The Next Generation Science Standards are all about students being scientists and engineers every day in the classroom. And if a student is going to be a scientist or engineer in the classroom, if that's going to be the mode of learning, there needs to be a purpose.
That’s where phenomena come in.
Phenomena provide the real-world context for learning. For scientists, a phenomenon is an observable event, a complex, real-world context. For engineers, phenomena have to do with a problem that may be solved by extending their knowledge of science.
Using phenomena as the foundation for learning transforms classrooms in three important ways.
- Students are engaged as scientists and engineers.
If you want to engage students as scientists and engineers, you must create a shift so that students go from doing science to actually being scientists. This shift can also be thought about as a shift from learning about something to actually figuring out aspects of a context.
It is impossible to engage students as scientists and engineers so that they are figuring out questions to answers and solutions to problems if they aren’t engaged in real-world scenarios—which are the phenomena.
This leads to the second way that phenomena transform classrooms:
- Students are empowered to build a framework of understanding about the world around them.
As educators, we need to empower students to build a framework of understanding out of something that is actually happening or has actually happened.
The real world is literally the world around us, which means phenomena are events that students see and experience every day. For instance, Superstorm Sandy is a real historical event that is complex, and it creates a rich context in which students can begin to unpack and build a framework of understanding. Using examples such as this can generate a variety of questions that students can approach as scientists as well as an abundant opportunity for them to problem-solve as engineers.
When students explore something that is real-world, there is an inherent relevance to their lives. They start to understand that connections they make in the classroom extend beyond the walls of the classroom, which means the skills they are developing also extend beyond the classroom.
If real-world phenomena drive what students learn, then students will analyze, evaluate, and create in the context of the real world. By doing that, the real world around the students is actually the anchor for their understanding. It becomes a rich context, which students can use as a “filing system” for the skills they’ve developed, which can then be generalized and applied more broadly and in deeper contexts.
- Students identify STEM as an opportunity to understand and shape their world.
When students understand the relevance of what they’re doing, they start to realize that they can apply the same skills they are developing in the classroom to the rest of their lives. This becomes a significant source of empowerment because it gives students the tools and skills to engage in science and engineering so that they can make sense of their environment and their lives.