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San Diego Phenomena

Phenomena in Science Education

Phenomena are the natural and man-made observable events that provide context for the work of scientists and engineers. Recent science standards changed the focus from learning about science to figuring out science. Phenomena are a powerful way to engage students and empower them to wonder and investigate.

Sometimes, we look too hard for the phenomenal events and miss the every-day occurrences that are just as intriguing. The list below is a constant work in progress and will be updated as new submissions are received and new occurrences are observed in and around San Diego County.

Submit a Phenomenon

Did you observe something that made you stop and wonder? Share your phenomena and any supporting material like photographs, videos or additional resources.

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Ants travel in lines

Image: Zachary Hunt, YouTube

Spring time in Southern California brings out the ants. When ants swarm that crumb on your kitchen counter, they will likely travel in a straight line to get there. Why do ants move in lines and how do ants known to follow this path? What would happen if we obstructed that path with a solid object? 


YouTube, Ants Travel in Lines

NGSS Connections:

3-LS2-1, LS2.D: Social Interactions and Group Behavior

4-LS1-1, LS1.A: Structure and Function, LS1.D: Information Processing

MS-LS1-8, LS1.D: Information Processing



Fly with jets of water

Image: Jetpack America

For a number of years, a San Diego company in Mission Bay provided rides on a water-powered jetpack. How can a jet of water lift a person off the ground? Use this animated visual as reference. For a similar non-San Diego reference, show a photograph or video of a firefighter holding a high-pressure fire hose. 


Popular Science: A Beginner's Guide to Flyboarding

NGSS Connections

MS-PS2-1, PS2.A: Forces and Motion

HS-PS2-1, PS2.A: Forces and Motion

Algal blooms can turn the ocean red

Image: Eddie Kisfaludy

Sometimes, the ocean turns a shade of red that can be observed on shore or from the sky. 


Scripps: New study show red tides can be predicted

NGSS Connections:

MS-LS1-6, LS1.C: Organization for Matter and Energy Flow in Organisms

Marine fossils found near Normal Heights

Image: San Diego Natural History Museum

In March 2016, while constructing a bike pathway next to SR-15 between the neighborhoods of Normal Heights and Kensington, surveyors found fossilized whale bones and shells. 

What questions do you have about this discovery? For example:

  • How did remains of marine life end up on dry land?
  • What does this finding tell us about this area over thousands or millions of years?
  • What can this evidence tell us about Earth's processes over time?


The San Diego Union-Tribune, Whale bones, other marine fossils, found along SR-15 

Washington Post, When California digs, paleontologists are there to bag the fossils -- even whales

NGSS Connections

2-ESS1-1, ESS1.C The History of Planet Earth

4-ESS1-1, ESS1.C: The History of Planet Earth

Sewage water is recycled for irrigation

Image: John Loo

Chances are you've seen roadsigns that say "Using Recycled Water" and if you look close enough, you might also see pipes painted purple nearby. This water is popular for freeway median irrigation use and on farms. How do we recycle sewage water? Isn't all water recycled? Where does our drinking water come from and why is this recycled water not suitable for drinking?

NGSS & Grade:

3-5-ETS1-2, Engineering Design

5-ESS2-1, ESS2.A: Earth Materials and Systems

MS-ESS2-4, ESS2.C: The Roles of Water in Earth's Surface Processes

MS-ETS1-2, Engineering Design

MS-ETS1-4, Engineering Design

HS-ETS1-1, Engineering Design

Fight wildfires with fire

Image: US Fish and Wildlife

Visitors to Cleveland National Forest might find Forest Service employees purposefully setting fires within park boundaries. The Forest Service even advertises these fires as controlled burn alerts on their website. One of the justifications is that these controlled burns prevent wildfire. This is a literal example of fighting fire with fire, but how does it work? 

In 3-ESS3-1, students are asked to make a claim about the merit of a design solution to reduce the impact of a weather-related hazard. How can fire be used to mitigate wildfire? What steps could be taken to reduce the chance of massive wildfires? 


Forest Service: Controlled Burns

NGSS & Grade:

3-ESS2-1, ESS2.D: Weather and Climate

3-ESS3-1, ESS3.B: Natural Hazards

MS-LS2-1, LS2.A: Interdependent Relationships in Ecosystems

HS-ESS2-4, ESS2.D: Weather and Climate

Paragliders at Torrey Pines can launch and land in the same spot

Image: Torrey Pines Gliderport

If a bird stops flapping its wings, it will slowly descend towards the ground. However, hang gliders and paragliders can launch from and land on the cliffs of Torrey Pines. Why don't these gliders descend down to Blacks Beach below or land in the ocean? How can a powerless glider stay at the same altitude for the duration of its flight?


Southwest Airports: Paragliding Physics

Torrey Pines Gliderport - FAQ

NASA - What is Lift? 

NGSS & Grade

3-PS2-1, PS2.A: Forces and Motion

MS-PS2-1, PS2.A: Forces and Motion

Lizards regrow their tails

Image: Muhammed Mahdi Karim

Many of the lizards found around San Diego are capable of autotomy, or self-amputation, of their tails. Lizards can also regrow their tail. Occasionally, during the regrowth process, two or three tails will form.


University of Arizona

NGSS & Grade

MS-LS4-4, LS4.C: Adaptation

Different spiders make different webs


Image: Scott Camazine

Black widow spiders are at the top of list of things to avoid in San Diego due to their poisonous bite. Identifying what types of webs spiders weave helps you identify -- and avoid -- certain types of spiders.

Why do some spiders weave spiral orbs while others weave tangled or tunneled webs?


Sciencing: How to identify spiders by their web pattern

NGSS Connections:

4-LS1-1, LS1.A: Structure and Function