The power of phenomena in the science classroom

Phenomena-based learning helps students make the shift from learning about to figuring out. Here's how.

By Amplify Staff | April 24, 2023

In conversation, something “phenomenal” is something exceptional, extraordinary.
But in science, an event does not have to be “phenomenal” for it to be a phenomenon.
In fact, a phenomenon in science can be as ordinary and predictable as gravity.
To qualify as a scientific phenomenon, an event simply has to be observable.
That is, a scientific phenomenon is an observable event that occurs in the universe. It’s something we can use our science knowledge to explain or predict. Examples of science phenomena include the erosion of dunes or soil, or the formation of bubbles or ice.
And you know what else is observable? The positive impact of phenomena-based learning on the science classroom. That’s why phenomena-based learning is baked into the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Let’s take a look at why the power of science phenomena to deliver engagement and learning is, dare we say, extraordinary!

The power of phenomena-based learning in science

Many of us learned science a different way, by starting with a general or abstract principle then applying it in the real world.

But when you start with phenomena in science, you start with the observable real-world event. You ask questions: Why is brown water coming out of the pipes built for drinking water? Where did all the monarch butterflies go? You help students see why science is relevant, right from the outset of the inquiry.

Even everyday phenomena—like sunburns, or vision loss—can generate real learning opportunities. Explaining phenomena and designing solutions helps students learn in context, leading to deeper and more transferable knowledge.

The challenge of predicting or explaining the phenomenon becomes the motivation for learning. And it has the added benefit of being how real scientists proceed with their work!

The power of phenomena science lies in its capacity to bring real life into the classroom. A phenomena-based science curriculum engages students by starting with the real and relatable rather than the abstract. It also trains students to be inquisitive, expansive, critical thinkers.

When you shift to a phenomena-based approach, you help students shift from learning about to figuring out.

How the NGSS support phenomena-based learning

The NGSS help students make sense of phenomena in the natural world and in human-designed machines and products.

Learning to explain phenomena and solve problems is the main way that students engage in the three dimensions of the NGSS—they use Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs) to develop and apply Disciplinary Core Ideas (DCIs) and Crosscutting Concepts (CCCs).

Phenomena-centered classrooms also help teachers monitor student progress. As students work toward explaining phenomena, three-dimensional formative assessment is easily embedded throughout instruction.

How to bring phenomena into the science classroom

The power of phenomena-based learning lies in real-world relevance. Also, phenomena don’t generate learning all by themselves—student questions about phenomena guide teaching and learning.

That’s why it’s helpful to make sure students can connect to the phenomenon at hand. The following are a few steps you can take to integrate this approach into your classroom:

  • Ask students what they’re curious about. Why do leaves change color? What is lightning? Why do ice cubes stick to my finger?
  • Connect iterations of a given phenomenon to students’ lives. When discussing how sunlight warms the earth, a teacher might use examples of the sun heating sand, or asphalt depending on where students live.
  • Use one broad anchor phenomenon for the focus of a unit, and investigate related phenomena that relate to students’ interests and experiences. For example, exploring what we see in the sky will lead to different investigations depending on whether students live in an urban area or far from city lights.

Note that an engaging phenomenon does not have to be flashy or unexpected. Even if students think they already know why it rains, they may discover that they actually can’t explain it. Pushing students to inquire more will help them go beyond repeating things they’ve read, and go from learning facts to asking questions that reveal more about the world around them.

How Amplify Science can help

Amplify Science employs phenomena-based learning throughout the curriculum, which is itself phenomena-based and designed around the NGSS.

In one example, 6th graders take on the role of medical students in a hospital, working to diagnose a patient and analyze the metabolism of world-class athletes. In another, 8th graders work to explain Australia’s high skin cancer rates by investigating how light works and interacts with the world it shines on.

And what’s more, Amplify Science for grades 6–8 received an all-green rating from EdReports!

Amplify Science NGSS Phenomena-based learning Science teacher tips

Related resources