Using Animal Adaptations to Solve Human Problems

By Paul Reynaud, February 27, 2017

Grade Level

  • Elementary School


  • Smithsonian Design Institute

Subject Area

  • Science
  • Technology

Lesson Time

5 45-minute periods


Students respond to design challenges using their knowledge of the physical adaptations of favorite animals. Students have been studying animals’ physical adaptations in Science. They plan, design, and create prototypes of marvelous inventions that solve human problems with ideas from animals’ adaptations.

National Standards

Core Curriculum ELA— RI.1.1  Ask and answer questions about key details in a text.   RI.1.2  Identify the main topic and retell key details of a text.   RI.1.7  Use the illustrations and details in a text to describe its main ideas.   Next Generation Science Standards 1-LS1  Life Sciences  LS1.A: Structure and Function All organisms have external parts. Different animals use their body parts in different ways to see, hear, grasp objects, protect themselves, move from place to place, and seek, find, and take in food, water and air. Plants also have different parts (roots, stems, leaves, flowers, fruits) that help them survive and grow. (1-LS1-1) 1-LS1-1. Use materials to design a solution to a human problem by mimicking how plants and/or animals use their external parts to help them survive, grow, and meet their needs.   Next Generation Science Standards K-2-ETS1 Engineering/Design  K-2-ETS1-2  Develop a simple sketch, drawing, or physical model to illustrate how the shape of an object helps it function as needed to solve a given problem.   K-2-ETS1-3  Analyze data from tests of two objects designed to solve the same problem to compare the strengths and weaknesses of how each performs.


ELA—Writing Students will: Recall information from experiences or gather information from provided sources to answer a question. ELA—Speaking/Listening Describe things and events with relevant details, expressing ideas and feelings clearly. Add drawings or other visual displays to descriptions when appropriate to clarify ideas, thoughts, and feelings.     Science Students will: Describe basic functions of parts of the body. Describe features of some animals that benefit them in their environments. Ask questions about how animals use their external parts to meet their needs.   Engineering /Design Students will: Ask questions, make observations, and gather information about a situation people want to change to define a simple problem that can be solved through the development of a new or improved object or tool.   Develop a simple sketch, drawing, or physical model to illustrate how the shape of an object helps it function as needed to solve a given problem.


Animal informational texts we used— Llewellyn and Feldman, Amazing Animal Senses Townsend, Amazing Animal Senses Schubert, Amazing Animals Spelman, National Geographic Animal Encyclopedia Dorling-Kindersley Visual Encyclopedia of Animals Taylor and Pollock, Discover the Animal Kingdom Feltwell, Animals and Where They Live Attenborough, Atlas of the Living World Clement, Hammond Nature Atlas of America Horst and Lane, Angler’s Guide to the Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico


Cardboard flats Cardstock Paper plates Paper straws String Construction paper Scissors Glue Pipe cleaners Newsprint Tissue paper Tape Staplers Foam pads Foil Paper clips


Physical: of or relating to the body Adaptation: modification of an organism or its parts that makes it more fit for existence under the conditions of its environment External: of, relating to, or connected with the outside or an outer part


Day 1:   Discussion on rug about physical adaptations of animals (students are studying animals in regular classroom). Animals have amazing abilities that humans don’t have: ability to fly, to go faster, jump higher, etc. than humans. Animals have sharper senses, better adaptations to heat and cold, better protection, etc. For our project this week, we’d like to make the prototypes for inventions that would lend humans some of these amazing animal abilities. In groups, I want you to brainstorm possible inventions that could help humans who have these problems: 1) My body moves slowly and can’t go long distances easily. I wish I could go faster and farther. 2) I wish my senses were stronger. 3) I’m always getting cuts and scrapes when I play. I wish my body had more protection. 4) I’m tired of wearing a coat in winter and carrying an umbrella when it rains. I wish my body was warmer and could stay dry. 5) My fingers aren’t very good at picking up tiny legos or other small objects on the floor. I wish I had a long, strong invention to help me pick up all my tiny toy pieces. Etc … Use your imagination and what you know about animals. Come up with an invention that uses an amazing animal ability to solve a human problem. Students work in small groups brainstorming ideas. Teacher moves among groups, redirecting, explaining, making suggestions. Each group writes down three or four good ideas to share. Return to rug to share student ideas on large poster paper.   Day 2:   Discussion on rug about the project/challenge: we would like to develop prototypes of inventions to overcome the limitations of the human body. The inventions MUST borrow one (or more…) of the amazing abilities or adaptations from an animal. We review some of the ideas groups came up with on Day 1. Today students decide what their individual inventions will be. The can use any of the ideas we came up with or come up with a new ideas of their own. Animal books are available in the classroom for reference or for idea generation. Students may work individually or in small groups researching and gathering ideas. When students have decided on an animal ability or adaptation they would like to simulate, they will sketch and write about their ideas in their journals. Students work in journals. If time permits, students can share journal entries. Days 3-4: Students work at tables independently using cardboard, paper plates, straws, string, paper clips, tape, foil, foam squares and other materials provided, building a prototype of their inventions. Teacher circulates, questioning, aiding and abetting, helping with materials, etc. Animal books and a computer station are provided for more research or more detailed pictures.   Day 5: Students share their prototypes. When your turn comes to share, tell 1) what your invention does and 2) what it is made of. If you have any interesting solutions to problems you encountered while making it, share them too. You should NOT tell what animal or animals gave you the original idea for your project. Let other students guess. Each student orally describes the invention and what it does, displaying the prototype and showing how it works. Other students have to guess the animal and animal part on which the sharing student based his or her invention. Teacher makes a video of the sharing for each student’s portfolio.   DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What kinds of abilities do humans have? What kinds of things can we do well? What kinds of things can we NOT do? What kinds of abilities do animals have? What can they do well, not so well, not at all? If you could be any animal, what would you be? Why? If you could be like an animal, what would you change about yourself? Why?  


Day 2 has a journal entry, which can also serve as an assessment. The oral sharing, recorded in video, also serves as an assessment—presentation of topic, focus on the challenge, and ingenuity/creativity in meeting the challenge. The video file becomes a part of the student’s portfolio. Differentiation: Students may work individually or in teams, and the teacher circulates to support, encourage, and make suggestions. Students who complete the design challenge quickly can 1)help other students, 2)do a similar challenge with different materials (plastic blocks, hollow blocks, plus-plus, etc.), 3) work on an independent challenge of their own devising.

Enrichment Extension Activities

Many famous inventors from the past have used ideas from animal adaptations for their inventions. We did some research to find out about their inventions (many, many flying machines…) and how well they worked. Some students have used their “free choice” time during class to pursue further animal inventions

Teacher Reflection

This lesson fit perfectly into the 1st Grade science unit in the regular classroom. We began about a week before classroom teachers ended their unit. The teachers joined the class for the sharing/videotaping finale, which really inspired some students to more eloquent sharing than usual. The five-period lesson could have been extended for at least another week. We had some very elaborate projects and some students struggled to make the “deadline.”

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