(Right) Authentic problem-based learning and hands-on inquiry puts students up close and personal with materials and problems that encourage students to actually become scientists and engineers, rather than just “do” science and engineering.
To help students take on the roles of scientists and engineers, problem-based learning and inquiry are both incredibly valuable. Both bring the three foundations of the performance expectations to life and, for instance, give students the opportunity to try to develop a model to describe the movement of matter among plants, animals, decomposers in the environment. In other words, they give students a context in which to intentionally to try performing the expectations of the standard. That's why it's called a performance expectation.
There are four key requirements of problem-based learning and hands-on inquiry. For one thing, you need authentic student-centered engagement. Your students must be using their critical thinking skills – creating, evaluating and analyzing – on an ongoing basis. Moreover, they must develop their own knowledge with their own skills. Lastly, students (and teachers) can monitor and learn across all three NGSS dimensions – disciplinary core ideas, crosscutting concepts and science and engineering practices – simultaneously.
There are a lot of people who hear the word “phenomena” think of problem-based learning and hands-on inquiry, and then assume that if they have those components their students are automatically engaged as scientists and engineers prototyping and experimenting. Unfortunately, that’s not necessarily the case. Using problem-based learning to engage students and drive instruction absolutely can be a hallmark of the next generation model of instruction.
The reality of how that problem-based learning and hands-on inquiry is implemented in the classroom oftentimes misses the mark. In order for problem-based learning or hands-on inquiry to be effective and aligned NGSS – and in order for you to implement phenomena appropriately – it's important that it's authentic in student-centered engagement.
The whole idea of using phenomena as part of the next generation inquiry environment is its context to engage students as scientists and engineers. That means it's often in student-centered engagement. It's not something that you hand students to fill out. It's not a procedure that students are given. It's not a make-by-number. It's not a workbook with a series of questions a company came up with or something you deploy on the board. The idea has to be coming from the student.