring TJ McKenna, Connecticut Science Center  and Charles H. Barrows STEM Academy.

Happy is he who gets to know the reason for things.`` ~Virgil
TJ McKenna

In our recent Spark with TJ McKenna, Staff Scientist for the Connecticut Science Center and Charles H. Barrows STEM Academy, he discusses how phenomena-driven instruction motivates students to be the scientists we know they naturally are.

TJ was one of those kids who asked a ton of questions, and he wanted to spend his life figuring stuff out. Today, he spends a lot of his time working directly with students, as well as doing PD events for the NGSX project, and running a show called Science Sunday, where he tries his best to be the “anti-Bill Nye.” Follow him on Twitter at @tjscience and check out his site on NGSS Phenomena

What are phenomena?

Phenomena are observable events in nature (or our lives) that connect to multiple NGSS disciplinary core ideas, such as Finnish Snow Trees or the behavior of bees. Throughout a unit, students work towards explaining the science concepts behind the phenomenon in their own words. Regardless of the grade or subject we teach, the same phenomenon can be used across K-12 with a different focus for each level.

Anchoring vs. Lesson-level

There are two types of phenomena: anchoring phenomena and lesson-level phenomena. An anchoring phenomenon requires an entire unit for students to be able to explain the science behind it, whereas smaller, lesson-level phenomena help students figure out smaller pieces of the larger picture. For example, this unit on HS-LS4 Natural Selection and Evolution uses MRSA infections as the anchoring phenomenon.  Within this larger unit, a lesson-level phenomenon on Galápagos Finches ulitmately helps students understand the the underlying mechanism behind the emergence of MRSA. 

Content vs. Knowledge

The key to choosing the right anchoring phenomenon lies in the idea that you can Google content, but you can’t Google knowledge. A classic example of this difference is the shower-curtain effect. Why do vinyl curtains stick to you? Sure, students can Google it and find a series of possible explanations on Wikipedia, but can they argue why which explanation is more “right” and why? In order for phenomena to be academically productive, students have to be able to apply science knowledge to reach a deeper understanding of the questions behind the phenomenon.

How does phenomena change the science classroom?

Students lead the learning

As TJ says, we need to be the “anti-Bill Nye.”  Instead of giving our students answers, we need to give them questions. With true “sense-making” at the forefront of class, students are truly engaging in science. Phenomena-driven instruction leads to richer engagement with the material because it motivates our students to actively “figure out” rather than passively “learn about” core ideas in science.

Phenomena gets personal

Choosing the right phenomena for our students helps empower those who don’t normally identify as successful science students. When a phenomenon sparks enough student curiosity to carry a unit, it’s because the phenomenon is relevant to them: it taps into their interest and their identity. Read NGSS for All Students to learn strategies to reach all your diverse learners. Below are some example of how using relevant phenomena from current events that students were inherently interested in lead to authentic student engagement with the material.

  • EBOLA VS. EGG DROP (HS-PS2): TJ worked with a high school science teacher who struggled to get his students invested in learning physics. Instead of doing the traditional egg drop  to address the concept of forces and interactions, they capitalized on students’ interest in the Ebola outbreak in Liberia. Students addressed the problem of having to deliver medical supplies safely to the ground for people affected by the outbreak. In the end, students were more engaged and drove the investigation themselves, asking, “How do we slow down the drop? How do we package the materials? What is a good testable representative of fragile goods?”
  • ZIKA VS. BIRD BEAKS (MS-LS4): TJ and a biology teacher recently scrapped the usual natural selection lab on bird beaks. Instead, they had students create models that described whether or not Zika demonstrated natural selection. They eventually discussed bird beaks as an example, but students drove the conversation there as an example to support their arguments.

What does phenomena-driven instruction look like?

Walking through it as a student

Before we introduce any phenomenon to our students, we have to take the time to explore it ourselves. What questions does it make us ask? What science knowledge, the core ideas (DCIs) and crosscutting concepts (CCCs), are demonstrated? Is there an NGSS performance expectation we’re hitting? How long will it take for my student to reach an understanding of the DCIs and CCCs behind the phenomenon? If we answer these questions and have a general guide to where our students might take us during their discovery, we’ll be able to set out them up to have productive conversations at their level.

Discussing ALL answers, even the “wrong” ones

After introducing our students to the anchoring phenomenon and hearing their explanations,  we then need to put all the answers on the table for discussion… even the wrong ones.  Our next step is to let the science do the convincing, not us.   As long as our students are engaged in science practices and as long as we’re supporting them with Talk Moves during discussions, our students will get to where we want them to be. Check out NSTA press publication Becoming A Responsive Science Teacher for skills to help become an adaptable and flexible teacher who sees wrong answers as a starting point to developing more knowledge and insight.

Letting vocabulary come later

It’s important that students’ explorations necessitate learning.  Students can reason their way through phenomena without having the vocabulary. We should only move forward with unit-specific vocabulary once our students agree that what we’ve been talking about necessitates that new vocabulary word.

Next Steps?

  • Check out TJ’s website on NGSS phenomena!
  • If you want to ensure you’ve chosen a good anchor phenomenon, the Research + Practice Collaboratory has a checklist!
  • The NGSX Project offers professional development opportunities around the NGSS!
  • Ambitious Science Teaching provides resources for NGSS-aligned science teaching!

Matt Damon in the movie adaptation of Andy Weir’s The Martian.

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