Toward Justice-Centered Phenomena

Sep 19, 2023

Phenomena contextualized in consequential real-world events can help anchor science ideas in meaningful ways for students in science classrooms. In science, we can think of phenomena as things that happen in the natural world (Windschitl et al., 2018). When students see a purpose for explaining something that happens that’s impactful or relevant to them, they are motivated to figure out how science works and what it can help do for the world instead of just learning about science topics (NGSS, 2016).

Centering justice in classrooms means reconsidering the anchoring phenomenon for the unit. What social, environmental, cultural, and political components are connected to the events? What and who is traditionally left out in the telling of this story in K-12 classrooms? Who does this ultimately serve? The dimensions below highlight at least four dimensions of justice that we consider for K-12 science units; not including these dimensions upholds White dominant ways of thinking and will ultimately reproduce inequities.


  1. Nature-Culture Relations & Ecological Caring
    Too often in classrooms, science is presented as equations and facts separate from human lives and culture. Nature is a part of human existence, and vice versa. Consequential, real-world phenomena show the interconnected relationships among place, nature, and culture. (Bang & Marin 2015; Learning in Places Collaborative. 2020)
  2. Culture, Families, & Communities as Rightfully Belonging
    Who belongs in a science learning environment? This question may bring to mind ideas about inclusion and representation, like including contributions from diverse scientists in a classroom. The idea of “Rightful Belonging” extends beyond these notions. All stakeholders have the right and the responsibility to re-author and transform what it means to participate in science learning and to bring their whole lives to bear. (Calabrese Barton & Tan, 2021; Tan & Barton, 2021)
  3. Broadening Languages of Science
    Multilingual students’ ways of communicating provide value and points of leverage to expand science discourses and sensemaking. Science educators must recognize the linguistic value of all of their students and the communities they come from. Diversity in language reflects diversity in thinking and opens the door for deeper learning. (Suarez, NGS Navigators, 2019; Suarez, 2019)
  4. Power, Histories, & Futures Matter
    Science is a profoundly cultural endeavor, and human experience has been entwined in helpful and harmful ways with discoveries and their applications. For instance, power within society and power within a classroom both determine which ideas get taken up and how ideas get used. Histories of peoples and places continue to shape the experiences of students and their communities. And keen attention must be paid to the possible futures of students and how their engagement with and use of science might shape those outcomes. (Giroux, 1994; Gomez, 2021; Tauheed & Jones, 2022; Thomas, 2021; Winn, 2021, 2022)

Teaching Considerations

There are a few ways to develop a justice-centered phenomenon. Below we describe several approaches.

  1. Survey students at the beginning of the year. Teachers can use a Google form or other tool to learn about students’ interests and then consider possible connections to units during the year. 
    An example survey to give to students at the start of the year. The survey should be available in the home language for ELL students. Questions in this example survey and their purposes are: What do you want to learn about in science class this year? (this is helpful for finding immediate scientific curiosities students may have) Are there any health and environmental problems in your community or family that you want to learn more about? (this question helps hone in on issues with societal and/or justice centered implications) What is one way that science impacts your life? (this helps gain insight on students' concept of the nature and reach of science) What is something that you are interested in that is NOT science related? (may students will identify something that IS science related but might not know it) What is something you want teachers to know about you? (helps you get to know your students as individuals to be responsive to their needs)
  2. Create an asset map. Teams of teachers can make maps of community resources and knowledge that identify how local communities are working together on complex socio-scientific issues, with the goal of cultural and linguistic revitalization or sustainability. For example, in Hawaii, teachers are designing maps to help them learn about Indigenous ways of working with the land to design sustainable agricultural practices or understanding Indigenous Hawaiian cultural knowledge about relationships among humans, land, and sky before building more telescopes on sacred grounds. (See this STEM teaching tool for more information on asset mapping.)
  3. Adapt the unit phenomenon after eliciting student ideas. When eliciting ideas at the outset of a unit, teachers can ask students to describe what the unit phenomenon reminds them of. We have seen students make connections to climate change, caring for animals, family structures, race, power dynamics in schools, and highly local phenomena like erosion on the playground. Often, asking students, “What does this remind you of” allows students to broaden from simply explaining one phenomenon (using select DCIs) to explaining a set of phenomena that often touches on many DCIs across a series of lessons.
  4. Use one of the following examples to get started. Teachers can also consider whether existing phenomena and instructional materials would be relevant in their communities and draw on these to begin. Here are some examples of phenomena being developed in partnership with teachers. 


Grade Topic Unit Question Dimension of Justice
K Weather & temperature How can we design a play space to care for nature that we can use all year? Phenomenon: asphalt playground spaces Nature-Culture Relations
K Interconnectedness of species How are butterflies, plants, and humans connected? And how can we help butterflies throughout their whole lives? Phenomenon: a human-impacted habitat where butterflies disappeared. Nature-Culture Relations
1 Rotation of the earth, day and night cycles Why does the sky look different for us in ____(city) compared to our friends and family around the world? Phenomenon: local and global day and night cycles  Rightfully Belonging, Broadening Languages
1 Light & sound waves How can we use shadow puppets to tell stories and advocate for change? Phenomenon: Wayang Kulit shadow puppetry to advocate for change Rightfully Belonging
2 Land & geologic time How do landforms change, and how do these changes teach us how to care for the land? Phenomenon: local landslides Ecological Caring
2 Properties of matter  Who and what should engineers consider when making mixtures? Phenomenon: designing adhesives Ecological Caring
2 Inter-dependence  How do seeds depend on humans, and humans depend on seeds? Phenomenon: seed dispersal in local forests  Nature-Culture Relations, Rightfully Belonging
3 Magnets & motors What and who do scientists & engineers need to consider when developing mass transit solutions? Phenomenon: designing trains between Singapore and Malaysia  Ecological Caring, Rightfully Belonging
3 Habitats, Fossils & environmental changes What can different plants, animals, and communities teach us about how we should respond to climate change for our futures? Phenomenon: shapeshifter animals’ adaptations  Rightfully Belonging, Power-Histories-Futures Matter
4 Sound waves How does sound pollution impact orcas? Phenomenon: sound pollution in the Puget Sound Nature-Culture Relations
4 Energy  What and who should energy engineers consider for plants and animals when removing a dam? Phenomenon: Elwah dam removal Nature-Culture Relations & Ecological Caring
4 Changing Landscapes  What can rocks, fossils, and landscapes tell us about the history of Earth and how we should care for land? Phenomenon: debates about land rights for Bears Ears National Park Ecological Caring, Rightfully Belonging, Power-Histories-Futures Matter
5 Ecology How should humans care for and develop healthy relationships with ecosystems? Phenomenon: threats to local ecosystems  Nature-Culture Relations & Ecological Caring, Power-Histories-Futures Matter
6 Climate Change As climate justice leaders, what can we learn from Earth’s natural forces and our global communities to understand and deal with the climate crisis? Phenomenon: local impacts of climate change Rightfully Belonging, Power-Histories-Futures Matter
MS Earth Systems Why are there more large storms, floods, and droughts  and what can communities do about them?

Phenomenon: local examples of recent weather events and impacts, with trends of storm frequency.

Nature-Culture Relations, 

Rightfully Belonging

MS Moon Phases How are communities in Venice, Italy and Miami being impacted by tidal flooding and what should be done?

Phenomenon: Examining King Tide flooding events

Nature-Culture Relations, Power-Histories-Futures Matter
MS Human Metabolism How are the chemicals in food differently metabolized in different people?

Phenomenon: Case studies of individuals with Celiacs Disease, PKU, or Diabetes & advocacy within communities 

Rightfully Belonging, Broadening Languages
HS Forces and Impulse How can we design a device that helps to reduce the forces that occur during an impact?

Phenomenon: Athletes using shoes to reduce the impact of footfalls while running. 

HS Chemical & Nuclear Energy What fuel sources can power machines and vehicles in sustainable ways?

Phenomenon: Exploring solutions to pollution made from gas powered cars and trucks. 

Power-Histories-Futures Matter
HS Inheritance and genetic variation Who gets cancer and why? Where should we focus efforts on treatment and prevention?

Phenomenon: Examples of young people with leukemia or breast cancer. 

Rightfully Belonging, Power-Histories-Futures Matter


Critically Examining Phenomena. Below are questions to ask as you brainstorm potential phenomena or connections to the phenomenon in your curriculum. The questions are designed to consider critical aspects of equity, such as identities, power, and politics. Selecting consequential, real-world phenomena is a dance as you consider standards, students’ lived experiences, existing curriculum, local resources and expertise, and larger social, cultural, and political elements. We recommend this work be done with colleagues! 

1.) Nature-Culture Relations & Ecological Caring

  • Does addressing this issue lead to better relations, interconnectedness, and collective thinking? And for whom?
  • How does the issue move beyond “science for progress’ sake” narratives?
  • How does the issue sustain or revitalize communities?
  • How does working on the problem support a deeper understanding of place?

2.) Culture, Families & Communities as Rightfully Belonging

  • How is the issue relevant and connected to issues of science with societal concerns?
  • Are students positioned to study authentic problems that matter to them or society?
  • Is the issue threatening BIPOC communities’ rights and/or cultural ways of knowing?

3.) Broadening Languages of Science

  • How is the issue relevant and connected to multiple cultures and languages, both locally and globally?
  • How can the unit provide a counterstory that highlights multiple ways of knowing and explaining science?

4.) Power, Histories, & Futures Matter

  • How does addressing this problem require acknowledging systemic oppression and the limits brought about by white supremacy?
  • Is the future well-being of society, ecosystems, and/or marginalized communities a focus?
  • How does addressing this problem require considering resources, power, and physical & ecological well-being?


Examples of how teams of teachers shifted curriculum to incorporate consequential real-world events. 

4th grade Sound Pollution. A team of teachers adapted a unit to focus on sound pollution once they realized the planned phenomenon was not as relevant or consequential to students’ lives. Initially, the unit focused on a singer who shattered glass with his voice, but one year while doing an activity to record decibels on the playfield, we overheard students talking about how much they hated living near the airport as the planes interrupted their sleep. Everyone paused as an airplane flew over and landed at a nearby airport. One student exclaimed, “I hate airplanes. They wake me up every night.” Other students chimed in with stories of not sleeping and walls rattling. As teachers, we met after class and decided to shift the curriculum to reflect the importance of caring for one another and designing solutions for noisy places. We researched city ordinances and discovered they were 25 years old. The teachers decided to develop a complementary literacy unit to support students in writing to city and airport officials about the realities of sound pollution. In retrospect, we realized that 1) many of us did not confront our own privilege as we drove home to a quieter part of town and 2) we need to better connect to local community efforts currently addressing sound pollution. We have since adapted the unit in two ways, 1) to investigate nosey sounds within schools and have students design solutions they can advocate for within schools (to either maintain a space to be loud or to reduce noise pollution) and 2) to investigate sound pollution for resident and migratory orca whales in our backyard (the Puget Sound). We found that 4th-grade students have a tendency to care for animals and appreciate units that blend physical and biological sciences. 

Students and instructors outside doing an activity together on a grass field.

7th grade Tree Cover and Advocacy. During a middle school unit focused on matter cycling and the role of photosynthesis in the ecosystem and human health, 7th-grade science classes in Rochester, NY, explored the phenomenon that there is an inequitable distribution of trees across our city, with the neighborhoods my students are from- those economically disadvantaged areas and those with larger non-white populations- having markedly fewer trees, correlated with a higher incidence of respiratory illness and much greater impact of the urban heat island effect in these areas. This learning motivated students to use the science we had learned in class to advocate for more equitable tree cover in the city by presenting their work to community members and submitting recommendations to the city forestry council regarding exactly where trees should be placed. 

2nd grade Place-based Earth Science. A second-grade unit at the William Trotter School in the south of Boston traditionally begins with a Foss Kit in which students view different kinds of pebbles, sand, and silt. One year, this brought up a conversation where students mentioned, “There’s no sand like beaches here in Boston – only on roads!” This shifted our unit to start with items collected on Carson Beach, a beach located only around 2 miles from the school. With these local items to explore, student engagement shifted to thinking about local landforms and how the environment around Boston impacts these. Further, one of the many items brought into the classroom students called a “man-made rock” that is one that had “real rock parts” but also chunks of pavement and even little insects and worms inside. In this example, students shifted from simply learning about pebbles, sand, and silt – to learning about how their urban environment is built on a lot of familiar (paved areas, etc.) and less familiar (mountains, beaches, marshes, etc.) landforms as it grew over time. One student even shared, “Before this, I thought there were only beaches in Florida!”

Images from the 2nd grade place based earth science unit. Shown in the images is a teacher holding a rock on a field trip to a beach, a map of where Carson Beach is, a written explanation from a student's observations about the black rock, and a few images of the black rock and students examining and exploring the rocks.


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