Academic journal article Science and Children

Who Is Your Champion? A Close Look at How Plant and Animal Structures Can Help Solve a Problem

Academic journal article Science and Children

Who Is Your Champion? A Close Look at How Plant and Animal Structures Can Help Solve a Problem

Article excerpt

Everyone has problems, from the smallest ant competing for a food source to the largest elephant needing to cool down. Fortunately, organisms have structures that function to help them solve these problems. So when a group of fourth-grade students look for solutions to their problems, who do they turn to? A biological champion, of course! Plants and animals have a long history of solving problems, and by imitating their strengths, students can generate ideas for a better future.


Currently, teachers are looking beyond the basic elements of core ideas to incorporate engineering practices; however, making this connection can be a challenge. We felt that by incorporating biomimicry, the practice of using nature as a guide to solve human problems (Baumeister 2014), into the existing Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) fourth-grade science unit on structure and function, we could meet this challenge. Students ultimately explore the question: What can we learn from plants and animals to help solve the problems we face in our lives? Then, by working through the engineering design process, they created a model that demonstrates a solution to their problem!

Schoolyard Ants

Students had prior experience investigating plants and animals through observation and data collection. We separated our five 45-minute lessons into two sections: structure and function of ants and biomimicry. In the first lesson, we began by leading an outdoor investigation of local ant populations. We hoped that by examining ants found in the school yard, students would be able to draw conclusions about how ant structures function to solve their problems.

To gauge student knowledge, we asked: What do you know about ants? What do you think we can learn by observing them? Students shared their knowledge of ants and discussed how observing animals in their natural setting would be different from observing animals in the classroom. They decided it would be important to count the number of ants observed and to note their behaviors at different locations in the schoolyard. We reviewed outdoor learning and safety expectations before assigning students to a specific location. One hour prior to the lesson, we baited specific locations (ground, tree trunk, grass) with tuna fish and honey, so that students could observe ant foraging. Although students were instructed not to touch the baits, if you have a student with a fish allergy, canned chicken can be used as a substitute. While most ant species are not dangerous, some areas of the country do have species that sting. Instruct students not to handle ants and make sure they wash their hands if they touch the bait. Additionally, some of the baits could attract wasps. We suggest you assess your local environment and ant populations before implementing this lesson. This will also help you identify observation areas that have good levels of ant activity (i.e., near a colony).


After completing observations and collecting data, each group processed the findings from their assigned location and shared their results (Figure 1). It was helpful when making comparisons among sites in class that the students had been allowed to look at other sites in the schoolyard after they had completed their own observations. Students concluded that ant behavior was very active in some areas and less active in others. Groups realized that most of the schoolyard ants were traveling, climbing, and eating. Their findings led directly into the next lesson, a closer investigation of ant structures and their functions.

In the second lesson, ants were placed in clear plastic containers with secure lids so that students could gather detailed information on their external structures. Instruct students to not open or shake the container to avoid harming the ants. Students were supplied with a small hand lens to aid their observations. …

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