CSTA Classroom Science

5 Criteria for Selecting Great Teaching Phenomena

By Lissa Johnson, Founder of Mosa Mack Science

Photo by S N Pattenden on Unsplash

Phenomenon-based learning is a central component of the Next Generation Science Standards, and it’s a great practice: when we use real-world experiences and questions to introduce a science topic, students engage much more deeply. But selecting effective phenomena can feel daunting for teachers, and unfortunately, the phenomena offered by many curriculum providers comes up short. At Mosa Mack, we developed our own criteria to analyze each potential phenomenon before we incorporate it into our lessons.

It boils down to 5 key questions:

1. Is the phenomenon emotionally engaging?

The first person who needs to fall in love with the phenomenon is you, the teacher. If you’re not feeling exhilarated, moved, or eager to explore further, your students won’t either. There are specific emotions that you should be looking to engage with a phenomenon, like:  

  • Thrill
  • Horror (the “ewww” factor)
  • Heartache or concern
  • Curiosity
  • Empowerment (a desire for active involvement)

2. Is the phenomenon visual?

Look for phenomena that come to life through sharp imagery (still or moving). These visuals pull students in, and are great reference points for teachers and students to come back to as the unit progresses. Here are some examples we’ve used in our lessons:

  • A dazzling group dance performance with glowing costumes to introduce electricity
  • Giant whale bones being excavated from a mountain to introduce plate tectonics
  • A peculiar looking hairless cat and oversized cow to introduce mutations 

Images or clips that “speak for themselves” are also valuable because they can illuminate the heart of the phenomenon with little explanation. For example, before-and-after photos of artifacts recovered from the Titanic that immediately demonstrate chemical versus physical changes. 

3. Is the phenomenon relevant to students’ lives?

It’s much easier to connect with things that feel familiar or relevant. By choosing phenomena that students can connect with from their own lived experience, the lesson is more likely to matter to them once they’re outside of the classroom - whether it’s a specific topic or issue or a more general emotion that they identify with. 

Phenomena that are most relevant to students are:

  • Buzzy/in the news
  • Something students can connect with through their own personal experience
  • Actionable/meaningful: phenomena that invites students to take further action once they understand it; things that are applicable to and matter in the world and their life outside of class

4. Can it tell a story and create mystery?

While the choice of phenomena itself is important, so is how you frame it. This is where we need to unleash our inner storyteller to tease out the phenomenon’s drama and scientific significance. Consider using the following “3-act” narrative structure for your presentation:

  • Lead with a surprise or mystery.
  • Provide background information that sparks deeper thinking.
  • End with a question, cliff-hanger, or call to action.

Phenomena that get students asking questions right away is the most effective, whether it is a compelling, unanswered mystery or a grave crisis in need of solving. By emphasizing students’ own agency in answering those questions, we can prepare them for the hands-on exploration to come.

For example, rather than starting our biodiversity lesson with an explanation of what biodiversity is or a question like “what is biodiversity?”, we pull students into a real-life mystery: the sharp decline in the population of monarch butterflies, leaving students with these questions: why were the monarchs dying? Were the scientists right? Could this have disastrous consequences for other organisms? How can you find out?

This phenomenon and framing helps them actively learn what biodiversity is and apply their knowledge to solve an urgent, high-stakes question. So students are able to become scientists and actively investigate the phenomenon in a more memorable way.

5. Does the phenomenon invite on-topic activity?

When choosing a phenomenon, stop and ask yourself “can I design an exploration that will help students discover that answer/explanation?”  With thoughtful and creative planning, the transition from asking to doing can feel natural and exciting. If you cannot connect the phenomenon to a set of activities, then it may be interesting to just read about and reflect on instead.


Now that we’ve explored what to look for in a phenomenon, where can educators find phenomena?  Science journals may be the most obvious place to look, but you can also find great ideas on the news, in blog posts, and even on social media. Sometimes phenomena can even be hiding in plain sight; Listen for potential phenomena from your students themselves. Is there science in what they're talking about, in the latest trends, or in what they're already reading or watching? 

Lissa Moses Johnson Headshot.png
Lisa Moses Johnson

About the Author

Lissa Moses Johnson
Founder, CEO, Mosa Mack Science
Mosa Mack Science creates award-winning inquiry-based science resources that pairs phenomena and mysteries with hands-on labs and engineering challenges.



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