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Like us, you may have gotten into the career of science education because it was hands-on, minds-on, relevant, and engaging for you and your students. Many chemistry curriculums, including ChemCom, make chemistry contextual, while other curricula may be completely disconnected from real-world events or students’ lives. As we are both trained and endorsed as K-8 and 4-12 science teachers with over 20 years of experience, we strive to bring creative and constructivist education theories into our 6th grade heterogeneous classrooms.

The NGSS shift

Since Washington State has been an early adopter of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), we’ve been shifting ahead of the curve. An NGSS classroom is one that moves students to the center of the learning environment as they construct their understanding, and moves teachers to the role of guide. You don’t have to throw out what you are already doing to adopt this approach. This shift toward NGSS practices can be achieved by reframing your current lessons, and engaging in some thoughtful course design to increase relevance and engagement in your own classroom.

Problem-based design

Course design is not just a higher education idea. While there are limitations set by states, Advanced Placement Chemistry, and other standards, the methodology of an NGSS science classroom can allow for incredible creativity in the chemistry classroom. We want to highlight a unit showcasing our shift toward an NGSS-style phenomenon, as well as student work in modeling for understanding and arguing from evidence.

The engaging hook of a “groovy phenomenon”

To begin, we introduce many units with a novel hook to grab students’ attention and generate curiosity for what’s coming next. Music is an easy way to captivate students as they enter the room and build engagement for the upcoming task. Music can also be a fun way to make meaning and build memory. We all know this from personal experience — especially when the radio plays a song we haven’t heard in years, and suddenly we are singing along! When we teach students that volume is variable “under pressure,” we play the song by Queen and David Bowie with the same name.

Thus, our introduction of the word phenomenon, in general, is no different. Phenomenon. Phe. Nomom. Memon. You’ve likely got that Muppets tune in your head, right? Imagine a class of 6th graders singing the do-do-do-do-do part every time we say the word: Phenomenon. It’s not only engaging, but it also sticks: students come back over the years to tell us they still remember the songs.

The “groovy phenomenon” we share in this unit is about lava lamps, the mesmerizing lighting devices introduced in the 1960s. This unit takes place after another problem-based unit on mass, volume, and density, where students get practice in modeling, and gain prerequisite knowledge for this engaging and, well, groovy unit.

We have used this lava lamp unit in many different ways and styles in our ever-changing classrooms. Originally, it started as a standalone assessment question: “Using what you know, explain how a lava lamp works.” Another year, we taught it as an overarching theme for the entire first semester. We used the concept to tease out initial ideas and questions of mass, volume, and density, as well as later investigations of thermodynamics (complete with a concluding engineering challenge). Our current use, which we want to highlight here, is focused on the concept of thermodynamics.

Modeling understanding: what’s going on?

Austin Powers’ theme song, a Bossa Nova beat, is playing as students walk into the room and see a working lava lamp. We begin with a prompt to draw, diagram, model, explain how the lamp works, regardless of any prior understanding. We give them no information, other than what they can observe. Whatever students are observing and thinking needs to be recorded, either as a hypothesis or a question.

We stress that there is no right or wrong in this initial model phase and, although student engagement is high at the outset, they soon find themselves challenged and frustrated when they realize that they really have a very limited understanding of “how it works.” With some prior work in modeling, students can refer to a Conventions of Modeling Booklet1 during this work time where, for about 25 minutes, they are observing and documenting a lava lamp while listening to groovy ‘60s-era music. Then the class period continues for 5-10 minutes with a silent gallery walk, where students observe other science ideas in the room, collect new evidence for their own models, all while questioning and challenging each other’s thinking. Finally, the class period ends with the students adding their first modifications to the model, borrowing ideas from others, and (perhaps temporarily) eliminating ideas that seem implausible.

Students will be quick to point out limitations of any model. They challenge the model, and each other, with “what if” questions. For example, some students think a fan is pushing the blobs up through the liquid inside the lamp. Others will point out that a fan isn’t in the system. Those who have seen a lava lamp before will share that there is a light inside the base. Some will question what happens when the power source is turned off. We encourage these challenges, and specifically teach that models have limits, and can be refined based on new evidence.2 New evidence comes first from each other’s experiences.

The goal is for students to understand how a lava lamp works by the end of the unit. Arguing from evidence starts on day one, and they make their initial models and try to explain what they are seeing, based on very little evidence. This tactic highlights that they understand very little at first, and inspires them to know more.

The next day, we begin class with the public questions that come from their initial modeling session. For example, students want to know what the substances inside the lamp are, what makes them go up and down, why they come together or break apart, and how the light plays a part of the system. We refer back to their questions throughout carefully selected investigations and labs to help them discover the answers themselves. The investigation stations run for three days, followed by a debriefing day, and two subsequent days for additional heat transfer and thermal expansion labs and discussion. Many of these lessons come directly from Middleschoolchemistry.com.3 The key shift in the NGSS classroom is that students are uncovering their own facets of learning and independently building their understanding. Students are problem solvers, collaborators, and sense- and meaning-makers throughout the investigations to understand the phenomenon.

Figure 1. Phenomenal Door with student questions

Opening the “Phenomenal Door”

Two of the tenets of an NGSS classroom are to make student thinking public, and to acknowledge facets of learning. According to University of Washington learning scientists Philip Bell and Jim Minstrell, “Rather than simply viewing students’ intuitive or partially scientific ideas as misconceptions, the diversity of students’ ideas can be considered stepping stones to deeper understanding and teachers should actively engage with them. It is important for teachers to be able to recognize, build on, and respond to the range of ideas — or facets of students’ thinking — during instruction.”4 A public display of student thinking can be done on an anchor chart, a Know/Want to know/Learned (KWL) chart, or other discovery tracking tools. In our classroom, it’s the Phenomenal Door, a place where we post initial questions, and to which we return as lessons and inquiries proceed and students discover the answers to their own questions.

The guide on the side

So, what’s the teacher’s role in this type of learning process? We like to think of ourselves as guides. In our planning, we often use the same labs and activities we have in the past, but shift the essential question or problem focus to increase student engagement. It’s not throwing away your great resources; rather, it’s a matter of reframing the great work you already have access to. This will bring student ideas, questions, and interests to the forefront, allowing them to be more fully engaged in the learning process.

What’s perhaps novel for this unit is that we’ve created a booklet for student investigation stations that helps to enhance student engagement. Once again, we have taken pre-existing activities, re-worked them to require students to be fully independent learners while exploring, and then bound them all together as a “passport to learning” packet. While students work to build their own understanding and make connections with their initial models, they also have the benefit of learning in teams of students through inquiry.

Station investigations: Passports to learning

Students are independent learners in an NGSS classroom.5 They are engaged in the problem, and are motivated to solve it. They are on a journey of discovery, and a passport helps guide them. When setting up stations, consider using more than one classroom. This works especially well if you have a teaching partner who has the same schedule as you. This opportunity encourages movement, independence, and voices from new teachers and peers from other classes, in the quest for evidence. All students have some experience with each of the learning stations, which focus on such topics as water droplets, temperature, and expansion. This allows students to feel both comfortable about trying new things, and satisfyingly challenged when new questions lead them to rethink their previous understandings.

Sense-making: Teacher as facilitator

Using evidence from the investigations and their own questions posted to the Phenomenal Door, we then facilitate class discussions in search of meaning. STEM teaching tools, like talk moves have encouraged us to create a culture of inquiry where students question, provide evidence to, and talk with each other. We also use silent signals to encourage holistic participation. Using the students’ experiences from inquiry and the observations they have collected in their “passport,” the teacher’s job is to tease out model rules that explain the lava lamp phenomenon. For example, students observe that hot water is able to mix blue and yellow food dye to create a green color faster than cold water. Then, using lab sheet prompts, students discuss why that might be.

Figure 2. Phenomenal Door with model rules to explain the lava lamp phenomenon

When we come together as a large group to make meaning of our observations, it is critical that the teacher be prepared to help students draw connections between what they observed and the model rule: molecules of “hot” water have more motion or kinetic energy than “cold” water. However, to do this takes some practice between guiding students to the rule without telling them what it is. Dancing, moving, and gesturing are great tools for communication, especially when one is figuring it out for the first time — and we encourage that. Only then do we, as the guides, name the phenomenon with terms like kinetic energy and particle motion. Then we scaffold the discussion to come to an agreement of how we will model each rule. For example, three cartoon cars (stopped, going, and speeding) help us develop motion lines as a convention of modeling and the rule that all particles are always in motion and some particles are moving faster than others.

We post this rule, and those that follow, to the Phenomenal Door and refer to them throughout the remainder of the unit.

Checking for understanding using 3D assessment

Complex models, such as the lava lamp, require regular check-ins for understanding and a scaffolding of smaller ideas. One way we monitor student understanding is to offer a separate formative oral and model-based assessment that highlights practices for modeling and arguing from evidence (see the “Foggy Mirror” prompt developed in partnership with the University of Washington, an open source assessment with student samples, available online). Using a novel phenomenon like Foggy Mirror allows us to see which concepts students might need more help with, which rules they may need help applying, and which conventions of modeling they have mastered or need support with before they try their hand at explaining the lava lamp phenomenon.

Foggy Mirror Documents

  • Student Handout (Word, PDF)
  • Student Sample Work (PDF)

Model-based assessment allows students to demonstrate content knowledge. The creative diagramming aspect of the model means that students, especially English language learners (ELLs), can demonstrate content understanding without being bogged down by vocabulary, because they can show their comprehension is deeper than vocabulary. Another assessment method that gives students quick feedback and permits a look into the student’s understanding is a one-minute oral conference, where students follow the Foggy Mirror model to explain to a teacher how a phenomenon works (see some examples below). Some students can model it but can’t explain it, and some students can explain it but can’t model it. This assessment attempts to bring the two together, as students grow in their NGSS practices toward their final lava lamp explanation.

Explaining chemistry phenomenon can vary by level of complexity:

  1. Ice Cube in Your Hand: Explain why you feel cold.
  2. Sea Level Rise: How does thermal expansion and heat transfer put a coastline at risk?
  3. Foggy Mirror: Explain this common phenomenon.
  4. Lava Lamp: Explain how this groovy phenomenon works.

Putting it all together: Applying the rules

After reviewing model rules and the lava lamp phenomenon, and making connections to the Phenomenal Door, teachers provide a model checklist for final assessment. Students are asked, once again, to explain how a lava lamp works. Based on guided investigations, they have new evidence to support their ideas. They apply the model rules, conventions, and evidence from their investigations to diagram and explain how a lava lamp works.


This is just one of many lessons that demonstrate how an existing unit can be reframed, using a phenomenon to increase engagement in your classroom. Using a storyline that weaves throughout your lessons is a fun way to bring excitement and authentic learning opportunities to students, and provide them with experiences to build their own understanding of how things work and explain their understanding through complex modeling. Rather than simply measuring the density of a cube to determine if it sinks or floats, why not ask students to apply the concept of density in a more meaningful way? Give them a REASON for wanting to learn what density is and why it matters: that’s the power of the Lava Lamp Phenomenon.

If you are interested in using more complex phenomena in your classroom (and time permits), ask students to apply what they have learned about thermodynamics and density. Examples could include lessons around climate change, sea level rise, and ocean or wind currents. With some thought and creativity, the possibilities for building exciting and engaging phenomenon-based learning opportunities are enormous.


  1. The authors created this resource based on the Middle School Strand of NGSS web page on Science and Engineering Practices: Developing and Using Models. https://ngss.nsta.org/Practices.aspx?id=2 (accessed Oct 25, 2018).
  2. For more on using models in your classroom, see Windschitl, M., Thompson, J., and Braaten, M., Ambitious Science Teaching ; Harvard Education Press: Cambridge, MA, 2018. A relevant chapter is also available at http://ambitiousscienceteaching.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Models-and-Modeling-An-Introduction1.pdf (accessed Oct 25, 2018).
  3. ACS Middle School Chemistry page. http://www.middleschoolchemistry.com/lessonplans/. See Lesson Plans for Chapters 1 and 2 Matter and related Student Activity Sheets.
  4. STEM Teaching Tools web page on Beyond “misconceptions”: How to recognize and build on Facets of student thinking. http://stemteachingtools.org/brief/37 (accessed Oct 25, 2018).
  5. NGSS web page on Science and Engineering Practices: Analyzing and Interpreting Data. https://ngss.nsta.org/Practices.aspx?id=4 (accessed Oct 25, 2018).

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