2061 Connections
An electronic newsletter for the science education community

November/December 2007

Using Phenomena to Promote Science Literacy

Poster session showcases phenomena that support K–12 learning goals

Much of science involves finding patterns in observations and explaining them in terms of a small number of principles or ideas. For students to appreciate how science works, they need to have a sense of the range of observations (phenomena) that are used to form the patterns and the helpfulness of the principles or ideas in explaining them. Project 2061’s evaluations of science textbooks revealed that textbooks rarely engaged students with phenomena—real-world objects, systems, and events—relevant to important science ideas. In addition, the textbooks rarely included phenomena that directly address the often incorrect ideas that students may already have and rarely guided students in reconciling phenomena with scientifically accepted ideas (Kesidou & Roseman, 2002; Stern & Roseman, 2004; American Association for the Advancement of Science [AAAS], 2002, 2005).

To help address this lack of relevant phenomena and provide guidance for teachers and students, Project 2061 and other researchers from the Center for Curriculum Materials in Science (CCMS) are identifying phenomena that could be used to support the teaching and learning of ideas recommended in Benchmarks for Science Literacy (AAAS, 1993) and in the National Science Education Standards (National Research Council, 1996). At the Center's Knowledge Sharing Institute (KSI) in July, held at AAAS headquarters in Washington, DC, researchers participated in an interactive poster session on “Phenomena” to share their work in this area. (For an overview of the KSI meeting, see "Collaborating for Better Science Learning" in the July/August 2007 issue of 2061 Connections.)

The session brought together 10 posters to showcase useful phenomena that support student learning of key ideas on a range of science topics and to highlight issues that arise across the set of topics related to teachers’ effective use of the phenomena. Many of the phenomena on display at the KSI session will become part of an online collection of curriculum resources being developed by Project 2061 with funding from the National Science Foundation. The collection also includes (1) clarifications of the scientific ideas that the national science standards expect students to learn, (2) descriptions of connections among those ideas, (3) summaries of research on how students think about the ideas, and (4) suggestions for guiding student interpretation and reasoning about the phenomena to promote learning (read a project overview).

"The KSI session provided further evidence that teachers need a variety of phenomena on hand to teach different learning goals effectively," said Ted Willard, project director for Project 2061 and one of the presenters. "It also became clear that students need specific guidance in interpreting phenomena if they are to reach the desired understandings."

For Natalie Dubois, a Project 2061 research associate attending her first KSI meeting, the poster session provided an opportunity for dialogue with other researchers. "I gained new insights into the challenges one meets when attempting to identify observable phenomena that afford tangible evidence of targeted learning goals," said Dubois. "In addition, phenomena need to be accessible to students in a way that allows them to transfer their classroom experience to their conceptual understanding of the 'real world'."

Following is a list of the 10 posters and their abstracts from the “Phenomena” session. To view each poster, click on the title.

Using Phenomena to Learn about Seasons in the Science Classroom

Lori Agan, Bath Middle School, Bath, Maine

Abstract: In the spring of 2007, Agan utilized the LHS-GEMS curriculum The Real Reasons for Seasons, supplemented with additional resources. She carefully considered the use of representations and the use of phenomena in her instructional choices. She found her use of phenomena to be critical, but difficult to administer. Agan’s account emphasizes the aid needed to ensure that teachers can effectively include phenomena in instruction.

Engaging Students in Phenomena Related to Matter Transformation in Plants

Natalie S. Dubois, George E. DeBoer, and Jo Ellen Roseman, AAAS Project 2061

Abstract: Dubois, DeBoer, and Roseman provide examples of phenomena aligned to middle school key ideas about the transformation of matter in living systems, specifically focusing on examples from plants. By their nature, living systems exhibit a degree of complexity that often requires students to utilize multiple key ideas in order to develop an understanding of any particular phenomenon. While this may pose a challenge to students and teachers alike, it also presents an opportunity for students to develop connections between key ideas and begin to recognize the importance of this set of interconnected ideas in explaining the growth and development of living organisms.

The Importance of Phenomena in IQWST: Helping Students Understand Scientific Concepts through Experiences

Jennifer Eklund, Yael Shwartz, and Joi Merritt, University of Michigan

Abstract: Each IQWST unit uses multiple phenomena to help students make connections between real-world experiences and scientific concepts. Eklund, Shwartz, and Merritt present examples from IQWST chemistry, physics, and earth science units for middle school to show how phenomena can be used to (1) help construct conceptual models, (2) elaborate or revise conceptual models, (3) provide evidence that supports a claim, and (4) motivate students and further engage them in scientific investigations.

Engaging Students in Thermal Expansion and Contraction Phenomena

Cari F. Herrmann Abell, George E. DeBoer, and Jo Ellen Roseman, AAAS Project 2061

Abstract: Herrmann Abell, DeBoer, and Roseman provide three examples of phenomena that are aligned to a middle school key idea about thermal expansion and contraction. For students to be able to fully comprehend these phenomena and relate them to the idea about thermal expansion and contraction, they must also appreciate the importance of careful measurement and/or use of detection instruments or methods more sensitive than the naked eye. Students also need to be shown corresponding representations of the molecular level phenomena in order to link the phenomena to the key idea. The poster also illustrates the role that data on students’ ideas can play in identifying useful phenomena and strategies for guiding students’ interpretation of them.

How Offspring Resemble Their Parents: Relevant Phenomena for K-2 Students

Belén Hurle, NHGRI-NIH, and Jo Ellen Roseman, AAAS Project 2061

Abstract: Hurle and Roseman present examples of phenomena that could be used to illustrate the K-2 idea that “living things are very much, but not exactly, like their parents and like one another” (Benchmark 5B/P2). This seemingly simple idea summarizes a wide range of phenomena that contribute to the recognition, in grades 3-5, that “for offspring to resemble their parents there must be a reliable way to transfer information from one generation to the next” (Benchmark 5B/E2) and, later, to the high school idea that “the information passed from parents to offspring is coded in DNA molecules” (Benchmark 5B/H3) (Roseman, Caldwell, Gogos, & Kurth, 2006). Without a firm grasp of these and other ideas, students will be unable to understand the science and significance of important discoveries such as those made possible by the Human Genome Project.

PRISMS: Phenomena and Representations for the Instruction of Science in Middle Schools

Page Keeley, Francis Eberle, and Joyce Tugel , Maine Mathematics and Science Alliance (MMSA); Francis Molina and Ted Willard, AAAS Project 2061

Abstract: Project 2061’s evaluations of science textbooks highlight the need for better phenomena and representations in middle grades materials. NSDL collections are a potential source; however, they are mainly geared towards high school and undergraduate education. MMSA staff, trained by AAAS Project 2061, are working with teams of middle school teachers to analyze approximately 1,000 digital phenomena and representations for their alignment to middle grades content standards and for the quality of their instructional support for teachers. Reviews of these resources are being assembled into a collection called PRISMS (Phenomena and Representations for the Instruction of Science in Middle Schools), designed to increase the number of quality K-12 science educational resources accessible through digital libraries. 

Engaging Students in Phenomena Relevant to the Interdependence of Life: Feeding Interactions

Kristen A. Lennon, George E. DeBoer, and Jo Ellen Roseman, AAAS Project 2061

Abstract: Lennon, DeBoer, and Roseman show an example of a set of phenomena that can be used to help middle school students gain an understanding of some of the concepts targeted by the key idea, “Animals may interact with other organisms for food in a variety of ways” (from Benchmarks for Science Literacy, 5D/M2a).

Phenomena to Help High School Students Understand the Mechanism of Natural Selection

Luli Stern, AAAS Project 2061

Abstract: Stern’s poster presents a phenomenon that could be used to challenge high school students’ naive idea about the inheritance of acquired traits and another that could be used to make the mechanism of natural selection more plausible for students.

Phenomena to Help Elementary School Students Understand that the Earth is Spherical

Ted Willard, Sofia Kesidou, Lori Kurth, and Jo Ellen Roseman, AAAS Project 2061

Abstract: Willard, Kesidou, Kurth, and Roseman describe three phenomena that could be used to help students understand that the Earth is spherical in shape and one phenomenon that most likely would not be useful to help elementary school students.

Phenomena to Help Middle School Students Understand Seasonal Changes in Temperature Patterns on the Earth

Ted Willard and Jo Ellen Roseman, AAAS Project 2061; Tim Eichler, NOAA

Abstract: Willard, Roseman, and Eichler describe how to present students with data that show how the temperatures in one place vary over the course of the year and with patterns that show how temperatures vary across the surface of the Earth.

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Funded by the National Science Foundation as a Center for Learning and Teaching, CCMS brings together AAAS, Michigan State University, Northwestern University, and the University of Michigan in its mission to develop new knowledge and leadership that can contribute to the effective design, selection, and use of curriculum materials.

Project 2061’s work to develop a collection of curriculum resources, "Supporting the Next Generation of Curriculum Materials in Science, Mathematics, and Technology," is funded by the National Science Foundation.

For more information about CCMS and Project 2061's research on curriculum materials, please contact:

Principal Investigator/Director of CCMS: Jo Ellen Roseman, (202) 326-6752
Project Director: Ted Willard


American Association for the Advancement of Science. (1993). Benchmarks for science literacy. New York: Oxford University Press.

American Association for the Advancement of Science. (2002). Middle grades science textbooks: A benchmarks-based evaluation. Retrieved on June 19, 2007, from http://www.project2061.org/publications/textbook/mgsci/report/index.htm.

American Association for the Advancement of Science. (2005). High school biology textbooks: A benchmarks-based evaluation. Retrieved on June 19, 2007, from http://www.project2061.org/publications/textbook/hsbio/report/default.htm.

Kesidou, S., & Roseman, J. E. (2002). How well do middle school science programs measure up? Findings from Project 2061’s curriculum review. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 39(6), 522-549.

National Research Council. (1996). National science education standards. Washington, DC: National Academy Press. 

Stern, L., & Roseman, J. E. (2004). Can middle-school science textbooks help students learn important ideas? Findings from Project 2061's curriculum evaluation study: Life science. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 41(6), 538-568.

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