Storyline Phase 2: Understanding Through Exploration


Storyline Phase 2:  The Exploration

The primary goal of this activity is for students to discover the content. Ideally, they are going to do this by utilizing one or more Science and Engineering Practice.  With that in mind, you will consider your content objective. What do you want students to figure out? 

It’s important to note that students don’t need to discover everything. They don’t need to walk away having figured out all the details. That’s just not realistic in many cases. But you do want them to figure out the big ideas by using those Practices and considering the Crosscutting Concepts.


  1. Identify exactly what you want your students to understand.

Remember my objective? “Students can [insert SEP to] explain why higher latitudes have cooler temperatures than lower latitudes.”  Before I can move on to crafting the activity, let’s make it clear what the explanation I’m looking for is.  This objective is really asking for students to explain that the sun’s radiation hits Earth at different angles due to the fact that Earth is a sphere.  This is important because when the angle of incidence is direct (as it is at the Equator), the energy from that radiation is concentrated over a smaller area.  Those areas receive more energy. When the angle of incidence is less direct (like at the poles), the energy from that radiation is dispersed over a larger area.  It’s diffused, spread out, thinned out. Those areas receive less energy. The difference in energy inputs directly affects global temperatures.

If you’re reading this and thinking, woah – that’s a lot. I agree. It is. So we’re going to break it down. 


  1. Break down that understanding into manageable pieces.

What are the components of this explanation? [Side Note: As I complete this task, I’m not going to worry about the order.]

Students are going to need to know:

  • how the shape of Earth affects how the sun’s radiation “hits it”
  • when the angle is more direct, the radiation is concentrated
  • when the angle is less direct, the radiation is dispersed
  • concentrated means more energy at any given location and higher temperatures
  • diffused means less energy at any given location and lower temperatures


  1. Reorder what students will need to know.

Look at your list and make sure the order makes sense.  For the list above, the order is probably appropriate. That’s not always the case, though, so be sure to consider the flow of understanding before moving onto the next step.


  1. Craft an activity to make each concept observable.

Example One: 

This is where the exploration happens. Look at my first concept, “the shape of Earth affects how the sun’s radiation hits it.” How could students observe this themselves

While I can’t bring Earth and the sun into the classroom, I could use a flashlight and basketball to model this relationship.  Students could make observations about how the ray of light from the flashlight (aka the sun’s radiation) looks when it’s directed on the basketball’s “equator” versus its poles.  Students can literally see that the light is concentrated on a small circle at the equator, while at the poles, the light is fainter as its dispersed over a larger area of the basketball.  Students can walk away from this activity knowing that because the Earth is round, the sun’s radiation “hits different places differently.” (It’s ok that this isn’t the most scientific of wording.  During exploration, students should discuss their ideas in their words.  Don’t get tripped up – or let them get tripped up – on using scientific terminology at this point.)

Example Two: 

Let’s look at another concept here, “concentrated radiation means more energy and higher temperatures.”

Through the meaning-making process (which we’ll get into tomorrow!), my students now understand that radiation that is concentrated is hitting Earth more directly, meaning the angle is closer to 90 degrees.  The dispersed light they viewed on the basketball was hitting Earth indirectly, with an angle closer to 0 degrees. Now, we need to connect that angle of incidence to the energy reaching the surface. 

To do that, I might use a simulation like this one from Kahn Academy or this one from PBS. Students could seek patterns in the relationship between light intensity and light angle in the first example.  Alternatively, in the second simulation, they could notice that temperatures are higher when the angle is more direct.  Students could plan an investigation using the simulators to collect data to identify these patterns — tying in all three dimensions of the NGSS.



Your homework for today is to go through this process. Use the planning organizer (linked in the lesson materials tab!) to document your ideas (prefer to go digital? Use the Google Doc instead.).

  1. First, describe exactly what you want your students to know. Imagine you are the student explaining the concept. What would you want them to tell you?
  2. Then, break this down into manageable chunks. Single, simple ideas.  Reorder these so that the progression of understanding makes sense. Each idea should build to the next.
  3. Finally, choose one of these single, simple ideas and determine how you could make it directly observable. Maybe you will incorporate modeling, like I did with the basketball. Alternatively, maybe you will use a simulation, a set of data, or an investigation.  Figure out how you can make students see the idea.

[SIDE NOTE: At this point, it’s ok if you don’t have all the details about how your students are going to actually figure it out. In tomorrow’s lesson, we’ll discuss how you will guide them to understanding — the meaning-making process — using this exploration. Just figure out how to make the concept observable, at this point.]

Share your idea in our Facebook group. Ask for help if you’re having trouble with any point in this process. And be sure to hashtag your post #bootcampday2 so we can easily find each day’s homework.