How far away is the Moon?


As you become more familiar with the NGSS, you’ll find patterns in performance expectations across grade bands. One of those patterns is they way in which students engage in understanding and describing the Sun-Moon-Earth system.  Connecting those big ideas to a phenomena students observe and describe is one way to both elicit student current understanding (or misconceptions)  and to provide a context in which they can observe, argue or develop a model of the phenomena.

The question, “How big is the moon?” can help us understand how students think about scale.   We can extend this assessment probe with older students by asking them how they might measure the moon.   Consider the assessment probe from Uncovering Student Ideas in Astronomy (Keeley 2012, p. 95)


Asking students, “How far away is the moon?” also taps into their understanding of scale.  It also gives us a context to talk about the limitations of models and diagrams such as the image used at the top of this post.  Derrek Mueller at Veritasium has a video that elicits and explains this phenomena.

Below are the performance expectations from each grade band that could are connected to this phenomenal question.

First Grade: Use observations of the sun, moon and stars to describe patterns that can be predicted(1-ESS1-1)

Fifth Grade: Support an argument that the differences in the apparent brightness of the sun compared to other stars is due to their relative distances from the Earth. (5-ESS1-1)

Middle School: Develop and use a model of the Earth-Moon-Sun system to describe the cyclic patterns of lunar phases, eclipses of the sun and moon, and seasons. (MS-ESS1-1)



What’s the BEST way to teach Science?

This is a question I have been asking myself for years.  Really, it’s the question that has motivated me for my entire career and it motivates me still.  Imagine how excited I was to find such a smart and articulate answer.  You have to watch this video!

Check this out…

Are you looking for ways to increase STEM- centered lessons, phenomenon-based explorations or engineering in your classroom?  Did you know that the Science Kit Center has materials available for check-out?  Here’s a few of the items you can borrow:

  • Density tank for density tank demonstrations (see the video above)
  • Tree Swing Engineering Kit file_003.jpeg
  • Ball & Pipe / Well Rescue Engineering Kit
  • Dissecting Kits
  • Zipline Engineering Kit
  • Film Canister Chemical Reactions Kit File_007
  • UV Sensitive Beads / Shade for Lizards Kit Shade for Lizards
  • Vernier Technology  – Wireless Temperature Probes, Go Link! & Light Sensors
  • We also have a variety of books including the books for Science Online, Understanding Student Ideas in Science, Formative Assessment in Science and the book study books for our curriculum teams – “Science for the Next Generation” and “Teaching for Conceptual Change in Science”

Please contact Jen Chase for more information about these materials, to check something out or for more ideas to support your science instruction!

Winter Tech Integration


Page Keeley has a classic problem, The Mitten Problem, that can be used to help elicit students preconceptions about heat and how heat is transferred.  This temperature assessment probe, coupled with Vernier Temperature probes can provide an excellent phenomenon-based learning opportunity in your classroom.

Begin by setting the stage for children, “Sara’s science class is investigating heat energy.  They wonder what would happen to the temperature reading on a temperature sensor if they put the thermometer in a mitten.”  Using temperature probes, students can plan and carry out their own investigation.  Oftentimes, this first investigation leads to more questions as students “often believe that some materials and objects, such as blankets or mittens, are intrinsically warm.”

  • I wonder what would happen with my really warm ski gloves?
  • I wonder what would happen with the fuzzy socks I wear at home?
  • I wonder what would happen with my winter coat?

These questions, lead to an additional investigation and support student’s sense-making in the ways heat is generated and transferred.  If you want to try this investigation in your own classroom, here’s one way to think about setting it up.

Phenomenon-Based Teaching


Phenomenon-based science lessons may be the new catch phrase in science education, but it is relevant to consider when you’re planning your instruction.  I’ve spoken to many teachers who are intimidated by the phrase “phenomenon based” and aren’t sure how to organize their science lessons around a phenomenon.  I’m here today to break down that barrier.

STEM Teaching Tools suggest that a good phenomenon, or anchor, builds upon everyday or family experiences and is just out of reach of what students can figure out without instruction.   For example, I might use the hand full of rocks in the picture above as the phenomenon to launch a series of lessons exploring the rock cycle.  Why are they all different when I picked them up in the same place?  Why does one have holes? What are the stripes?  TJ McKenna has started a website, Phenomena for NGSS, as a place to collect and share these organizing ideas.

Videos can be another source for phenomena, or when searching for images to support your ideas.  I was having a conversation with 4th grade teachers last week about the Space Systems unit.  We were talking about how shadows might fit into the launch of the unit.  A quick search yielded this video and many other time lapse videos showing shadows changing.  An open-ended question, “What’s happening?” can encourage conversations and engage students in the content.  There are also several YouTube channels, such as Veritasium,  which use phenomenon to engage learners.

I know you’ve heard the questions, “Why do we have to learn this?”  Using a phenomenon (or anchor, or discrepant event…whatever you call it) helps engage students in the learning and it helps lend a relevance.  A phenomenon should be within the grasp of students, should be familiar and yet just out of reach as far as their ability to explain, and a phenomena should push them to wonder, to ask questions, to be curious.

If you’re still wondering, here’s one more way to think of phenomenon-based science lessons…

What’s going on in your classroom?  Leave a comment or send an email!



Phenomena based Engagement…

It is no secret that one goal of the NGSS is for instruction to be more student-centered, more inquiry-based.  One way to begin making that shift in your classroom is to think about engaging students through a phenomena.

Recently I modeled this idea with a group of elementary teachers.  Each teacher was given paper cup full of, what appeared to be, plain white beads.  They were asked to record as many questions as possible about the beads using one sticky note per question.

The beads were actually UV sensitive beads .  In addition to the paper cups, I provided pipe cleaners and foil squares.  As people started to recognize that the beads could change, I encouraged them to go outside with the beads.

As the beads changed color, I continued to encourage teachers to record as many questions as possible on sticky notes.

Once the initial enthusiasm slowed down, I asked teachers to sort their questions.  The first sort was into piles that were 1) Scientific Questions and 2) non-Scientific Questions.  This gave us an interesting opportunity to talk about the differences and to honor all the questions that were asked.

The second question sort was into piles that were 1) questions that could be tested and 2) questions that could be researched.  The ensuing discussion brought with it increased enthusiasm for the potential investigations that could be conducted.

Finally, I asked teachers to consult their Science & Engineering practices  and consider what might be next steps.  I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered that the January 2016 edition of Science and Children had a complete investigation and engineering challenge based on these beads called “Made in the Shade”.

Look for phenomena that relate to the units you’re teaching.  How can you use that phenomena to engage students in the big ideas of that topic?  Where will their questions take them?

…engaging students with video

One of my favorite ways to engage students in argument from evidence is with a discrepant event.  There are some fantastic You Tube channels that support this kind of thinking and conversation.  One of my favorites is Veritasium.

Derek of Veritasium, posted this video last spring – The Beaker Ball Balance problem:


Derek sets up the situation and asks what will happen when the balance is released.  Students can watch the video, which is only about 2 minutes long and develop their argument.  Students should be able to use a “because” clause to explain the thinking behind their prediction.  You could even ask students to move to one side of the room or the other, and use their personal predictions to generate a group prediction.  Students may revise their own thinking and change groups after listening to the thinking of other students.

Once students have formulated their argument and shared their prediction, you can click on the most popular prediction (within the video).  Derek will show you what actually happens and explains the physics behind the results.

I challenge you to watch the set and make your own prediction first…my initial prediction was not correct!  Happy Science!

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