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What is Phenomenon Labs?

If you are like me, being a teacher through the past ten years has been a constant struggle to keep up with changes.  We teachers have been introduced to STEM, NGSS, 5E’s model, PGIP’s, SGO’s and how Danielson is guiding our evaluations. Endless hours of being told “what I should do”, but virtually no guidance in “How I can do it”.

Let’s face it, yes it all sounds great, but we have so many questions like …

  1. How do I modify my curriculum to achieve these objectives?
  2. What about all the class material I have now, is it no longer acceptable?
  3. How does this affect how I assess my students?
  4. How do I address scaffolding and IEP’s  
  5. Am I expected to re-create new material to satisfy the new philosophies being implemented?
  6. When am I going to be given time to do this?
  7. Where do I go if I have questions?

If you are like me, your professional and personal time have been stretched to the limit. The family comes first philosophy doesn’t work with this new reality. There is not time for both!

This was the genesis of phenomenon labs and the PL-Learning by Design Process. Phenomenon labs was created not just to be your source of class material but a “Process Template” that can be modified by you and follows the philosophy of “Learning by Design”. The material for each unit is designed so that you, as the instructor, can guide the class through the student-centered activities. You can emphasize what you wish and drive the discussions at the technical level that fits your students.

The activities support the STEM and 5E’s approach allowing the lessons to be student driven but easily directed and assessed by the instructor. The Learning by Design Process, flows from Focus to Inquiry to Lab to Worksheet/assessment activities. The process guides the students from prior knowledge, to discovery, to implementation, to demonstrating their proficiency in problem solving. In a word, it brings to life the NGSS objective of Three-Dimensional Learning.

To better understand the phenomenon Labs process, check out the information for each activity type explaining how to implement the material into your lesson.

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What is a Focus Activity?

The Phenomenon Labs focus activity is the start of your lesson or unit. It incorporates the NGSS “phenomenon” into the 5E’s Cycle and puts into action the STEM initiative. It can be used as both a starter activity and/or as an assessment tool.

The Phenomenon Lab Focus Activity is divided into three segments;

  • The Phenomenon
  • Think About it
  • Analyze it – Diagram it.


According to the NGSS strategy every unit, chapter, or lesson should start with a phenomenon that relates to the topic in question. In short, this phenomenon should be an example of an event or occurrence that anyone can observe in nature whether it be at the intermediate or high school Honors level. It is through this common phenomenon that we, as instructors, can initiate the phenomenon labs designed learning activities. We as instructors have the control of just how complicated we make the discussion.

For example, in Thermochemistry we can all observe an ice cube melting in warm water. At the intermediate level, we might limit our discussion as to which way energy flows. However, at the High School level we may want to discuss specific heats and Latent heat of Fusion of ice.

Think About it: asking the right questions

The questions here have a multitude of Purpose. With these questions, you want to engage your students in thought, assess prior knowledge and misconceptions from responses, and promote the use of class discussion and debate without student fear of being right or wrong. It is here that the instructor has the ability to guide the students from the initial phenomenon to the class topic at hand and to introduce important vocabulary words in the unit.  The instructor can use the student responses to make the case that this phenomenon is not only worth studying but solicit responses as to how we can study this. Our ice cube example above may be used to get intermediate students to describe energy flow through matter or ask High School students how they would design a process to measure, quantify and define the heat flow.

Analyze it – Diagram it

This is where we want the students to acquire the skill of “Modeling” what they have discussed. Like all good scientists a picture says a thousand words. This Model should include all components of the phenomenon, vocabulary words and should display the depth of the student understanding. It can be used to explain the phenomenon or describe a proposed experiment to further study the phenomenon. For example, you may ask the High school students to draw their idea of how to measure heat flow. It is here that the students should feel confident that they are ready to move on to an Inquiry Activity or Laboratory Experiment.


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“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. ”
-Albert Einstein

What is an Inquiry Activity?

Multitudes of web-sites and publications have described what “Inquiry” or “Inquiry Activities” mean in the science classroom and why it is so elusive to implement. It has been described as student-centered activities where students are in control of their own learning. They are experiencing and playing with science in a new way. They cultivate a new sense of self-responsibility, and enjoy a non-structured method of discovery which brings them to new levels of understanding.

But defining Inquiry for you is not the Phenomenon Labs goal, but rather, our goal is to give you the tools that actually implement inquiry into your Classroom. The Phenomenon Labs Process Flow is designed so that the instructor, by implementing the Phenomenon labs material, will present multiple opportunities for the student to explore.

The Phenomenon Labs Inquiry Activity is an extension of the Focus Activity and a bridge to the Learning Goal. It is the “hybrid” of the Focus Activity and the Classic Lab Activity.

Initially, on completing the focus activity, the students should be primed for the exploration into a phenomenon. The phenomenon introduced a universal experience that through the focus activity has been linked to the class topic of interest. The focus activity has asked the right questions, conducted the appropriate conversations and involved the students into modeling or designing a process whereby further investigation can be performed.

Subsequently, The Inquiry Activity takes the insight from the Focus Activity and engages the students into further investigation. Ideally the Inquiry Activity is designed to introduce, demonstrate, and solidify the understanding of chapter topics. In short, “take the place of Power Points and Lectures”. The ideal Inquiry Activity will work synergistically with the Focus Activity and be constructed at the appropriate level, with the appropriate tools, goals, instruction and outcomes.  

A unique aspect of a properly designed and implemented Inquiry Activity is that it can be simple, used solely as a Formative Assessment tool as the students experience a phenomenon or change in their physical world. In response to experiencing these changes, the student can be asked to utilize this new knowledge to “DO” something with that knowledge. This may be additional Inquiry activities or more structured lab activities.

The other end of the Inquiry Activity spectrum is, as described by Colburn, the Open Inquiry. This type of Inquiry can be sophisticated enough as to take the place of the conventional “Chapter Lab” or “Class Project”.  The Phenomenon Labs Process is designed so that the instructor can properly prepare the students for a successful execution of the Open Inquiry Activity. This comes as a result of the process flow supporting  the student growth in critical thinking, modeling, planning, design and interpretation of observed phenomenon.