For a long time, science (and math, and technology, and…) have been taught in a way that does not engage most students. A teacher presents an underlying scientific principle, often in a neat, abstract equation form, and then after students do some rote repetition of said formula, the teacher might present a few real-life examples in order to make it all seem “real.” However, those applications mentioned aren’t necessarily relevant to the students’ life, interests, or curiosities. They fail to engage.
The Next Generation Science Standards* (NGSS) encourage teachers to flip this old regime on its head. Instead of beginning with an abstract scientific concept, lecture, and/or memorization, the NGSS recognizes that you—like any presenter or actor—must first engage your audience. The NGSS humanize students, respect their curiosity, and urge teachers to first tap into students’ interest in and relationship to the world in order to drive them to ask and answer questions about it. (You know, to do science.) So a good NGSS unit or lesson will begin with something called a phenomenon.
What is a phenomenon? The NGSS defines it as, “an observable event that occurs in the universe and that we can use our science knowledge to explain or predict.” The idea is that this phenomenon should be something observable but complex enough to provoke students’ curiosity and motivation to begin exploring how to explain that phenomenon—through application of scientific inquiry skills. A big and complex “anchoring phenomenon” can drive a whole unit of study, where simpler phenomena can drive individual lessons.
One proven way to engage students in scientific inquiry is to use animals as anchoring phenomena. Simply by offering your students a closer look at an animal, you can engage them in questions that (once investigated) can illuminate principles of ecology, climate science, engineering, evolution, and countless other fields or scientific concepts. Many nationally-renowned curricula use an animal for an anchoring phenomenon. The Wings Over Water program, through the Montana Natural History Center, uses the osprey as the focus for four units of biology, physics, and engineering lessons. The Green Eggs and Sand program, through the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, uses the mass spawning event of the horseshoe crab to spark students’ curiosity and subsequent paths of scientific inquiry.
Students’ interest in animals can be piqued by a variety of their aspects: proximity to (or absence from) the students’ neighborhood, unique behaviors, mysterious adaptations, seemingly coincidental phenology with other species, controversial issues with humans, or often, simply the animals’ beauty. On EPI’s programs, whether student courses or professional development programs, we use wildlife as anchoring phenomena to get students and teachers asking scientific questions they actually want to answer.
Our programs are specifically focused on the conservation of the wildlife we’re observing, which provides an additional motivation for students and teachers to ask about and investigate—how can we best protect this animal?
Let’s use our Yellowstone field site as an example to illustrate the instructive value of phenomena. One anchoring phenomenon for our programs here is the migration of the iconic American bison. Students and teachers in the Yellowstone Wildlife Ecology and Yellowstone Winter Ecology programs see bison stamp, wallow, steam, and snort right in front of them. Then, they are introduced to the fact that, as the bison population grows in the Park and the animals begin to follow ancient migration paths, conflicts also grow with some neighboring ranches and farms. How is Yellowstone National Park to manage the bison for all the stakeholders involved?
Immediately, students begin asking questions like: “Why don’t farmers and ranchers want bison on their land?” “Why is the Park killing bison? Is that true?” “Why can’t the bison be sent to reservations, or to other people who want them?” “Why aren’t all the bison just vaccinated against brucellosis?” “Why are elk allowed to migrate if they carry brucellosis too?”
The questions come rapidly when you are immersed in a phenomenon, but even something as simple as good, short video, can pique students’ natural curiosity. EPI Yellowstone Program Supervisor Alexei Desmarais says, “These students are taking their fresh observations of the bison and their prior knowledge and putting them together. They’re asking follow-up questions they maybe didn’t know to ask before experiencing the phenomenon first-hand.”
Desmarais explains that the instructors’ role is often to help students break down these big-picture questions into simpler questions that can be answered by scientific inquiry. “Students are driven by the big questions. The ‘why’ questions. I think that one of the things that we can do as instructors is to help them break those big questions down into comparative or descriptive questions. ‘Why’ questions have so many variables—but we can help guide the students to identify what those variables are, and begin thinking about how to answer the big question piece by piece.”
So, in response to some of these phenomena-inspired student questions, instructors might say things like:
“What do we need to know to be able to start answering that question?” “What data do we need to collect?” “How would we go about doing that?”
And, before they know it, students are busy defining problems more carefully and outlining methods to collect data they need to address or solve them. In some cases, the Yellowstone team offers authentic data sets if they are relevant, and students dive into the information, discovering whether or not they can support their idea or argument. In addition to helping Park scientists answer their research questions about how bison move across the landscape (through tracking bison, analyzing snowpack, and surveying for environmentally-sensitive amphibians), every student in EPI’s field courses produces and presents an Independent Research Project (IRP). Students identify their own research question or project and move through every Science and Engineering Practice (SEP) listed in the NGSS while fleshing it out. Students work in teams, fostering real scientific discussions and forcing each other to back up their claims or ideas before they can move forward.
Some Yellowstone student IRPs have focused on designing more lightweight, potentially less intrusive radio devices for currently collared animals in the Park. Others have looked at sociological questions, including testing different conversational approaches on trying to change a person’s perspectives on wildlife management perspectives.
Ultimately, our Yellowstone programs are able to harness the migration of the iconic bison as an anchoring phenomenon to drive all sorts of curiosity and scientific investigation by students. Instructors help guide students to simplify and clarify their questions into manageable, real scientific investigations. Through this process, students move fluidly through a variety of disciplinary core ideas and crosscutting concepts, which instructors can also guide if desired.
Maybe you don’t have a snorting bison you can bring into the classroom, but there are myriads of small, everyday animals that, when examined closely, are not simple or easily explicable. Why are there so many spiders in your basement but not your living room? Why does it seem like only pigeons live in cities? Why do birds crash into windows (and how can you prevent it?) Can you make honey with bees in a city?
We hope that by discussing one of the natural phenomena that EPI uses to engage our students--and the resulting paths of inquiry and action that students develop--we can inspire you to find your own anchoring phenomena. Once you and students begin to turn your eyes outside your classroom, you’ll see millions of daily phenomena that beg closer study and explanation—these are your hooks for your students. The sky is the limit with scientific inquiry. Get your students asking and answering their own questions!
Do you have any phenomena that you love to use in your classroom to inspire inquiry? Please share in the comments below!
*NGSS is a registered trademark of Achieve. Neither Achieve nor the lead states and partners that developed the Next Generation Science Standards were involved in the production of this product, and do not endorse it.