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Identifying Phenomena

Finding Engaging Phenomena

“Phenomena does not have to be phenomenal”

Natural phenomena are observable events that occur in the universe and that students can use science knowledge to explain or predict. When identifying a phenomena to use in your classroom, there are several considerations to keep in mind. Engaging phenomena:

  • Leads students rich student questions, and typically can’t be answered by a quick internet search.
  • Sparks student curiosity because it is relevant and meaningful to students' lives, their community, and their culture.
  • Is observable to students through a variety of means including video, photo, authentic datasets, demonstrations, interactive labs.
  • Can be a case (emerald ash borer infestation, building a solution to a problem) or something that is puzzling (why isn’t rainwater salty?) or a wonderment (how did the solar system form?).
  • Requires students to develop an understanding of and apply multiple performance expectations while engaging in acts of reading, writing, communication, and mathematics.
  • Move students towards “doing science” rather than memorizing facts and content.

Use this checklist when considering an Iowa phenomena.

Capture Phenomena

Keep your eyes open to opportunities, make authentic connections. Phenomena are all around you! When you are ready, capture or gather your phenomena with the following tips in mind:

  • Photo:
    • Ensure you are capturing not only the phenomenon itself, but also any surrounding context that may be important to understanding the phenomenon. For example, if you are capturing a “sundog” light refraction in the sky, is there snow on the ground that could give a sense of the weather?
    • Conversely, exclude anything in your photo that might “give the answer away.” For example, if you are capturing a pond with an algae bloom, be sure you aren’t also capturing a park sign that says “Warning! Pond closed due to cyanobacteria”
    • Review the photo to ensure the subject is clearly in focus, you have adequate light.
  • Video:
    • When capturing video consider not only lighting of your phenomenon subject, but also any sound. Does the audio provoke any additional curiosity to the event?
  • Chart, graph, or dataset:
    • Chart, graph or data modeling of phenomena is a great way to engage students in using math or computational thinking. If this is data you have obtained from another source, be sure you have appropriate permissions to use and remix the information.
    • If you or your students are collecting the data yourself, be sure you have adequately documented your data collection methods, sources, etc.

Keep in mind: When capturing any phenomena it is important not to “give the answer away.” Give enough context and clues to drive questioning without providing direct instruction or explaining to the students.

The following guide can help you as you are capturing and editing your phenomena: Iowa Science Phenomena Project: Identifying and Capturing Your Phenomena

Connect Phenomenon

Once you have a phenomena in mind, identify the performance expectation to which the phenomenon aligns. What performance expectations will the students have the opportunity to meet as a result of explaining this phenomenon?

Draft Driving Questions

Phenomena-based instruction should lead students to ask compelling questions in order to “figure out” the phenomena using science and engineering practices and core content knowledge.

Although student questioning should drive the learning process, drafting potential driving questions connected to the phenomenon will help guide instruction towards questions which will help students achieve your desired performance expectations. Consider envisioning what a driving question board might look like for your phenomena and which of those questions you might select to investigate with students. If you are struggling to make strong connections between your selected phenomena to the performance expectations, consider modifying your phenomena or determine if it better connects with a different performance expectation(s).

Revise Your Phenomenon

As you use your phenomenon you will find that some phenomena will help you reach your performance expectations better than others. Reflect on what went well with your phenomena based lessons. Did some phenomena grab and hold your students attention and wonder? Did others not resonate quite as well? Did some of the questions students generated deviate from your desired outcomes? Use this information to review and revise your phenomena, driving questions and/or their alignment to performance expectations.  

Share Your Phenomena

To share the phenomena you have captured and make it usable for others, you will need to fully describe the phenomena and provide some essential supporting information.

  • Provide a short name for your phenomenon. The title should be a literal description of what can be seen.
  • Provide a short description of the observed phenomenon. Do not include a scientific explanation of the phenomena in the description.
  • Indicate the specific discipline(s), grade(s), and disciplinary core idea(s) in the Iowa Core standard that the phenomena applies to.
  • List example guiding, compelling and/or anchoring questions that support this phenomenon.
  • Provide any recommendations you have for using this phenomenon in a classroom. How can you support students in their investigation of the phenomenon? How can this phenomenon be used in a lesson or unit sequence?
  • Provide relevant related resources. Related resources can include links to supporting websites, curriculum materials, additional background material, etc. As appropriate, please include relevant details on how the resource supports the phenomena.

Your phenomena will be evaluated using this rubric: Iowa Science Phenomena Submission Rubric. Use this rubric as a guide as you plan to share your phenomena.

Once you have this information created, you can share it for consideration on this website.


Information on this page is based on “Using Phenomena in NGSS-Designed Lessons and Units”. Published September 2016. Next Generation Science Standards.

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