Using Phenomena to Engage Students

Phenomena have become an integral part of the Next Generation Science Standards, but what are they? And how can teachers use them in the classroom? NGSS describes natural phenomena as “observable events that occur in the universe and that we can use our science knowledge to explain or predict.” Since science is such a broad field of study, this can mean a lot of things in a lot of different contexts. Phenomena connect concepts to real world things and can answer that question we are all too familiar with: why do we have to learn this?

In my own teaching experiences, I have found that the most effective phenomena are those which students cannot immediately explain or figure out. Something that interest students and piques their curiosity. One especially effective phenomenon that I have used in my own teaching demonstrates the concept of pressure differential. One summer I was teaching a physical science class during a summer academic camp. I began the class by showing my students this video by the Mythbusters (by the way, Mythbusters provides lots of great examples of phenomena in their episodes). Without providing an immediate explanation, I ask students what they observe in the video and I ask why it happened. My students that day were especially enthused about the video and wanted to learn more. I had their interest and they were ready to learn more.

Phenomena are the things we observe and experience in the world, but may not be able to explain or understand right away. Like the frosting on windows during winter time, or Venus flytraps snapping their jaws to catch their prey. Phenomena are the things we observe that make us want to learn more about the science behind it. Phenomena engage us in the learning process and get us excited about the concept.

NGSS provides a curated list of phenomena that teachers can use in their classrooms with this website. While not all encompassing or extensive, it provides great examples of the kinds of phenomena that can be used to begin an engaging lesson. Showing pictures, videos, or even using a physical demonstration are effective ways to present natural phenomena to students in the classroom. 
Many teachers are working to create databases for phenomena that teachers can use in their classrooms. One such resource is Project Phenomena, a curated list of phenomena with descriptions and classroom recommendations.

When choosing phenomena, the lesson outcomes should be considered when deciding what to use. You should consider what you want students to accomplish with the lesson or what concepts you want to reinforce. All phenomena are not created equal, so they should be critically evaluated for their effectiveness in demonstrating the central concept of the lesson.

Phenomena can be an effective tool to not only engage students, but to provide a concrete example of the concept being taught within the lesson. This gives students a real-world connection to the concept that can help strengthen their learning in class. Give phenomena a chance in your class, and you may find that your students will benefit from it!

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