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Connecting Phenomena with the Nature of Science & Engineering

Posted by Francis Vigeant on May 20, 2017

The “elaborating” piece of the 5Es is about students making concept-self, concept-to-concept, and concept-to-world connections, as well as relating anchor phenomena to their investigative phenomena.

Before we explore that, though, let’s define anchor phenomena, which are complex, real-world situations. They can be investigated in the classroom through an investigation that students or student teams have planned, and are a way of encountering just a thread of often much more complex ideas.

 Evaluating is not about giving vocabulary assessments and keeping journals and making sure you have enough homework checks. What it's about is evaluating from a higher order thinking standpoint. It's about reflecting on the investigative process that students or teams used, and asking “How did that process impact our results?” How can students reflect back on our hypothesis, and reflect back on the larger anchor phenomena through the investigative phenomena they experienced?

Again, these phenomena do not exist in isolation. You don't stop exploring when you're elaborating or explaining. Exploring is actually a method of explaining. You need to be engaged throughout all of these reflectively and critically. What's key here is that there are eight NGSS science and engineering practices at a high level, all of which inform the unpacking of the standards.

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The practices of science and engineering are very specific, involving eight steps that work together to give students the ability to engage successfully with phenomena and situations that they have not encountered before.

These practices include:

  1. Asking questions (for science) and defining problems (for engineering)
  2. Developing and using models
  3. Planning and carrying out investigations
  4. Analyzing and interpreting data
  5. Using mathematics and computational thinking
  6. Constructing explanations (for science) and designing solutions (for engineering)
  7. Engaging in argument from evidence
  8. Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information

The reality is that it doesn't matter what you do as an adult teacher, but rather what a student can perform independently. What is their skill set? That’s the important question, not what is your skill set. Your skill set as a teacher needs to be to get out of the way and to help support the students in productive struggle through that planning process so that they actually internalize the skills and develop them as a habit when they encounter something that requires investigation or when they encounter something that does not meet their framework of understanding.

Part of the challenge here is to engage students in a complex real-world situation that causes them to be dissatisfied in some way: either with what they know or what they can explain, or with the fact that this phenomenon even exists. That causes them to engage in investigation that not only stems from inner motivation but that adds meaningfully to their experience of the world. This is where the investigative process goes back to Piaget's research and to constructivism.

The Intertwined Purposes of Anchor and Investigative Phenomena

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Anchor phenomena can lead to both questions and problems, but in either case should create a dissatisfaction that motivates students to investigate in an effort to answer or solve.

That anchor phenomenon leads to questions and problems. Let’s say the dissatisfaction gives rise to an unanswered question. In its scientific context, the question gives rise to a scientific investigation. That's the scientific process. That's an experience, a thread of the anchor phenomena that a student or student team can encounter hands-on in front of them. They can plan to try and answer that question, to do hands-on investigation and to observe the phenomena for themselves, then form an evidence-based conclusion.

In the case of engineering, an anchor phenomenon may give rise to problems that they may want to solve. That problem would lead them to the engineering design process, which is an experience with investigative phenomena that will again yield data that they can use to reflect on whether or not their prototyped solution to that problem actually solves it. Once again, this will lead them to form an evidence-based conclusion. Whether it's in the context of a question or in the context of a problem, what happens in that scientific process or in that engineering process is investigative phenomena. The student is observing for themselves the results of their ideas in real time. This evidence-based conclusion is critical. It is a point of reflection back on the anchor phenomena – that larger, more complex situation that we couldn't bottle up or isolate because it has more than one variable.

An example of anchor phenomena might be flooding in the streets of New York City. There's probably a thousand reasons that flooding might occur, but one question that could stem from this is, “How does water percolate through different earth materials?” Well, we could use a scientific process to investigate different earth materials and how water passes through them to come to an evidence-base conclusion about the impact of the materials that are found in the streets of New York City.

That's our point of reflection back on our anchor phenomena, to help try and ease the dissatisfaction by informing ourselves about that anchor phenomena. That's science in a nutshell.

Within an engineering context, students might say, “Well, there's a problem. The problem is that the streets of New York City are flooding. How might we fix that?” Then students might come up with ideas about how the flooding could be solved. Maybe it has to do with tidal barriers, so we could design some prototypes, test them, gather the data, form a conclusion based on that data and reflect back on whether tidal barriers would be a solution to the problem with which they are dissatisfied. That's what this looks like in terms of NGSS.

5E 12-263632-edited.pngUpon gathering evidence and forming a conclusion based on their experiments, students then relate their own experiences back to that initial anchor phenomena, the one that caused them dissatisfaction in the first place. They now have the necessary real-world, interactive, investigative experience needed to revise their framework of understanding and gain real skills and meaning from the lesson or unit.

The problem remains that most curriculum is not designed like this. It's designed for that traditional model of instruction in which you have vocabulary, reading and some kind of culminating activity. Maybe it's hands-on, maybe it's not. Maybe it's real-world, maybe it's not … and so on. The key here is that NGSS-designed curriculum puts the student in the position of being dissatisfied upon encountering the anchor phenomena. Then, before they even know anything about the science or vocabulary behind it, they look at that anchor phenomena and pose questions or problems.

That problem or question becomes the entire platform for an investigation that has the potential to answer the question or solve the problem, and to form conclusions based on data. This is the three dimensions playing out: There's a content piece, a skills piece and a systems thinking piece that goes on within the scientific process if we're trying to answer questions, or within the engineering design process if we’re trying to solve problems.

When you can put anchor phenomena to work in the classroom as real-world contexts enabling students to reform their framework and understanding of the world, the result is extremely dynamic. This is students actually taking on the roles of scientists and engineers. They are developing and using higher order thinking skills using higher order thinking skills.

That’s why it’s so important to think about the curricula and tools we're using in the classroom, and whether or not they’re appropriate under these new performance-based standards. Which brings us to the question: Does phenomena-led teaching and learning fit the old K-W-L chart?

Topics: Phenomena-Based Learning

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