Phenomena and driving questions
At the heart of an MBI unit is a phenomenon. A scientifically rich, complex phenomenon is an occurrence or event that happens/happened in the world. Phenomena are more than examples of science ideas, they anchor the entire unit of instruction.
What makes a good anchoring phenomenon?
Effective phenomena are specific real world events. They are not general (e.g., a space shuttle launch), but are specific events that happen or happened in the past (e.g., the Atlantis shuttle launch of July 8, 2011). The specific, real world context in which the occurrence or event happens is important since it provides complexity and requires students to use a combination of scientific principles (i.e., disciplinary core ideas and crosscutting concepts) coordinated with multiple evidences to explain it. The phenomenon serves as the reason for engaging in an MBI unit and it drives student sense-making and investigations throughout the unit. Phenomena are more than just examples of the science ideas at play. Instead, they are the context within which students come to understand and use those science ideas.
It may be possible to find local phenomena that would be more engaging to students. For example, in the pine forests of Northern Arizona, we can use the increasing bark beetle infestations of our local forests to explore ideas about ecology and climate change.
How are phenomena used in MBI units?
Complex and puzzling phenomena anchor MBI units by providing a specific context and purpose for students to engage. Further, through engaging in iterative attempts to explain phenomena across an MBI unit, students construct explanations with scientific ideas and evidences that are refined over time with science practices. The complexity of the phenomenon is what creates the need for scientific practices and powerful explanatory ideas (i.e., disciplinary core ideas and crosscutting concepts). In other words, the phenomenon drives the unit!
how do i find an anchoring phenomenon?
Finding the perfect anchoring phenomenon for a unit can be challenging. However, as phenomena-based instruction becomes more common in our schools, there are more great examples and resources to draw upon. You can find your phenomenon by:
Looking at our Phenomena Ideas page!
Googling to find out what phenomena others have used for your DCI (e.g., "MS-LS1 phenomena").
Check out articles from NSTA's journals.
Use National Geographic, Smithsonian, or other science magazines.
Did into the scientific literature!
As we want to engage students in using evidence to build their explanations of the phenomena, it's important that data concerning the phenomenon is readily available. For some phenomena, students may be able to collect primary data themselves. For many phenomena, however, you will need to bring in second-hand data to be analyzed. In this case, when you choose a phenomenon for your unit, be sure there is data available to integrate into the activities of the unit.
Creating a Driving Question
A driving question is like bumpers in a bowling match - it keeps the students on track. Driving questions are specific to the phenomenon, not easily answerable, prompt an explanatory answer (i.e., are often 'why' questions), and frame the entire unit for the students. We recommend introducing the driving question after introducing the phenomenon on the first day of the unit and bringing it back regularly throughout the unit. Some examples include:
Why did the reintroduction of wolves back into Yellowstone National Park change the ecology of the park?
Why has sickle cell disease been passed down even though it can have such deleterious effects?
What caused the unique scablands of Eastern Washington?
Why did the Hindenburg blimp explode in 1937?
Introducing the Anchoring Phenomenon and Driving Question
Introducing the anchoring phenomenon is an important part of your MBI unit. If you don't give students enough information, they will have trouble getting started. If you give them too much, they may jump ahead too quickly. Finding the "sweet spot" will take some practice. There are a number of effective ways to introduce your unit phenomenon that we've seen, but here's a basic procedure you can use to get started.
Begin by "priming" the discussion by asking them questions related to the phenomenon. This can happen as a warm-up or bell work question or through whole group questioning. For example, before introducing the phenomenon of the eruption of Mt. St. Helens, we might provide the following prompt for the daily warm-up: "Have you ever seen a volcano? Where were you? If you haven't, where do you think you might find a volcano to visit?"
Is this the students' first MBI unit? If so, we suggest introducing this type of unit so they understand why you are about to talk about a phenomenon and how their role will be to explain it over the course of the unit.
It's time to introduce the phenomenon! In some cases, this may mean bringing the phenomenon in and give the students a direct experience with it through a demonstration. Most often, however, it means finding more creative ways to introduce the phenomenon that they can't experience directly. We often use video clips, photos, or other media. For example, to introduce the Axial Volcano phenomenon, we used a clip from the local news of the eruption, stopping just short of the newscasters describing the volcano's position on a divergent plate boundary (an important part of the explanation!). While introducing the phenomenon, we ask simple questions about what they are noticing.
Next, introduce the driving question. This will help frame the unit for the students. With most phenomena, leaving it open-ended makes it difficult for the students to figure out what you're asking of them. The driving question provides a specific question for them to answer. Be sure to let them know that answering this question is what they will do at the end of the unit. Along the way, they will build their response day-by-day!