How to Choose Good Phenomena

When I began aligning my instruction to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), I got lost in the details. But when I realized that phenomena could be used to anchor linked disciplinary core ideas, I started to visualize the course as a whole and was able to build storylines around the phenomena. I now begin each unit by asking students to observe or experience a phenomenon, generate questions, then design investigations to answer their questions.

How do you choose good phenomena?

First, you need to understand what is meant by phenomena. Phenomena

  • are observable events,
  • can occur anywhere in the universe,
  • can be explained using our knowledge of science, and
  • can be predicted using our knowledge of science.

Because the anchoring phenomena will be both the foundation of and common thread throughout the unit, they must be something students can’t find an answer to quickly and easily with little experimentation or exploration. The phenomena must also relate to all the disciplinary core ideas (DCIs), crosscutting concepts (CCCs), and science and engineering practices (SEPs) students will encounter during the unit. They can be directly observable, like dry ice subliming or a pencil looking bent when it is resting halfway in a glass of water, or they can be portrayed in video clips, such as a slow-motion video of single replacement reaction viewed under magnification or a person doing parkour.

When planning a unit, I begin by reviewing the relevant DCIs and ask myself questions about the concepts involved. I teach physics and chemistry in high school, so this example shows my selection process for Newton’s second law, covered in HS-PS-2-1.

  • What topics or investigations cause the most confusion for students?
  • What are the really important aspects of Newton’s second law that will provide what students need to gain an enduring understanding?
  • What is abstract or invisible and would make this concept difficult for students to visualize?
  • Why does this matter to my students?
  • Can I link this topic to a challenge for students?

These questions led me to one concept in physics, objects falling to Earth. This concept can be experienced in different ways, but one video clip from YouTube exemplified the phenomena for me. It shows an ostrich feather and a bowling ball being dropped together in the world’s largest vacuum chamber. Student questions about this video included these:

Why did both objects hit the ground at the same time?

Why do objects fall?

Was the acceleration of the objects constant as they fell?

How fast were the objects going when they hit the ground?

I prefer to post student questions in the classroom throughout the unit so we can refer to them and ensure the investigations the students are designing and conducting are moving us toward a better understanding of our anchoring phenomena.

Plenty of tools are available for students as they investigate these questions, including video analysis software, motion detectors, cell phone cameras with slow-motion filming, and even traditional ticker- tape times. Once the students have been introduced to the tools, they can decide how to use them to investigate the class questions.

The following links can help you learn more about using phenomena, including examples of phenomena that can be used throughout our courses. Good luck! If you need help finding good phenomena, don’t forget to visit the NSTA Learning Center or ask a question on one of NSTA’s member-only e-mail lists.

Alison Hapka


Alison Hapka teaches high school physics and chemistry and works hard each day to inspire young learners to love science and the pursuit of knowledge. She received a Bachelor’s degree in physics from Loyola University and a Master’s degree in geophysics from Boston College. She also took certification classes from West Chester University. Before entering teaching, Hapka worked in research and development for a hazardous waste remediation company. She has taught physics, chemistry, Earth science, and computer science at the high school level.


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