In OpenSciEd instructional materials, students are making sense of a phenomenon or problem, which helps connect each lesson across time as well as provide meaning during a lesson. OpenSciEd units are based on the idea of a science storyline (Reiser, Novak & McGill, 2017). A storyline is a coherent sequence of lessons in which each step is driven by students’ questions that arise from their interactions with phenomena.
At each step, students make progress on the classroom’s questions through science and engineering practices to figure out a piece of a science idea. Each piece they figure out adds to the developing explanation, model, or designed solution. Each step may also generate questions that lead to the next step in the storyline.
Together, what students figure out helps explain the unit’s phenomena or solve the problems they have identified. A storyline provides a coherent path toward building science ideas piece by piece, anchored in students’ own questions. This approach highlights two key instructional shifts in the Next Generation Science Standards that are typically absent from traditional science instruction: phenomena-based teaching and the importance of coherence.
Each OpenSciEd unit kicks off with an anchoring phenomenon that motivates student learning throughout the unit. The anchoring phenomenon provides a common experience for every student that leads to questions or challenges. Even everyday phenomena, like the ice in a cold drink melting, can be seen as puzzling when teachers help students see what they cannot explain about how and why this happens.
This approach differs from traditional science units, which start with teachers introducing the science idea, often with scientific terminology: “We are about to start a unit on thermal energy” or “The focus in this unit is on metabolic reactions.”
Instead, students experience the phenomenon of a cold drink warming up and realize they cannot explain scientifically why this happens. This grounds a lesson about thermal energy in which students are asked to design a cup to keep a drink cold.
Similarly, in a metabolic reactions unit, students are introduced to the case of a 13-year-old girl who is experiencing a strange combination of symptoms, including losing weight, stomach problems, and low energy. As the unit proceeds, students conduct investigations to try to figure out what is causing these symptoms. These investigations require first understanding what normally happens to food and how people get energy.
Part of working with anchoring phenomena also involves asking students to draw on their own personal experiences that seem relevant. During the thermal energy unit, students often bring up other experiences that either keep things cold (e.g., cooler, insulations in walls of a house) or warm (e.g., winter coat, pizza box, sleeping bag).
In the metabolic reactions unit, students can bring up other experiences with the human body (e.g., food poisoning, Lyme disease, asthma). This helps students see science as something related to their lives and experiences, not just disconnected (and sometimes intimidating) academic language like “thermal energy” and “metabolic reactions.”
Coherence in OpenSciEd instructional materials is grounded in the initial anchoring phenomenon and driven by students’ ideas and questions. In experiencing the anchoring phenomenon, students develop questions that are displayed on a driving question board and returned to throughout the unit. These questions ultimately result in students developing deep science ideas, but they are driven by their own interests and questions. And students draw on those science ideas within each unit and across grades based on the middle school science scope and sequence.
For example, to understand how to design a cup to keep a drink cold, students need to understand that thermal energy transfers faster through moving particles that are more dense (e.g., solids) compared to less dense materials (e.g., gases) or vacuums with no particles or collisions. But this idea is not introduced as an abstract science concept. Rather, it is contextualized and builds from a sequence of lessons designed to help students figure out the anchoring phenomenon.
This type of coherence can feel very different than previous science teaching approaches. Often, science instructional materials focus on how science concepts fit together from an expert’s perspective but fail to consider the students’ perspective. The teacher or textbook author knows why the various topics in a chapter are organized together, but often students do not see why they are learning what they are learning.