As a child, Esther Odekunle was fascinated by snails. She watched how they moved and marveled at the long slimy trails they left behind.
Esther knew from an early age that she had a passion for science, but the mostly white, mostly male world of it left her struggling to find her place as a Black female. As she describes in the podcast Anti-Racist Science Education, the lack of diverse representation in science made her feel less confident that she belonged in science.
In 2010, only two percent of the science and engineering workforce in the United States was Black and female. Today, Esther holds a PhD in neurobiology and is an antibody engineer.
For educators, the story of Esther Odekunle as a young student is unsettling. It is unsettling because although we strive for inclusivity and equity in our classrooms, we may sometimes unknowingly fall short. We may have students like her who feel like they don’t belong.
How can we better support students and help confirm their place in the science classroom? One possible answer is to use phenomena.
What are phenomena?
Phenomena are events that we observe directly or indirectly with tools and models. These events make us wonder why or how. They elicit questions we can use our science knowledge and observations to explain, or they elicit science-related problems that we can solve. Because phenomena are interesting and relevant to students, they drive student learning.
Phenomena are events that we observe directly or indirectly with tools and models. These events make us wonder why or how.
Imagine for a moment that Esther and her classmates had observed the snails in the playground, asked questions about them, investigated those questions, and explored scientific phenomena related to snails. Esther would most likely have been elated, her enthusiasm infectious for other students, and her sense of belonging in science validated.
As educators, we have that superpower. We can provide students with these experiences by using phenomena in daily classroom experiences.
Why are phenomena every educator’s superpower?
Phenomena support equity by increasing engagement. Because phenomena are thought-provoking and applicable to students’ lives, they enhance engagement. Engagement is crucial for equitable access to science learning and for student achievement.
Phenomena support inclusivity in the classroom. When phenomena are based on students’ lives or cultures, they become the experts. They feel a sense of belonging in the science classroom.
How do you identify phenomena that will engage students?
Here are seven tips for how to identify meaningful phenomena for the classroom.
- Base phenomena on what appear to be non-examples of the content. Non-examples are events or observations that appear to be contrary to the target science idea. Here are a couple possibilities: Use “Why do the helium balloons travel up if gravity pulls objects down?” to explore motion and the sum of the forces acting on an object. Use “If the Venus flytrap is a plant, why does it eat insects?” to uncover how matter cycles through the soil, air, water, and living things in ecosystems.
- Base phenomena on what appear to be inconsistencies in the world. While non-examples are events that appear to oppose a science idea, inconsistencies are events that appear together in unexpected ways. For example, some phenomena involving sound waves are, “When I watch a track meet, why do I see the smoke from the starting gun before I hear the bang?” and “When I watch a baseball game, why do I see the bat hit the ball before I hear it?” and “Why does lightning often occur with thunder, but I don’t experience them at the same time?”
- Base phenomena on common misconceptions and myths. If the content is the main source of matter for plant growth (air and water), use the misconception, “Do trees get the matter they need to grow tall by taking in soil?” If the content is evolutionary relationships based on anatomical, genetic, and fossil evidence, use the myth, “Did all dinosaurs go extinct after an asteroid impact 65 million years ago?”
- Base phenomena on internet searches. I recommend searching “unusual facts about _____.” Here’s what I got when I searched for snails: Snails have the most teeth of any animal. Snails can sleep for three years inside their shells. Snails have no legs and one foot. A garden snail’s fastest speed is half an inch per second. These are all fun facts to pique students’ interest. Students may wonder, “How do snails survive being so slow?” and provide their own phenomenon for examining how body structures function together within a body system to promote survival.
- Make phenomena meaningful by personalizing them around students’ common interests, concerns, and experiences. Almost any phenomena can be personalized by asking students to identify related phenomena or examples, by using students’ questions as phenomena, and by applying their final explanations back to them personally. For example, after constructing an explanation of how the body system of the snail helps it survive, ask students how obscure parts of the human body (e.g., eyebrows, small toes, kneecaps) function within the larger body system to help them live and grow. Additionally, you can base phenomena on students’ interests and experiences. A couple more examples: Use “Why does my hair get curlier when I sweat during basketball games?” to learn about electrical forces within and between particles. Use the phenomenon, “My dog is good at playing fetch, but she can never find the red ball in the grass. Why is that?” to investigate the frequency of reflected light entering the eye and colorblindness.
- Make phenomena meaningful by using locally or culturally relevant contexts. If the content is electric forces between charged objects, ask a locally relevant phenomenon, like “If it’s true that lightning never strikes the same place twice, then why does the water tower in town get hit by lightning every summer?” Or if the content is reducing the impact of natural hazards, ask about a culturally relevant phenomenon, like “How does burning help prevent wildfires?” With this one in particular, apply the cultural context: Indigenous tribes of western states used controlled burns to maintain the land for thousands of years. In this way, students’ funds of knowledge from their lived experiences and cultures can become valued resources in scientific sensemaking.
- Make phenomena meaningful by using universally understood contexts. If the content is electrical forces within and between particles, use the common question of “Why do I have to use soap and water to wash my hands? Why can’t I just use water?” If the content is motion and the sum of the forces acting on an object, ask, “How do tiny air particles keep heavy airplanes in the air?”
Focus on the personal
Phenomena are powerful tools. The most powerful are those personally or culturally relevant to students. They enhance engagement, support inclusive and equitable classrooms, and promote student achievement. They can give students, like school-aged Esther Odekunle, opportunities to develop their own personal scientific identities and find a place in science, if they choose.
Phenomena are versatile tools for teachers as well. They can become the basis for all levels of classroom experiences: a quick write, a formative assessment, a research activity, or the anchoring phenomena for an entire unit of instruction, depending on the scope of the phenomenon.
As students learn to explore compelling real-world phenomena, they start to understand the social relevance of science and their own superpower to positively impact their communities.
As you continue to think about how phenomena can reshape your science classroom, I encourage you to read Criterion A of the “Science Task Screener” and watch an overview video about using phenomena.