George Lucas Educational Foundation
Critical Thinking

Having Students Document Scientific Phenomena Outside the Classroom

Middle school science teachers can have students explore the natural world, strengthening their scientific habits of mind.

July 24, 2023
Pollyana Ventura / iStock

Factual information and vocabulary have an important role in the science classroom. They allow us to communicate abstract concepts. A shared language allows both beginners and subject matter experts to explain their perspectives. As I tell my students, “If you’re going to describe a football play to someone, you need to know both the position names and roles of the players.” The rules are similar when talking about science. 

Traditionally, students absorb information directly from the teacher or a teacher-generated activity. As science standards have evolved, this “fact-focused” practice has been called into question. For example, the Next Generation Science Standards encourage students to make sense of content through broader science and engineering practices and to recognize crosscutting concepts. Recent advances in artificial intelligence with apps like ChatGPT further complicate matters. The speed at which they can produce an entire unit’s worth of vocabulary and notes is essentially immediate!

Shifting Focus onto nature to Forge Connections to Learning

How should science teachers respond to this evolving educational landscape? Does the delivery of piecemeal information within a classroom still have value? Scientific information isn’t an end to itself but is a pathway toward developing student practitioners.

It’s important that technological innovation not replace a student’s ability to view the natural world through a critical lens forged through learning and experience. As teachers, we can trade our focus on how learners gather their information with how they apply it. This can be an opportunity for us to reevaluate what we expect students to do with science facts and vocabulary. 

Given that technology plays a larger role in how students collect their facts about a topic, it makes sense to give them more dynamic opportunities to show what they know. One approach could be asking students to make meaningful connections between information learned in class and their “real life” surroundings. Open access to information doesn’t necessarily create more knowledgeable critical thinkers. A limitless supply and convenience of access may often lead to information overwhelm. A key starting point for science teachers is to distinguish the content that can be observed in a concrete and accessible way. 

A method I use to build scientific habits of mind is asking learners to document phenomena outside of the classroom with a personal photo. I challenge students to look for examples of what we’re learning in class in the outside world. Students demonstrate their understanding by creating common links between what happens in the confines of the classroom and the unpredictability of the natural world. This activity can inspire deeper analysis, classroom discussion, and broadening of student understanding of the topic.

Let’s consider a four-step method for documenting scientific phenomena outside of the classroom.

1. Give a Compelling Teacher Sample 

Initially, we want to convince students that we’re surrounded by science in action. These examples might be so commonplace that we normally overlook them. Providing students with a photo of an everyday phenomenon is an opportunity to interject suspense and storytelling.

I recently drove through the rolling hills of North Carolina on Route 77 and was struck by an unusual feature. Branching off of the highway were short roadways labeled “runaway truck ramps.” These partial roads led up a steep hill and stopped abruptly. If we have the full picture, the phenomenon is not terribly mysterious. A truck that loses its ability to stop can pull over to the ramp and let gravity take its course in slowing the vehicle down.

When sharing a photo of this phenomenon with my students, I removed context clues like the “runaway truck ramp” sign to make the mystery more engaging. I prompted students to reflect on an open-ended question like “What is the purpose of these roadways to nowhere?” At this point, I parceled out content-related clues. I had students find definitions and facts that led to an understanding of the mystery—for example, “What is Newton’s first law?” “How is this ramp related to that law?” “If a truck lost the ability to stop, what would be a practical way to keep the driver safe?” Once students collect the factual information needed to reveal the phenomenon, they can look for related discrepant events of their own. 

2. Create a Place Where Students Record Their Observations

I use an editable Google Doc for students to upload their phenomenon image. I frame my document as a table that includes space for the student’s name, a photo, and a written reflection. 

A discussion of responsible digital citizenship, like including the use of school-appropriate photos and not altering other students’ work, may be in order.  

3. Add Constraints 

Limitations can be liberating. I have found that when I give students too much of a blank canvas, they have trouble getting started.

If the activity is to “find and photograph a physical change,” learners might not know where to look. My suggestion would be to place a limit on where learners are expected to explore the phenomenon. For example, students could capture a physical change in the yard, in the park area, or on the school grounds only.

4. Have Students Analyze the Phenomenon

You have options in how the students apply their subject matter knowledge once the class’s phenomenon photos have been uploaded. Learners might give a narrative on how their photograph is connected to the science content. They might also assess the images provided by peers. Learners might describe how their photo captures the science concept or vocabulary directly in the table. A typical entry might be, “This photo of my Popsicle in the freezer shows sublimation because a solid is turning directly into a gas.”

They can also be prompted with a question like “What science connection do you feel this person was trying to make with this picture?” This is a valuable step, as the scientific example is presented peer-to-peer by a person with similar exposure to the material. Students can spot and clarify misconceptions held by their peers, rather than the teacher being the sole evaluator of work samples. This can be supported by a whole-class dialogue where the photographer and reviewer can justify their thinking. 

When using this strategy, I notice that my students gain a more personalized familiarity with vocabulary. Their opinions about science terms shift from “something I need to memorize” to “something I can use to describe my surroundings.” This fun activity brings joy to the classroom—students enjoy weaving interests, personal information, and creativity when capturing examples of science in their lives.

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Filed Under

  • Critical Thinking
  • Inquiry-Based Learning
  • Science
  • 6-8 Middle School

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