Teaching science ideas in general, the process of photosynthesis for example, may work for some students, but often it leads to decontextualized knowledge that students are unable to apply when relevant. Anchoring the development of general science ideas in investigations of phenomena helps students build more usable and generative knowledge.
What are phenomena?
Natural phenomena are observable events that occur in the universe and that we can use our science knowledge to explain or predict. A sunburn, vision loss, and the culverts on the family ranch flooding the roadway each winter 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.
The goal of building knowledge in science courses is to develop general ideas, based on evidence, that can explain and predict phenomena. In engineering, it involves designing solutions to problems that arise from phenomena, and using explanations of phenomena to design solutions.
Essentially, phenomena are the context for the work of both the scientist and the engineer.
When students investigate compelling natural phenomena or work on meaningful design problems, they develop a greater understanding of the world around them. They also develop the skills to communicate their findings with others in a more concise and clear manner.
Classroom teachers refer to these phenomena and design problems as anchors.
What are good phenomenon to anchor an investigation?
Selecting phenomena that students find interesting, relevant, and consequential helps support their engagement. It should also engage students in cross-curriculum experiences – connecting skills in mathematics, reading, writing, communication, and even art.
Phenomena build on everyday or family experiences: who students are, what they do, where they came from.
The phenomena should be too complex for students to explain or design a solution for after a single lesson. The explanation should be just beyond the reach of what students can figure out without instruction. In other words, searching online will not yield a quick answer that students can simply regurgitate.
A good anchor has relevant data, images, and text to engage students in the range of ideas students need to understand. It provides opportunities to learn science through first-hand or second-hand investigations.
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