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March 5, 2021

Fall Into Phenomena: Using NGSS to Harvest Student Investigations

The leaves are changing in much of the country and pumpkin spice seems to be taking over — little signs that autumn is finally here! In this season of change, are you looking to transition to the Next Generation Science Standards in your classroom?

Fall is full of phenomena to harvest student engagement and anchor understandings. Here are a few examples of anchoring phenomena paired with an anticipatory set that might lead to investigations and sense-making for the fall season in your classroom.

Fall Leaves

Anchoring Phenomena: Leaves Changing Color

People travel the world to see the best “colors” of the season. What makes this time of year so exceptionally beautiful? Why does one tree turn golden while the one next to it is ablaze with red? While the color change may be chemically complex, the changing colors are a perfect way to embrace crosscutting concepts and have students start to examine the patterns in our ever-changing ecosystem.

VIDEO: NGSS: Crosscutting Concepts

VIDEO: NGSS: Crosscutting Concepts

Potential Student Questions and Investigative Phenomena

Why do some trees change color while others stay green all year?
  • A common question at the start of the school year is, “Are we going to dissect?” While dissection of animals allows students to better grasp their composition, the dissection of a plant can provide the same insights into the role and composition of a plant. To have students investigate the differences between evergreens and deciduous trees, start by asking them to make observations and ask questions. Without ever telling them, it’s likely students will infer that they need to take a closer look. Give students magnifying glasses, and when that’s not enough, break out the microscopes! Using clear nail polish and slides, have students look closer still. While students may not be able to see the chlorophyll changes, they’ll be able to make some great inferences on how composition changes everything.

  • Need more resources? Check out this piece from the College of Environmental Science and Forestry.


Anchoring Phenomena: Monarch Migration

While standing outside at a football game in the Midwest, one can’t help but notice the loud flocks of geese flying and honking overhead. Migration is all around. But while many are familiar with the geese and ducks that migrate the same path each year, their butterfly friend — the Monarch — is sometimes royally overlooked. The monarch butterfly is one of the most iconic keystone species in the United States. It takes several generations for the monarch to make their trip from Canada to Mexico. And while their population is on the decline, student interest doesn’t have to be. Monarchs may be the key to changing up your ecology and populations unit this fall.

VIDEO: Claims, Evidence & Reasoning: Lesson

VIDEO: Claims, Evidence & Reasoning: Lesson

Potential Student Questions and Investigative Phenomena

Why do we see Monarchs in the fall more than any other time of year?
  • Analyzing Monarch Populations: Using information from the Journey North citizen science database and the National Weather Service’s temperature logs, have students examine the crosscutting concept of patterns in the data, analyzing the relationships between the changing monarch population and the changing weather patterns. You can also have students evaluate articles on potential monarch population changes using a claim-evidence-reasoning model. Students can practice identifying claims, evidence, and reasoning while composing a scientific argument about the environmental impacts on the population.
  • Need more resources? Check out the information and resources provided through Monarch Watch (including free milkweed for your classroom).

Anchoring Phenomena: The Changing Seasons

It happens the same time every year; we start reaching for that jacket and pull out our long-sleeves as the weather gets cooler and the days get shorter. Take your students on an astronomical journey to see how our planet makes its annual trip around the sun. Get your students thinking about trips to the warmer southern hemisphere or dreaming about our first big snow.

Potential Student Questions and Investigative Phenomena

Why do the days start to get shorter and colder?
  • Making a Model – Seasons and Daylight: Students can analyze sunrise and sunset times for many locations using data from the National Naval Observatory and then compare it to average temperatures from NOAA’s climate dataset to see a correlation. This investigation can serve as a jumping off point to discovering that the same effect is responsible for both phenomena. Using nothing more than globes (beach ball globes are great) and flashlights, have your students try to figure out how they can make a model of which side of the earth is lit up, and how they can vary the amount of light that a location receives as the Earth rotates on its axis and revolves around the sun. To understand the impact that this can have on temperatures, have students look into how the tilt of the earth can affect the heating of the Earth. Then shine flashlights on a piece of paper and investigate how the area the light covers increases with the tilt of the paper. If you have temperature probes and a focused heat lamp, you can have students investigate the temperature of the paper as well.
  • Interested in expanding the changing seasons and weather to look at climate change? Take a look at Suney Park’s Climate Change in a Bottle Lesson.
VIDEO: Climate Change in a Bottle: Complete Lesson

VIDEO: Climate Change in a Bottle: Complete Lesson

A seasoned teacher knows that you can’t just fall into a great lesson, but hopefully, these autumn-inspired ideas will help you to fall into timely phenomena that will help you design the next great investigation for your students.


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