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Phenomena Basics

What Are Phenomena?

Natural phenomena are observable events that occur in the universe. Students apply science knowledge to explain or make predictions about particular phenomena.

What Are Anchoring Phenomena? What Are Lesson Phenomena?

  • Not all phenomena are equal. Some represent big ideas and are the foundation for extended instructional time. Others might be limited in focus and be used for only a specific lesson or part of a lesson.
  • Anchoring phenomena are large, complex events. Teachers could use an anchoring phenomenon or two as the overall focus for a unit. An example might be flooding in a town near a river.
  • Lesson or investigative phenomena are used along the way as the focus of an instructional sequence or lesson or to support learning towards the anchoring phenomena. Using the flooding example, lesson phenomena might explore how rain water is carried through different types of soil.

How to Use Phenomena?

According to ACHIEVE, "Using Phenomena in NGSS-Designed Lessons and Units":

  • "The point of using phenomena to drive instruction is to help students engage in practices to develop the knowledge necessary to explain or predict the phenomena. Therefore, the focus is not just on the phenomenon itself. It is the phenomenon plus the student-generated questions about the phenomenon that guides the learning and teaching. The practice of asking questions or identifying problems becomes a critical part of trying to figure something out."
  • "There could potentially be many different lines of inquiry about the same phenomenon. Using the phenomenon of tree growth, a middle school teacher might want middle school students to develop and apply DCIs about photosynthesis and mitosis; alternately, a 3rd grade teacher might want students to learn and apply DCIs about life cycles. In each case, teachers should help students identify different aspects of the same phenomenon as the focus of their questions."

Notice and Wonder

Having students ask questions is a key component of using phenomena. One strategy to promote questioning is to ask students first what they notice about a phenomenon and then what they wonder about it. This "notice and wonder" strategy is simple but can be very effective, especially when done collaboratively using a chart format. Iowa PBS has created an Iowa Science Phenomena Notice and Wonder chart that can be downloaded for classroom use.

Download the Notice and Wonder chart

Why Use Local, Authentic Phenomena?

The most powerful phenomena are those that are culturally or personally relevant or consequential to students. Such phenomena highlight how science ideas help us explain aspects of the real world, or lead to solutions to science-related problems that matter to students, their communities, and society.

Engaging Phenomena ARE NOT... Engaging Phenomena ARE...

Characteristics of Engaging Phenomena

Just for the initial hook. Driving the lesson, learning, and reflection/monitoring throughout. Using phenomena in these ways leads to deeper learning.
Always fun, flashy, or involving hands-on activities. Determined more by how the students generate compelling lines of inquiry that create real opportunities for learning.
Explanations. Phenomena are specific examples of something in the world that is happening—an event or a specific example of a general process. Phenomena are NOT the explanations or scientific terminology behind what is happening. They are what can be experienced or documented.
Always a question. Observable occurrences. Students need to use the occurrence to help generate science questions or design problems that drive learning.

Resources for Outdoor Educators

Outdoor educators are experts in the natural phenomena in their area of Iowa! From unique species to critical challenges, these educators are valuable resources for identifying phenomena. In collaboration with Iowa outdoor educators, Iowa Conservation Education Coalition, and Iowa Association of Naturalists, we developed this resource to support the unique needs for Iowa's naturalists, conservations, and informal outdoor educators.

Outdoor Educator Resources to Support Phenomena-Based Education


Find Out More

Explore more about using phenomena in the science classroom with the following resources.

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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