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phenomena

Making Everyday Phenomena Phenomenal

Using phenomena to promote equity in science instruction

Science and Children—September/October 2020

By Okhee Lee

This article will appear in the September/October 2020 issue of Science & Children.

A Framework for K–12 Science Education and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) are intended for all students, hence, “all standards, all students” (NGSS Lead States 2013). To make this vision a reality, the NGSS highlight three key instructional shifts with all students: (a) explain phenomena or design solutions to problems, (b) engage in three-dimensional learning, and (c) build learning progressions over time. Whereas three-dimensional learning and learning progressions are explicitly addressed in the Framework and the NGSS, the role of phenomena is not clearly articulated. Yet, making sense of phenomena could be the most important instructional shift for students who have not experienced science as real or relevant to their lives or future careers. The phenomena that teachers select can either help students access science by relating science to their lives or exacerbate marginalization by alienating them further from science. Thus, phenomena must be compelling to students based on their experiences in their homes and communities.

The purpose of the article is two-fold: (a) to offer guidance on how teachers can select and use local phenomena to develop NGSS-aligned instructional materials with diverse student groups and (b) to illustrate the implementation of a local phenomenon with diverse student groups in fifth-grade science classrooms in an urban school district. The article highlights how local phenomena compel students from diverse backgrounds to engage in three-dimensional learning and build their science understanding coherently over a sustained period of instruction. As a result, teachers who select and use local phenomena that are real and relevant to their diverse student groups advance the goal of “all standards, all students.” In this article, the term “diverse student groups” refers to students from both dominant and nondominant groups in terms of race, ethnicity, culture, language, and social class. While the article uses “diverse student groups” to be inclusive of all students, it focuses specifically on nondominant groups who have traditionally been underserved by the education system.

The Role of Phenomena

The goal of the NGSS is to enable students to explain phenomena and design solutions to problems (Reiser et al. 2017). In the NGSS classroom, students make sense of phenomena and design solutions to problems as scientists and engineers do in their work (NRC 2012). This gives a purpose to science learning as students “do something” with science and become agents of their own learning.

In the past, when science instruction was guided by inquiry approaches, there was a danger of hands-on activities lacking purpose beyond being fun and engaging (referred to as “activitymania” by Moscovici and Nelson 1998). In a similar manner, a focus on phenomena raises a new danger of selecting “phenomenal phenomena” because they pique students’ interest (e.g., a visually striking yet rare natural phenomenon that students have not personally experienced). While phenomenal phenomena inspire wonder and awe (e.g., students ask, “How could that happen!?”), they may have little relevance to students’ experiences in their everyday lives. Furthermore, phenomenal phenomena may not be robust enough to sustain a science unit around a targeted set of performance expectations (PEs) over the course of instruction.

Integrating Place-Based and Project-Based Learning

In our work developing and implementing yearlong NGSS-aligned instructional materials in fifth grade for diverse student groups, we aim to make everyday phenomena phenomenal. Specifically, we use local phenomena that meet two criteria (see Figure 1). The first criterion is that local phenomena should be real and relevant to students and thus compelling to figure out. From an equity perspective, through place-based learning, students apply science and engineering to their everyday lives in their homes and communities (Endreny 2010). The second criterion is that local phenomena should be comprehensive enough to sustain a science unit that addresses multiple PEs within and across science disciplines over the course of instruction. From a science perspective, through project-based learning, students engage in collaborative investigations as they explain phenomena or design solutions to problems (Krajcik and Czerniak 2013). Below, we describe each of the equity components (left column in Figure 1) and science components (right column in Figure 1) that teachers should consider when selecting local phenomena to use in their classrooms.

Figure 1
Components in selecting and using local phenomena with diverse student groups.

Components in selecting and using local phenomena with diverse student groups.

Selecting and Using Local Phenomena

For this unit, fifth-grade students enter the classroom and see in the center of the room a mound of garbage collected from their school cafeteria, including their own lunch garbage. From the beginning of the unit, as students express a wide range of reactions from excitement to disgust, the everyday phenomenon of garbage becomes phenomenal. The anchoring phenomenon for the unit is that the school, home, and community make large amounts of garbage every day, which all goes to a landfill in the local community. Then, the driving question for the unit is framed broadly, “What happens to our garbage?” To answer this driving question, students develop physical models of a landfill by creating “landfill bottles” as open systems and closed systems (see Figure 2). The garbage materials in each landfill bottle are from students’ lunch garbage, including food (banana, orange) and nonfood (spoon, aluminum foil) materials, so that students can observe changes in the properties of materials over the course of approximately two to three weeks. Throughout the unit, students observe what happens to the garbage in the landfill bottles.

Figure 2
Landfill bottles.

Landfill bottles.

Over the course of nine weeks of instruction, students’ understanding of science builds coherently as they investigate what happens to their garbage in the landfill bottle systems. Students begin by investigating what happens to garbage materials (5-PS1-3 on properties of materials). When the landfill bottles start to smell in the open system, students ask, “What is that smell?” (5-PS1-1 on particle nature of matter/gas). They also ask, “What causes changes in the properties of materials in the garbage?” and “What causes smell from the garbage?” (5-PS1-4 on chemical reactions). They obtain information about microbes causing food materials to decompose and produce odor (5-LS2-1 on decomposers in the environment). In addition, they make observations of the weight of the garbage materials after some garbage materials (e.g., banana and orange) in the closed landfill bottle systems seem to have vanished (5-PS1-2 on conservation of weight/matter).

As with many science units, it is important to follow safety guidelines when students sort the garbage materials into categories and make observations of the landfill bottles (see Figure 3). Teachers should also consult school and/or district policies regarding safety in the science classroom.

Figure 3

Garbage sort safety guidelines

  • Assemble the piles of garbage for the activity, making sure not to include broken glass or sharp objects.
  • Ensure the garbage has as little liquid as possible.
  • Direct students to wear protective goggles and use plastic gloves and tongs for handling the garbage.
  • Direct students to wash their hands after handling the garbage.
  • If students have allergies (nuts, mold, etc.), consult the school nurse before proceeding with the garbage sort. Students may view videos of decomposition.

 

Landfill bottle safety guidelines

  • When students make observations of the landfill bottles, instruct them to look through the side of the bottles and waft smell out of the bottles. Students should not place their faces directly over the open landfill bottles.
  • If a student has a known mold allergy or severe asthma, store the open landfill bottle outside the classroom. Consult with the school nurse.
  • Open the closed landfill bottles outside to allow the smell to diffuse.

Direct students to wash their hands after handling the landfill bottles.

An Equity Perspective

We select a local phenomenon rooted in students’ everyday experiences in their homes and communities by capitalizing on the following equity components (see the left column in Figure 1):

Equity component 1: The phenomenon of garbage creates relevance for all students since they experience garbage every day.

Equity component 2: The phenomenon of garbage in the school, home, and community that goes to a community landfill capitalizes on students’ funds of knowledge.

Equity component 3: The phenomenon of garbage provides a context for all students to communicate their ideas using all of the meaning-making resources at their disposal, including everyday language, home language, and multimodality.

Equity component 4: The phenomenon of garbage promotes participation of all students by offering access to science and inclusion in the science classroom. As a result, abstract ideas of matter (e.g., particle nature of matter, properties of matter, chemical reaction, conservation of weight/matter) are made accessible and relevant to all students.

A Science Perspective

We select a local phenomenon that is comprehensive enough to address multiple PEs over a sustained period of instruction by capitalizing on the following science components (see the right column in Figure 1):

Science component 1: The phenomenon of garbage allows students to build their understanding of structure and properties of matter coherently over the course of a unit.

Science component 2: The phenomenon of garbage allows students to understand science more broadly across science disciplines by integrating physical science and life science.

Science component 3: The phenomenon of garbage sets the foundation for engineering in the subsequent Earth’s systems unit as students find out that plastic, which does not decompose, pollutes Earth’s systems. They design solutions to this problem by reducing the amount of plastic from water bottles in their classroom and school.

Science component 4: The phenomenon of garbage raises students’ awareness of societal concerns about garbage and plastic pollution. As a result, students use science ideas to protect the Earth’s resources and environment and to participate in citizen science.

A Snapshot of Two Lessons

This section offers a snapshot of two lessons from the garbage unit to illustrate how local phenomena are implemented with diverse student groups in fifth grade. The first lesson highlights place-based learning from an equity perspective, and the second lesson highlights project-based learning from a science perspective. The two lessons also highlight how teachers use grouping strategies to promote student engagement and how they use formative and summative assessments.

Snapshot 1: Garbage in the School, Home, and Community

The local phenomenon of garbage is compelling to students because it draws on their everyday experiences in their school, home, and community. In the first lesson of the unit, each group of four or five students with varying levels of English proficiency is assigned to a pile of school lunch garbage. Students wear plastic gloves and protective goggles and use tongs to sort the garbage materials. They make observations of the garbage materials and categorize those materials based on properties (e.g., hardness, smell, reflectivity). In a whole-class discussion, students identify patterns of similarity and difference in their observations of the school lunch garbage. Then, students make observations of materials in their home garbage and categorize those materials based on properties. In small-group and whole-class discussion, students identify patterns of similarity and difference in their observations of the home garbage. This lesson addresses three-dimensional learning by blending the science and engineering practice (SEP) of planning and carrying out an investigation, the disciplinary core idea (DCI) of properties of materials, and the crosscutting concept (CCC) of patterns.

In the second lesson of the unit, students investigate garbage disposal systems in their school, home, and community. As shown in Figure 4, they use sticky notes to represent components of each system (e.g., garbage trucks) and arrows to represent interactions of the components (e.g., garbage trucks transport garbage from the dumpster to the landfill). This lesson addresses three-dimensional learning by blending SEP of developing and using models, DCI of properties of materials, and CCC of systems and system models.

Figure 4
Garbage disposal systems in the school, home, and community.

Garbage disposal systems in the school, home, and community.

At the end of the lesson, students complete a science and engineering notebook entry in response to the following question: “What would happen to the garbage disposal systems if a component were missing? Give an example to support your answer.” The purpose of the exit slip is to use the familiar context of garbage in the school, home, and community for formative assessment of students’ emerging understanding of systems, which the teacher uses to guide subsequent instruction. Throughout the unit, each lesson concludes with a formative assessment, such as an exit slip, revised model, or science and engineering notebook entry.

Snapshot 2: Group Modeling of Landfill Bottle Systems

The local phenomenon of garbage is comprehensive enough to address multiple PEs within and across science disciplines. In one of the final lessons of the unit, students work in small groups to develop diagrammatic models of what happens to garbage in the open and closed landfill bottle systems. At this point in the unit, students have developed coherent understanding of the DCIs of the unit to explain the phenomenon of garbage. Teachers form small groups strategically by placing English learners with at least one peer who shares the same home language.

Next, students participate in a “gallery walk” in which individual students use sticky notes to write respectful questions and comments on each group’s model. Figure 5 shows one group’s model demonstrating their understanding of how microbes (called “bactiria” [sic] in the model) decompose the banana and orange, producing smell/gas particles that flow out of the open system (bottom left panel of Figure 4) but are conserved inside the closed system (bottom right panel of Figure 4). A student from another group comments on the model by using the crosscutting concept of systems: “Explain inputs and outputs” (see blue sticky note in the middle of Figure 4).

Figure 5
Group model of open and closed landfill bottle systems for 2–3 weeks.

Group model of open and closed landfill bottle systems for 2–3 weeks.

At the end of the garbage unit, group models serve as artifacts for summative assessment of student understanding in relation to the targeted set of PEs. Throughout the school year, each unit concludes with summative assessment of final models to explain the anchoring phenomenon of the unit. In earlier units, students develop group final models, whereas in later units, students develop individual final models. As such, the totality of the units in our fifth-grade curriculum promote progressions of three-dimensional learning over the course of the year.

Conclusion

The Framework and the NGSS present key instructional shifts, including a shift toward explaining phenomena. Enacting these shifts, in general, and using local phenomena, in particular, are especially critical when working with students who have not experienced science and engineering as real or relevant to their lives or future careers. In this article, we offer guidance on how teachers can select and use local phenomena that compel students from diverse backgrounds to engage in three-dimensional learning and build their science understanding coherently over a sustained period of instruction. Since diverse student groups come from a wide range of backgrounds, teachers could work with their students to select local phenomena that draw on everyday experiences in students’ schools, homes, and communities. By making everyday phenomena phenomenal, we move a step closer to realizing the vision of “all standards, all students.”

 

Okhee Lee (olee@nyu.edu) is a professor at New York University.

Connecting to the Next Generation Science Standards

Performance Expectations

Connections to Classroom Activities

5-PS1-1.   Develop a model to describe that matter is made of particles too small to see.

5-PS1-2.   Measure and graph quantities to provide evidence that, regardless of the type of change that occurs when heating, cooling, or mixing substances, the total weight of matter is conserved.

5-PS1-3.   Make observations and measurements to identify materials based on their properties.

5-PS1-4.   Conduct an investigation to determine whether the mixing of two or more substances results in new substances.

5-LS2-1.   Develop a model to describe the movement of matter among plants, animals, decomposers, and the environment. (This PE is partially addressed in the unit.)

Students make sense of the phenomenon of garbage in the school, home, and community, which all goes to a landfill in the local community.

 

The anchoring phenomenon for the unit is that the school, home, and community make large amounts of garbage every day.

 

The driving question for the unit is, “What happens to our garbage?”

 

To answer the driving question, students engage in three-dimensional learning and build their understanding coherently over approximately 9 weeks of instruction.

Science and Engineering Practices

 

All of the eight practices

To answer the driving question, “What happens to our garbage?,” students engage in each of the SEPs multiple times over approximately 9 weeks of instruction.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

 

PS1.A: Structure and Properties of Matter

5-PS1-1

5-PS1-2

M5-PS1-3

 

PS1.B: Chemical Reactions

5-PS1-4

5-PS1-2

 

LS2.A: Interdependent Relationships in Ecosystems (partial DCI)

5-LS2-1

 

LS2.B: Cycles of Matter and Energy Transfer in Ecosystems (partial DCI)

5-LS2-1

To answer the driving question, “What happens to our garbage?,” students use each of the DCIs multiple times over approximately 9 weeks of instruction (see more details in the text).

Crosscutting Concepts

 

All of the seven crosscutting concepts, except structure and function

To answer the driving question, “What happens to our garbage?”, students use each of the CCCs multiple times over an approximately 9 weeks of instruction.

References

Endreny, A.H. 2010. Urban 5th graders’ conceptions during a place-based inquiry unit on watersheds. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 47 (5): 501–517.

Krajcik, J.S., and C. Czerniak. 2013. Teaching science in elementary and middle school classrooms: A project-based approach (4th ed.). London, England: Routledge.

Moscovici, H., and T.M. Nelson. 1998. Shifting from activitymania to inquiry. Science and Children 35 (4): 14–17.

NGSS Lead States. 2013. Next Generation Science Standards: For states, by states. Appendix D–All standards, all students: Making the Next Generation Science Standards accessible to all students. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

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

Reiser, B.J., S. Michaels, J. Moon, T. Bell, E. Dyer, K.D. Edwards, and A. Park. 2017. Scaling up three-dimensional science learning through teacher-led study groups across a state. Journal of Teacher Education 68 (3): 280–298.

 

Topics

Equity Instructional Materials NGSS Pedagogy Phenomena Teaching Strategies

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