Simplifying Phenomenon-Based Learning in Science Education


It seems like everywhere you go, you hear about Phenomenon-Based Learning. The teaching style has steadily grown in popularity over the years, but it’s inclusion in the Next Generation Science Standards has solidified its place in science classrooms across the country. But, what is it? And how do you make it work in your science classroom?

Phenomenon-Based Learning (PBL) is a holistic style of learning that transcends traditional subject delineations. If “I’m sorry, what?” is all you can think, you’re not alone. Essentially, when you bring phenomenon-based learning into your science classroom, your students are studying real-world STEM in a more complete context, diving into the subject more thoroughly, and surfacing with a more robust understanding of science and engineering. Which brings us to our second question, how do you go about teaching in this way?

Phenomenon-Based Learning through eCYBERMISSION

eCYBERMISSION is a free, virtual STEM competition for 6th-9th grade students that makes teaching phenomenon-based lessons, building teamwork skills, and guiding students to learn about real-world science straightforward and easy. The premise is simple. Students create teams of 2-4 led by you, their Team Advisor, and select a community problem, or a local phenomenon, to either investigate with science or solve with engineering.

With eCYBERMISSION, students have the freedom to study a subject that they’re interested in, increasing student buy-in and facilitating a learning experience that they’ll enjoy and feel more connected to. Bringing a local viewpoint into the science classroom helps students better relate to the information being taught. Rather than things happening in far off places or in the past, students relate what they are learning to their own lives. When students select a community-based problem for their eCYBERMISSION project, they see the connections in what they are learning to the world around them.

Time as a Tool in Phenomenon-Based Learning

Phenomenon-based learning is at its most effective when given the time to work. With eCYBERMISSION, students learn the building blocks of STEM while working on their project over the course of weeks or months, instead of hours or days. Looking at real-world problems often takes a bit more time, as students are walking through the entire process from discovery to resolution, or at least attempted resolution. These long-term projects are helpful for students in developing organizational and time management skills, and students engaged in PBL have shown better long-term retention of content and have better problem-solving skills.

But with a longer-term assignment comes a longer-term commitment. It can be scary for teachers to give their students the reins, especially for a project lasting more than a class period. Every teacher has had a student, likely many students, who is not ready for a large amount of classroom independence or who struggles to spend time wisely. Often, structure is required to keep students on track. That’s why, in addition to other resources like lesson plans and activity sheets, we provide pre-built timelines that make it easy to create milestones or goals for student projects, rather than viewing it as one long assignment. These resources are general enough to be helpful for any STEM subject. However, we do provide two sets, tailored to either a scientific inquiry project or an engineering design project. Which begs the question…

Science vs. Engineering, What’s the Difference?

It is quite common to see confusion from students or even teachers about what the difference is between a science project and an engineering project. Put simply, science is all about answering questions, while engineering centers around solving problems. However, as phenomenon-based learning seeks to point out, neither science nor engineering exist in a vacuum. It is possible, even probable, that students must use both. For instance, a student using engineering to find a solution to deforestation may first use science to understand the mechanism behind tree growth. Likewise, a student studying the impact of plastic debris in a nearby lake may use engineering to consider the mechanical breakdown process.

The overlap between science, engineering, mathematics, and technology, can make it seem difficult to separate them. But keeping students focused on the science or engineering path of eCYBERMISSION makes it easier for them to dive deeply into the phenomenon they center their project around and increases their chances of success. If their scientific inquiry unearths problems needing an engineering solution, encourage them to continue the project next year, only this time using engineering to solve the problem instead of science to understand it.

When selecting the science or engineering path for eCYBERMISSION, it’s important to consider the scope of the project, necessary materials, and even what you as a teacher want your students to learn from it. Are you focused on growing inquisitive minds in your classroom? Science is for you. Do you want your students to practice their problem-solving skills? Engineering wins out. There are also differences in necessary resources between the two types of projects. Many scientific studies can be done via a simple survey or with materials present in your everyday science classroom, whereas engineering may require more sophisticated resources if students elect to build a physical prototype. However, students are permitted to submit a written or drawn model of a prototype instead of a physical machine.

The Importance of Failure in STEM

With every scientific study or engineering design, there is a chance, often a quite high one, of failure. Maybe the study shows no significant results, or the prototype simply doesn’t work. An important aspect of phenomenon-based learning and STEM as a whole is failure.

While failure has a bad connotation (who wants to lose?), it’s not an inherently bad thing. After all, scientists and engineers fail all the time! Failing teaches your students what doesn’t work, which helps them better understand what does. Teaching students that failing is not only not a bad thing, but can actually be a positive, better prepares them for the future, and is that not the point of education? Think about your classroom now. You probably have a student that is resigned to failure as a way of life. You probably also have a student who has never failed. But at some point, everyone will, and it’s important to teach students what to do in those situations to help them grow. It’s tough to let your students fail, but through that failure, they’ll learn how to succeed, and you, as well as all of us at eCYBERMISSION, will be there to support them when they do.

eCYBERMISSION registration is currently open at Each student team is composed of 2-4 students and an adult Team Advisor. A single Team Advisor may have as many teams as they like, and special resources, like our Classroom Live Chats, are made available to teachers incorporating eCYBERMISSION into their entire classroom. It’s completely free to participate, and students may even receive U.S. Savings Bonds for winning at the state, regional, and national level. So, what are you waiting for? Accept the challenge and join the mission today at