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Freezing Lake Phenomenon

Leveraging place to connect teachers and students to complex learning

Someone shares a peculiar story: While hiking in your region, they saw a pair of lakes separated by only one small ridge but with very different ice cover. One was covered completely in ice, while the other’s surface was only liquid water, rippling from a breeze (Figure 1). They ask, “What could have caused this difference?” Using phenomena like this can help students generate questions, evaluate information, and construct explanations to make sense of local systems and consequently build deep, lasting, and relevant understandings. This type of learning simultaneously fosters scientific literacy in terms of skills, connections, and habits of mind that support meaningful and critical engagement with local and global communities. One professional development (PD) program modeled this approach for a community of learners from a rural Western state, using strategies that supported three-dimensional science learning and then supporting teachers in translating the strategies into their own classrooms. This article explores that PD program and one teacher’s reflections on translating the experience into her own classroom.

Figure 1
Figure 1 Lake photographs for introducing the phenomenon.

Lake photographs for introducing the phenomenon.

Over multiple PD sessions, teachers participated as learners and explored the freezing lake phenomenon with strategies that promoted authentic, place-based, cross-curricular sensemaking (see Supplemental Resources for storyline skeleton). For public health reasons, all but one of the sessions were held virtually and synchronously. This modeled what engaging learners virtually in collaborative sensemaking might entail. While no one could investigate the lakes in person, participants used analogous systems in their local places to gather evidence of abiotic drivers and biotic impacts. They activated their personal connections through literature, storytelling, and varying forms of inquiry around their homes. They asked questions informed by their own experiences and data collected by earlier cohorts of teachers, investigated those questions, and had multiple opportunities to make connections across systems, places, and activities. They drew from and contributed evidence to a learner-generated body of knowledge to build and revise models and explanations (Science and Engineering Practices [SEPs]) that addressed patterns and cause-and-effect relationships (Crosscutting Concepts [CCCs]) related to physical, Earth, and life science (Disciplinary Core Ideas [DCIs]) ideas.

At the conclusion of each period of modeled learning, teachers stepped back into their teacher roles and had collaborative time and space to reflect and identify generalizable strategies that helped them make sense of the phenomenon. This in turn enabled teachers to apply relevant strategies to their own grade levels. Central to the success of this modeling-into-application strategy are the ideas of empathy and experience. By participating first as learners, each teacher was able to feel things like curiosity, frustration, confusion, and satisfaction that often accompany phenomenon-based learning. After these experiences, when the participants moved into their teacher role to generalize and apply the ideas, they brought empathy for their students and the emotional reactions they might have. For teachers to experience the full depth of this modeling, it was important to address K–12 science standards and dimensions but to do so at a deeper level of complexity to intrigue adult learners and inspire their similar emotional reactions. What follows in this article is one participating teacher’s reflections on the generalizable strategies and structures from the PD sessions that enabled her sensemaking, and how she translated these generalizations into her own second-grade classroom. We hope readers will be able to make their own useful generalizations from these reflections on phenomenon-based learning and its support of all learners’ scientific literacy, whether for their PD design, their elementary classroom, their administrative work, or another context relevant to them.

A Participating Teacher’s Reflection: Learning through the Phenomenon

In many ways, being virtual for the majority of the 2020–21 PD program made the experience even more powerful. Although the original freezing lake phenomenon did not come from our immediate place (i.e., the lakes were from a community several hours away), we used our unique places (i.e., our homes) to investigate and develop our own questions and explanations about water’s abiotic and biotic interactions. Since the storyline spanned multiple lessons and cohorts of learners, this gave us time to critique one another’s explanations, deepen our understanding, identify important patterns in our evidence, and ask new questions based on our findings. As a participant in the PD, there were three main takeaways that I experienced and then was able to incorporate into my own classroom: use of multiple data points to deepen understanding, hands-on experience with both three-dimensional (NRC 2012) and place-based learning (TSS n.d.), and engaging additional disciplines to make learning more authentic.

Exploring the freezing lake phenomenon gave me a deeper understanding of three-dimensional science and connection to my place. A simple photograph and a question led to multiple approaches and bodies of empirical evidence to investigate possibly influential abiotic and biotic factors. The use of a phenomenon in this lesson was so engaging that it inspired me to bring in another as a springboard for learning with my own students, which I discuss in the next section of this article. Since all of the participants were spread out across the state, we used our places to investigate abiotic factors such as sun, wind, and precipitation (DCIs) for the connections they might have had to our puzzling phenomenon. We aggregated our findings, found patterns (CCC) in what we observed, and then applied those patterns in revisions of our initial models (SEP) of the freezing lakes using Google Jamboard. When we did a water freezing investigation to determine the impact of depth and surface area on freezing (DCIs), everyone investigating from their own place (SEP) gave us the opportunity for a richer dataset by quadrupling the amount of data amassed in a shared spreadsheet (see Figure 2). This, once again, allowed us to look for patterns (CCC) and draw conclusions about factors influencing the phenomenon from a larger body of data than if we had done one group investigation. These strategies made our own places authentic and relevant learning contexts to get hands-on experience with the three dimensions of science. Coming back together to make sense of our data and the larger patterns across our places proved to be an extremely effective strategy for deep learning because the experiences were authentic, fostered argumentation (SEP) as we collectively made sense of our findings, and led to deeper conversations about what data mean and what explanations we could make (SEPs). The individual and collective nature of data collection and analysis from a variety of sources in this lesson got me thinking of how my own students could use multiple types and amounts of data, as well as how our different places could help us engage in all three dimensions of science learning.

Figure 2
Figure 2 Investigation artifacts.

Investigation artifacts.

Continuing our learning, we read poem excerpts from In the Woods (Elliott and Dunlavey 2020). Up until that point, we had mainly been looking at abiotic factors in scientific ways. However, these poems introduced the idea that biotic factors may also be interacting with the lakes. Children’s literature was again utilized by reading A Stone Sat Still (Wenzel 2019), which presented the idea that something in nature can serve many different purposes depending on perspective. These fresh viewpoints, which were brought out through literature, sparked new questions and possible alternative explanations to the freezing lake phenomenon that analysis through data and charts had not. It was a clear reminder that all my students have different strengths and passions and providing multiple disciplinary avenues to engage with a science phenomenon or concept is important for enabling deeper understanding and connection. After a rich and engaging learning experience in the PD, I was ready to take what I had learned and apply it to my own classroom.

A Participating Teacher’s Reflection: Facilitating Similar Learning with a New Phenomenon

I used the strategies I generalized from the PD to develop a different phenomenon with my own students. When I used this phenomenon with them, my students were equally engaged and excited to ask questions and find answers with their own investigations. Like the freezing lake phenomenon, I kicked off my lesson by showing students a picture, this time of tracks in the snow outside of the classroom (Figure 3). Multiple hands immediately shot up to try and identify what had left the tracks. The phenomenon was familiar enough that students had some background knowledge, but as students shared their thoughts, it sparked more questions than answers about animal biodiversity in the schoolyard (DCI). Students quickly realized that to productively engage in an argument about what animal may have left the tracks, they needed to obtain more information so they could accurately evaluate the evidence in front of them (SEPs).

Figure 3
Figure 3 “Tracks in the snow” phenomenon.

“Tracks in the snow” phenomenon.

To begin, students invited a community biologist with tracking experience to visit the classroom and answer their questions about animals in the area and how to identify them based on evidence left in the snow. They then used the information obtained from the conversation to plan an investigation to gather additional evidence of animals in the schoolyard (SEPs), wearing proper snow gear and protective gloves when interacting with tracks and scat for safety. Considering the power in multiple data sources from the PD program’s freezing lake phenomenon, I chose to have students compile their data from the investigation in a school field guide that will grow annually. Each year, students will add their newly collected evidence to the previous years allowing each new cohort of students to see and contribute to the compiled body of data. In this way, not only are students collecting data to satisfy their own curiosity, but information will also be made available to the larger school community. This opens the door for my students and others to continue analyzing and interpreting (SEP) meaningful patterns (CCC) in our place’s diversity of life (DCI), and thus creates an authentically meaningful habitat to engage in argumentation and explanation construction (SEPs) about longitudinal evidence connected to life science standards.

Inspired by the use of children’s literature in the PD program’s freezing lake phenomenon, I thought differently about how I could integrate more than just science into my students’ learning sequence on tracking. In addition to speaking with a biologist (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.2.1; CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.2.3; CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.2.8), I provided both print and digital nonfiction literature on animals in the area to aid in identifying tracks and scat students found (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.2.5). Many students chose to take a science journal, rulers, and magnifying glasses with them to collect measurement and observation data in our schoolyard (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.2.7; CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.2.MD.A.1). Some chose to collect data through drawing, others in writing, and others with photos or collected physical evidence. Each student was free to gather data in a medium that was most meaningful and interesting to them and then publish their findings in the school field guide. This led to engaging discussions to critique some of the identifications where students had to defend or reevaluate their identification based on the new information presented. This layered science-ELA-math integration yielded investigation design and student products with detail and analysis that far exceeded my expectations.

Like my experience with the PD program’s freezing lake phenomenon, the tracking phenomenon required my students to learn by integrating the three dimensions of science with place-based learning, working across several disciplines, and collecting data from multiple sources. They authentically engaged their community biologist in their inquiry design, whose data (SEP) the students explored for patterns and used as evidence to help them answer their initial questions (CCC) about animal diversity in their place (DCI). In aggregate, these elements supported students in exploring in the ways that scientists study the world. Through this progression, my students became better versed in the process of doing science as they were the ones who, after the initial question of the tracks, came up with their own hypothesis, reached out to an expert to answer their questions, planned the investigation, noticed patterns, and presented their findings. They also became more connected to both their school and the community. As students studied their place, they learned about the diversity of animals that surround them both at the school and the broader community even in the cold of winter. Through reaching out to a local biologist, they discovered that there is a wealth of knowledge available to them right in their community if only they seek it out. They have also become experts on identifying animal tracks and scat and are excited to share that knowledge with others in the community. In the end, because of the work they did throughout the investigation, my students walked away more competent as scientists and more invested in their place.

Key Takeaways

Place-immersive learning experiences have the power to help learners—including teachers in PD and K–12 students—make sense of their world through student-driven, inquiry-based lessons that span multiple disciplines. As learners authentically engage with real-world problems, large concepts such as water’s role in our ecosystems and animal dynamics near our homes become more accessible, more relevant, and more tangible. Learners are also empowered to ask and answer their own questions through collecting and interpreting their own and others’ data. Phenomenon-based learning, both modeled in PD and implemented in classrooms, integrates learners’ places into science learning in ways that make sensemaking commonplace. The skills, practices, and habits of mind that learners develop as they make sense of locally relevant phenomena are paramount to their scientific literacy. Beginning robust, relevant sensemaking in the earliest grades and carrying it throughout PD builds a developmentally appropriate foundation upon which all learners will continue to build and develop their scientific literacy. We encourage interested teachers, PD facilitators, and administrators to consider our key takeaways for enacting this work:

  • Phenomenon-based learning has the powerful potential to support deep sensemaking in complex, integrated ways that support learner engagement with science ideas.
  • Phenomena provide rich opportunities for learners to better understand their place and world through engagement in three-dimensional science learning.
  • Phenomena can support scientific literacy through cross-curricular connections and authentic learning opportunities using a variety of methods, tools, and techniques.

Specific to the PD context, modeled phenomenon-based learning engages teachers in the phenomenon-based and three-dimensional learning we want for our students, and enables them to consider and translate the approach and its nuances into their own contexts.

Supplemental Resources

Download the storyline skeleton at

Jenna Harvey ( is a second-grade teacher in Pinedale, Wyoming. Clare Gunshenan ( is an outreach educator, and Martha Inouye is a research scientist, both in the University of Wyoming’s Science and Mathematics Teaching Center (SMTC) in Laramie, Wyoming.


Elliott, D., and R. Dunlavey. 2020. In the woods. Somerville, MA: Candlewick

National Research Council (NRC). 2012. A framework for K–12 science education: Practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas. National Academies Press.

NGSS Lead States. 2013. Appendix H: Nature of science.

Teton Science Schools [TSS]. Place-based education principles.

Wenzel, B. 2019. A stone sat still. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.

Crosscutting Concepts Disciplinary Core Ideas Earth & Space Science Literacy Professional Learning Science and Engineering Practices Teaching Strategies Elementary

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