Mysteries Can Help Children Understand Science. Here’s How. [Activity]

Activities for phenomena-based learning

Everyone loves a mystery, and science educators are taking advantage of the natural curiosity students bring to mysteries to deepen understanding about science. Educators call this “phenomena-based learning.”

According to the Next Generation Science Standards, “…phenomena are observable events that occur in the universe and that we can use our science knowledge to explain or predict. The goal of building knowledge in science is to develop general ideas, based on evidence, that can explain and predict phenomena.”

Luckily, we can find lots of “mysterious” phenomena to observe and try to explain – both out in the world and as digital pictures and videos! Here is an example:

The video above was shot using a cell phone camera on a wide sandflat in a bay along the coast of Maine. What do you observe happening in the video? What questions can you ask about the video? Here are a few:

  • Why is the water moving, and why is it moving so fast?
  • What is the white foam on the water? Is it pollution? How could you tell?
  • What are the dark things moving with the water?
  • Why are there ripples in the sand? What causes them?

You can do an activity like this in your own backyard! By finding phenomena, making observations and asking questions, you’re already taking part in scientific practice and exploring some of the mysteries of the natural world.

As students raise questions and explore them, it is important to engage them in the following ways:

  • Guide them to make non-trivial, detailed and accurate observations. Younger students might respond to questions with personal stories about the ocean or observations that don’t relate to the phenomena. Gently point out why their observation doesn’t relate, and suggest they provide another.
  • Help them connect their observations to explanations in a logical and non-trivial way. Ask questions to help them determine the flaw in their logic, and, if necessary, offer hints to get them on track.
  • Encourage them to challenge others’ observations and explanations in a positive, non-confrontational manner. Quickly respond to negativity, and create an expectation that all challenges are to be positive and helpful.
  • Provide examples that help them refine their use of language to articulate their observations and explanations more clearly. Ask them to rephrase their responses using your suggestions.
  • Suggest ways to use resources to research their observations and explanations to further their understanding. Guide them in the use of scientifically-appropriate resources on the internet to research answers.

Exercises like this are at the heart of “doing” science, and research shows that students are more engaged, and their learning is deepened, when they participate in solving the “mystery” of natural phenomena. Remember, encouraging curiosity and interest is more important than having the “right” answers for an activity like this!

Here’s another video to try:


Mark Wiley
Former STEM Education State Specialist
Office: Professional Development & Training, Cole Hall #145, Durham, NH 03824