87 How to Choose Better Phenomena

July 12, 2021

Choosing great phenomena isn’t easy. Phenomena need to be relevant and engaging in order to meet their intended purpose. But, what makes a great phenomenon great? Get examples of great phenomena and learn how to find your own in this episode.

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What are phenomena?

Phenomena are things that happen in the natural world. Also, they are specific moments in time and occur in a specific location.

Phenomena come in layers. There are anchoring phenomena that drive the learning within the unit. Students make sense of the phenomenon through activities and investigations. This helps students to make sense of the natural world.

Additionally, investigative phenomena have an important role in the classroom. These pieces assist students in answering questions connected to the anchor. These phenomena are easy to bring into the classroom and allow students to explore.

Introducing Phenomena in Layers

In order to make the phenomenon truly engaging, create an experience for students. The experience should have many layers to help students see the connection to the real world. Also, this makes it easier to create a personal connection and emotional response.

Furthermore, robust anchoring experiencing make it easier to bring in the Science and Engineering Practices and Crosscutting Concepts. When there are rich experiences, its easier to see how the SEPs and CCCs are connected to the anchor.

What is an anchor experience?

Anchor experiences use a variety of media to give students a better understanding of the phenomenon. In addition, it makes the phenomenon real to your students. Bring in pieces that stir an emotional response. These include stories, videos, and other media.

What are examples of investigative phenomena?

Investigative phenomena help your students figure out the anchoring phenomena. Often, we can bring in pieces from old units in this space. Demos, simulations, and everyday phenomena don’t make great anchors. But, if framed correctly, they make good anchoring phenomena.

What are examples of things that make phenomena great?

In order for a phenomenon to be great, it needs to have the following components:

  • Occurs in a specific time and place
  • Is meaningful and creates and emotional response
  • Has real-world implications (especially for older students!)
  • Sparks students curiousity and engages students
Quote: "Phenomena are moments in time." - Nicole Van Tassel

Don’t shy away from complexity.

Often, phenomena have complex explanations. And, that’s totally okay. In fact, that helps with the engagement factor.

If phenomena are too simple, then students will figure out what has happened too quickly. That leads to a lack of engagement.

Also, it depends on the age group.

Great phenomena aren’t universally great. Something that is engaging to elementary students is far less likely to be interesting to middle school students.

Everyday phenomena are more engaging to younger students. For example, early elementary students find it interesting to explore what causes a swing to move, and how to get it as high as possible. But, middle school students probably won’t be interested.

With young students, it’s best to bring in directly observable phenomena. Things that they find on the playground, in their homes, and in their community make the best phenomena.

However, older students are more likely to be curious about more complex scenarios. The connection doesn’t need to be as direct. But, it still must be meaningful. Stories about students their age, similar communities, and the environment spark interest.

There is still room for those everyday experiences in a middle school classroom. But, they aren’t great anchoring phenomena. Instead, these experiences work best as investigative-level phenomena for older students.

What are some examples of good phenomena?

Example #1: Sea-Level Rise

The rise of coastal sea levels has all of the components of a great phenomenon. But, you need to make sure that you identify a specific place and time.


Identifying a specific place and time helps bring in the emotional components that make a phenomenon great. This lets you bring in specific stories about the people, animals, and plant life affected by the phenomenon. And, students care more when there is an emotional component. This increases student engagement.

Example #2: Take a look at all of the trash that we produce.

This phenomenon is easy to make personal. Nicole developed an anchor experience related to all of the trash that we produce.

The experience helps students look at the type of trash and the quantity produced. Then, students look more specifically at food waste.

A large pile of scraps of food
Food waste can be a part of a great anchor because there is a personal connection between students and the environmental impact.

To get access to all of the materials for this anchor and to learn about Nicole’s Spark Subscription, click the button below.

Example #3: You can’t go wrong with local environmental issues.

It doesn’t matter where you live. Environmental factors are likely affecting your life in some way.

For example, Erin discussed the environmental issues that are impacting her community and students. In California, where she lives, there is a significant drought. Also, the state is experiencing wildfires that are unprecedented.

The types of conditions are easy to relate to student lives because there is a direct impact.

Example #4: Infectious Disease

More likely than not, your students are tired of hearing about COVID. But, the impact of infectious disease is incredibly relevant right now. So, choosing a different outbreak, like smallpox, to investigate is a great way to get students interested in the topic of body systems.