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Phenomenon-Based Learning: A Walkthrough

Phenomenon-Based Learning: A Walkthrough

Hey everyone! A few weeks back I shared this wonderful resource with you. It was, however, a little buried within a post, so I figured I’d go ahead and let it be my inspiration for a full post. For this week’s blog, I want to give a bit more of an in-depth look at how a classroom unit for a phenomenon-based learning lesson would look like. My examples are going to be based on those found on The Wonder of Science website and the website for the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Before I begin, let me describe these sites a little better. Phenomenon-based learning units found on the NGSS website are much more comprehensive than the one’s listed on the Wonder of Science site. While the units available on the NGSS website are comprehensively fleshed-out, teacher-tested, and peer-reviewed, the Wonder of Science site is more of an aggregator. There are some phenomena-based lessons that are organized by grade and science standard, but the site also has a blog that frequently posts examples of phenomena that can be turned into exciting lessons by the right teacher, as well as a large list of helpful resources that a teacher can use to create their own phenomenon-based lessons.

Let me first give a recap of phenomenon-based learning to those who don’t already know. It is a teaching philosophy that involves a teacher taking an everyday occurrence, referred to as a phenomenon, and using it to coax students into investigating the underlying causes of the phenomenon and apply their previous knowledge and inquiry skills to build new knowledge that they understand comprehensively. Back in May, I wrote about this topic and how its comprehensive and investigative methods might help students to better learn and retain information. This method of teaching suits the NGSS perfectly, as phenomena are also what real-world scientists and engineers look at in context to inspire their own work. The NGSS focus around what they call “the three dimensions of science learning,” each of which benefit from a phenomenon-based approach. These “three dimensions” are as follow: Disciplinary Core Ideas (DCIs), Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs), and Crosscutting Concepts (CCs). Though this article hosted by NSTA provides a much more in-depth look at these concepts, to explain them briefly, a DCI is a key idea in one of four subjects (Physical Science, Life Science, Earth and Space Science, and Engineering) that is broadly important and can be expanded on over years of education, an SEP is a general technique in science and engineering that can be used to investigate and discover new knowledge, and a CC is lens in which a student can look at a phenomenon and create connections across scientific domains. The picture below (lifted from the NSTA article linked above) lays out the NGSS tenants for “3D Learning:”

DCIs, SEPs, and CCs


One last bit of terminology that is important to know before I continue is the difference between anchor phenomenon and investigative phenomenon. An anchor phenomenon is a phenomenon that is larger in scope and can be used for an entire unit, while an investigative phenomenon can be used to supplement a lesson around the unit's anchor phenomenon. These are used in tandem and can help to give teachers an idea on how much time should be spent in class per phenomenon.

So, now that we have a better understanding of phenomenon-based learning and how NGSS facilitate its use in America, let’s walk through an example of a simple phenomenon that can allow students to build upon their previous science knowledge.

Take the following image:

Condensation on a Camping Stove

I took that picture this summer while camping with some friends. One cold, early morning I was making coffee and tea for my group and myself, and I noticed that the arm holding the butane canister was frosted over with ice.

This situation struck me as a phenomena that could be used educationally, as my camping trip was not long after writing my last blog on this topic. Before I go further with this phenomena, however, one issue that could arise when using this phenomena in a class room is that of inclusiveness. Most sites on this topic caution to not use phenomena that could alienate certain students, especially those that may have different cultural experiences. If you don't believe students in your class could relate to a camping-related phenomena, it might better serve your class to pick a more-relatable phenomena with the same underlying causes. Relatable phenomena will increase student interest and engagement in the lessons.

Now back to my camping stove phenomenon.

With the NGSS in mind, let's lay out some hypothetical DCIs, SEPs, and CCs. For further reference, I found this page on Wonder of Science to explain the various standards pretty well.

Disciplinary Core Ideas (DCIs)

For this particular phenomenon, I think the DCIs that would be best served are found in the "Physical Science" category. This phenomenon can help students to think about and experiment with energy (PS3 on the NGSS) and matter (PS1 of the NGSS). Students can be led to asking questions about the pressure of the butane in the canister, the state of matter the water takes before and after it condenses on the stove arm, the energy held in the butane that makes it ideal for combustion as fuel, the chemical reactions taking place in the combustion, the ways gases behave under different conditions, and whatever else you think that you could relate to this phenomenon. 

Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs)

As far as SEPs go, many of them can be applied to this phenomenon. Students can ask questions about the various processes taking place in the phenomenon to uncover whichever DCI is being focused on. They can also look into developing and using models to describe the microscopic cellular behaviors they are observing on a macro scale. Also, they will also be able to work on communicating information that they discover to their teacher and peers. Though other SEPs may apply, these were the three that I found to be most applicable.

Crosscutting Concepts (CCs)

Crosscutting concepts function as useful lenses that can be used to study the phenomenon in question. I think the phenomenon of the camping stove can be best looked at using the Energy and Matter CC and the Cause and Effect CC. By looking at energy and matter, a student can approach the phenomenon while thinking about how things like temperature, pressure, and heat all affect the various processes they are observing in the phenomenon. This can be used to introduce things like the Ideal Gas Law, the energy of different states of matter, and more. As for looking at Cause and Effect, students can ask questions as to what leads to the condensation they observe, what causes the butane to leave the cylinder at the speed it does, and more. Though these CCs are what I chose to focus on, any teacher who wishes to use another CC they find applicable is free to do so.

Investigative Phenomena

Lung Function: If you show a student a lung function demonstation (as is linked), you can help them to expand on their conceptualization of how pressure causes gases to flow.

Cloud Formation: The apparatus linked to the left allows students to create their own clouds in a glass container. This can be used to help supplement their investigations into how condensation works.

Though I only provided two investigative phenomena above, you can use other phenomena that you see as related, so long as they can be tied in to the anchor phenomenon.

I hope my example above helped provide a better understanding of how the NGSS use phenomena to teach science interactively.

If you have any other examples or stories about using phenomenon-based learning in the classroom that you would like to share, please do so below!


Written By: Jacob Monash


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