Topics: High-Quality Curriculum PhD Science Family Engagement

How Phenomenon-Based, Hands-On Instruction Builds Enduring Knowledge

Great Minds

by Great Minds

May 1, 2023
How Phenomenon-Based, Hands-On Instruction Builds Enduring Knowledge

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Posted in: Aha! Blog > PhD Science > High-Quality Curriculum PhD Science Family Engagement > How Phenomenon-Based, Hands-On Instruction Builds Enduring Knowledge

Students strive to make sense of the world around them by asking questions. Through science instruction, we can embrace and nourish students’ natural curiosity as they explore science ideas to answer their own questions.

PhD Science® motivates students to ask questions about authentic phenomena and real-world problems, embracing student exploration and preparing students to apply their science knowledge to their own daily lives. Students engage with the three dimensions in an integrated way to help build a cohesive understanding of science over time.

PhD Science students acquire deep and lasting comprehension through observing, reading, writing, investigating, and analyzing. Students are actively doing science to build knowledge rather than memorizing and quickly forgetting what they’ve learned.


The PhD Science Teacher Edition highlights the three-dimensional learning that will take place throughout a module at the module level and lesson set level (lessons that are conceptually related). Teachers know from the start of a module the knowledge that students have already developed and where they’ll be heading in future grades as learning builds within and across grade levels. Students build their knowledge coherently, making deep connections among scientific ideas, concepts, and practices as they apply their knowledge to understand phenomena and the world.

Level 1 Module 2 Wayang Shadow Puppetry Anchor PhenomenonEvery module of PhD Science begins with an anchor phenomenon so students learn science concepts in the context of the real world. For example, Level 1 students explore the topic of light through Wayang Shadow Puppetry with the essential question: How do puppeteers use light to tell stories during Wayang shows? Students build a driving question board with related Phenomenon Questions like Where can we find shadows? and Can we see during a blackout? These questions and others, along with the answers students uncover throughout the module, help shape students' thinking about light.

Level 1 Module 2 Lesson 11—Sample class chart for an investigation on light from the Teacher Edition that involves students noticing when a cat toy creates a shadow or not

In Level 1 Module 2 Lesson 11, students use models (a Science and Engineering Practice) to determine how objects, surfaces, and light sources interact to form shadows (supports a Crosscutting Concept). Students go to six different stations around the classroom and explore, taking notice of the order of the cat, the box lid, and the penlight. Depending on the order of these objects, students may or may not see the toy cat’s shadow (relates to the Disciplinary Core Idea).

Each lesson builds on the lessons before it as students develop their understanding of key science concepts, such as sight and interactions with light. Prior to engaging in the stations in Lesson 11, students will have developed an anchor model of Wayang shadow puppetry as a class. They will have engaged in discussion related to observations of photographs and videos of glowworms illuminating a cave. Following Lesson 11, they will use a model to determine how engineers in Rjukan used mirrors to redirect sunlight and reevaluate their Wayang shadow puppetry model.

Level 4 Module 4 Lesson 2—Image of what appears to be only clouds but is both clouds and waterBuilding on what students learned about light in Level 1, students in Level 4 Module 4 deepen their understanding on the concept of light through the anchor phenomenon of Visibility of and Communication to Howland Island. Students develop a class anchor model to explain why Amelia Earhart could not find Howland Island over the course of the module. Students discover how light reflects off an object to the eye, investigate how texture and color of objects affect what we see, evaluate and create a physical model of Howland Island, and explore radio communication and Morse code as they revise their class anchor model.

Through building knowledge layer by layer across lessons, modules, and grade levels, PhD Science students develop problem-solving and critical-thinking skills that extend well beyond a science lesson.


Students actively engage in a learning cycle of asking questions and sharing initial ideas about phenomena, investigating those questions, developing evidence-based explanations, and transferring their knowledge to explain different phenomena in new contexts throughout a module and its lessons.

The learning cycle contains five content stages: Wonder, Organize, Reveal, Distill, and Know.

In the Wonder stage, students observe rich phenomenon and generate questions while connecting prior understanding to the phenomenon.

In the Organize stage, students develop an initial explanation of the phenomenon and may focus on a question to investigate.

Level 1 Module 2 Lesson 6—Setup of a model that will be used to determine how objects are seen with light but may be blocked by other objects

Level 1 Module 2 Lesson 6—Image of what students will observe during an investigation on light

In the Reveal stage, students explore their questions through hands-on investigations and gather relevant evidence to help answer them.

Blackout by John Rocco from the Level 1 module provides students an opportunity to practice and strengthen literacy skills as they build science knowledge in light. As Blackout is read, students are asked discussion questions tied to the concept of light like How does the mom find the boy? and What light sources do the family and neighbors use during the blackout? 

In the Distill stage, students apply evidence and reasoning to revise their explanation of the phenomenon, communicating new knowledge and synthesizing prior understanding.

The Level 1 module on light has students explore what materials work well as Wayang screens during its Science Challenge. Materials tested include acetate sheets, cardboard, paper towels, and more. 

In the Know stage, students apply their new understandings to a phenomenon or problem. They revise their initial explanations by incorporating new evidence gathered through their investigations of supporting phenomena. In this stage, they also generate new questions.

Conceptual Checkpoints, coming after multiple lessons and tied to a specific concept within a module, measure students’ understanding of the module’s Disciplinary Core Ideas as well as the skills and knowledge associated with Science and Engineering Practices and Crosscutting Concepts.

At the end of the module, students reflect on the conceptual understanding they have developed and used to explain multiple phenomena in a Socratic Seminar, giving students an opportunity to synthesize their learning and discuss their ideas. Students apply their knowledge around the phenomena and conceptual understanding in new contexts in the End-of-Module Assessment like lighthouses in Level 1.

Learn more about how PhD Science connects learning within and across levels through carefully chosen, interwoven phenomena and three-dimensional, engaging lessons.

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Topics: High-Quality Curriculum PhD Science Family Engagement