FOSS a Phenomenal Program?

Larry Malone, Co-Director of FOSS, Lawrence Hall of Science
September 21, 2016 | Observations by Larry

My continuing ruminations regarding the interpretation and implementation of the Next Generation Science Standards has exposed yet another dimension of the NGSS vision. We know the framers of the NGSS have created a vision of student engagement with science as a three-pronged intellectual embrace of the subject: 1) familiarity with a comprehensible, reasonably restricted, suite of science disciplinary core ideas; 2) a robust and authentic description of a set of instructional rules of engagement—the science and engineering practices that define scientific inquiry and the application of scientific knowledge to solve human problems; and 3) a tool kit of crosscutting concepts to knit students' disparate accumulation of knowledge of the natural world into a unified fabric. It is a marvelous vision—challenging to articulate and daunting to realize.

So I continue trying to apprehend a vision of NGSS implementation. What are some of the critical understandings that can help us move forward effectively? First, I needed to understand how we should embrace the disciplinary core ideas. A Framework for K–12 Science Education by the National Research Council (2012) has laid out a matrix of fundamental scientific knowledge defining the dimensions of basic scientific literacy—preparation for: citizenship; contemporary employment; and post-secondary education. The list of core ideas is heady and robust, particularly for the novice teacher.

Let me do some parsing. We know that science is the systematic quest for understanding regarding the objects, systems, and interactions in the natural world. The Framework and the NGSS suggest a menu of the "objects, systems, and interactions in the natural world" in the discussions of the DCIs, and the rules of engagement with those ideas as defined in the narrative surrounding the science practices. The problem is partly in the lofty lingo in the guiding documents. For instance, in physical science:

PS1: Matter and its Interactions. (How can one explain the structure, properties, and interactions of matter?)

  • PS1.A Structure and Properties of Matter (How do particles combine to form the variety of matter one observes?)
  • PS1.B Chemical Reactions (How do substances combine or change (react) to make new substances?)
  • PS1.C Nuclear Processes (not investigated at the K–8 level)

A typical elementary-school teacher may not know how to teach to these lofty guidelines. But we have help. In science parlance, objects, systems, and interactions in the natural world are categorically phenomena. A phenomenon is a natural occurrence, circumstance, or fact that is perceptible by the observable event. In popular, conversational lingo, something that is phenomenal is marvelous, incredible, astounding or in some other way exceptional. Scientific phenomena are not necessarily stunning (although they may be)—most of the time they are pretty mundane and well within the everyday experience. For instance, a handful of everyday phenomena that are worthy of systematic elementary-school inquiry include, dissolving, melting, evaporation, and germination. These may seem on the surface to be pretty passive, like watching paint dry and watching grass grow. But for a fact, a systematic investigation of the phenomena dissolving, melting, paint drying, and seeds germinating can be stimulating and revealing when approached with the heart and imagination of a scientist. So the trick to enacting an effective engagement with the NGSS is cunning and thoughtful selection of phenomena for students to investigate. The phenomena don't have to be phenomenal, but they do need to be selected intentionally so that they are compatible with the goals elaborated in the Framework.

Engagement with phenomena is at the heart of a traditional Lawrence Hall of Science approach to school science that has been promoted, recognized, and appreciated by us old-timers as "hands-on science." For us, "hands-on" has always meant engagement with real-world phenomena, often demeaned by detractors as "just play." It is satisfying to see our commitment to active-engagement with phenomena supported in the Framework and reinforced in the NGSS. Using phenomena as the point of entry into scientific inquiry adds a substantial measure of authenticity to the enterprise. Authentic engagement with phenomena brings benefit for both teachers and students. Students are more motivated when they have phenomena (objects, systems, and interactions) as their entrée into science study, and there is enhanced opportunity for deeper thinking about explanations and propositions about how the world works—real science. The voice in the FOSS Investigations Guides typically does not explicitly identify the phenomena that are the central subjects of inquiry, but in every part of every investigation the central phenomenon is referenced implicitly in the focus question that guides instruction and frames the intellectual work.


The images on this page are all images students encounter in the FOSS Science Resources books for the Solids and Liquids and Structures of Life Modules.
(Click on image to enlarge.)