KnowAtom's Blog

How to Launch NGSS Storylines Anchored with NGSS Phenomena

Posted by Francis Vigeant on Mar 10, 2023

NGSS Phenomena Northern Lights


The next-generation model of instruction is based on students being in direct contact with the content. Storyline pedagogy accomplishes this with a child-centered, thinking-driven approach to each lesson, inspired by the students’ own questions. Throughout a Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) storyline, students unpack complex phenomena, develop personal connections through their own discovery process, and link their new knowledge to better understand the world around them. In doing so, they are creating something personally meaningful to them. But this takes longer than a 45-minute class. Instead, a storyline is made up of a series of unscripted episodes of discovery that are connected by the students’ own reasoning.

The catalyst of an NGSS storyline is its anchor phenomena. This real-world example is governed by the laws of nature and highlights the standards we want the students to learn more about. We launch the storyline by introducing both the anchor phenomenon and the framework of expectations students will work within. Frameworks are flexible to allow for any context, and the storyline process is repeatable to give students agency over their own learning. This next-generation model of instruction promotes intellectual risk-taking and hands-on investigation led by the students’ own questions. Using the Picture Thinking Routine to kick off a storyline, for example, challenges students to take risks, wonder, and identify what they want to know about the anchor phenomena. Placing student-led discovery up-front during the introduction of the anchor phenomena is essential when we challenge students to take ownership over what happens next.

What are NGSS Phenomena?

NGSS phenomena are observable events that occur in the real world and can be explained or predicted using evidence. A storyline anchored in NGSS phenomena starts with a real-world example of the lesson’s subject matter in action. These are complex ideas that spark big questions – ones that can’t be answered with a single experiment or prototyping project. They give purpose to the work of scientists and engineers in the real world. In the classroom, they engage students to act like scientists and engineers as they lead their own investigations based on the questions they want to answer or problems they choose to solve.

All KnowAtom lessons are based on NGSS phenomena. While studying weather patterns, third graders explore how heat from the sun warms the planet, powers the water cycle, and impacts weather patterns. To better understand the effects of climate change, these third graders use engineering principles to design solutions for reducing the impacts of extreme weather events. This example highlights how exciting hands-on investigation can be for students as they learn more about the world around them. In NGSS storylines like these, the students’ questions and what they discover about them connect multiple episodes and bring together disciplinary core ideas, science and engineering practices, and cross-cutting concepts. What students discover in each episode feeds into the next one.

How are NGSS Anchor Phenomena and Investigative Phenomena Different?

An anchor phenomenon is a big idea. It’s large, complex, and anchors the entire lesson or unit. It is so big that it requires students to look at it in many different ways. It challenges them to think bigger, share their own personal experiences, and investigate it from different angles. There’s no one right answer or one single solution in this type of learning. For example, studying the effects of global warming is an anchor phenomenon that relates to many of the lessons and standards educators teach at different grade levels.

In contrast, investigative phenomena are smaller, less complex parts of the anchor phenomena. They are simpler to investigate and explain but still require hard work to replicate, predict, and understand. With global warming as an anchor phenomenon, an NGSS storyline could include an investigation into how changing weather patterns impact the number of hurricanes predicted to hit the U.S. this year. Students could also choose to investigate how building materials and regulations have changed and what still needs to be done to protect U.S. residents from coastal flooding.

Investigative phenomena are what students observe as a result of wondering about and investigating the anchor phenomenon. They must be able to observe it as a result of their own work. To allow this to occur, we must give our students license to wonder, make mistakes, and run with their own ideas. This gives them the freedom to make their own personal connection between the phenomena and their own life. Students build a better understanding of the world around them as they link new concepts to what they already know. When planning NGSS storylines, teachers should choose the anchor phenomenon first. It will become the overarching focus of the unit. For each lesson, investigative phenomena will form the meat of the episodes and investigative activities.

The Importance of Intentionally Sequencing NGSS Phenomena within Storylines

The NGSS phenomenon selected to anchor a storyline should relate to one or more of the standards you want students to explore. The storyline the students build themselves from there is connected over multiple episodes by hands-on discovery in the classroom. These episodes require higher-level thinking, build on one another, and connect through the students’ reasoning. The anchor phenomenon gives meaning to student-led investigations. It challenges them to think bigger and work together to solve complex problems with real-world effects.

To engage curiosity and promote ‘ah ha’ moments, NGSS storylines should start with complex anchor phenomena that can be investigated in different ways. This launches a student-led investigation designed to answer a question or solve a problem that is meaningful to them. Two classes working off the same anchor phenomenon could take vastly different approaches as they design their own experiments. But each class will start and end the same – with the introduction of a complex real-world phenomenon to investigate and a consensus on the conclusion they’ve reached together about it at the end.

Here's how to begin an NGSS Storyline:

  1. Find and introduce a real-world anchor phenomenon related to the standards you want the class to explore.
  2. Transition from the introduction into a Socratic dialogue (i.e., classroom discussion).
  3. Help facilitate your students arriving at a question or problem they can investigate by helping them ask the right kinds of questions.
  4. Coach the students as they carry out their plans and gather authentic data by investigating. Use checkpoints as the students plan.
  5. Be an interested skeptic, helping students to use their data to form defensible, logical, data-based conclusions.
  6. Transition into a new investigative phenomenon related to what students have learned.

Deeper learning occurs at the intersection of mastery, identity, and creativity. When we introduce storyline pedagogy in the classroom, students are challenged to master the standards through hands-on interaction with complex phenomena. If we think of an NGSS Storyline as a journey rather than a destination, the anchor phenomenon is the catalyst that sets the students on their own path to discovery. As a coach rather than the lead investigator, teachers serve as a guide along the way. Frameworks and classroom tools like sentence starters help give students agency over their own learning throughout the storyline. Teachers can help spark creativity with ‘I wonder’ questions and robust classroom discussions based on evidence. Together, the class is unpacking complex phenomena and developing personal connections to them as they build on their own knowledge and practice critical thinking skills.

Types of Phenomena Anchor Chart


Topics: Phenomena-Based Learning, NGSS Storylines

ngss curriculum

Posts by Topic

see all

Stay Up to Date With Our Latest Posts

Pick How Often: