Zoo Habitat Design

By Jennifer Manglicmot, October 1, 2009

Grade Level

  • Elementary School


  • Other

Subject Area

  • Science

Lesson Time

225 to 300 minutes of classroom activities for Part 1. 360 minutes of classroom activites (including field trip) for Part 2.


This lesson gives students an opportunity to apply their preliminary knowledge of animal adaptations.  Students will design a zoo habitat that addresses the specific needs of an animal. (Note: Prior to this lesson, my students participated in two introductory science lessons about animal structures and functions, i.e. adaptations, and were familiar with the animal adaptations topic.)  Students will strengthen their understanding about animal adaptations as they design zoo habitats.  Students will learn about the design process by participating in brainstorming, framing the problem, generating possible solutions, and editing and developing ideas for a final habitat design.

National Standards


Students will:

  • research an animal’s adaptations (physical characteristics and behaviors; i.e. eating, movement, sleeping, defense, caring for young)
  • consider what an animal needs to survive in a zoo habitat
  • observe the current local zoo habitat of the animal and discuss potential problems of this habitat with local zoo habitat expert
  • design a zoo habitat that addresses the physiological and social needs of the animal



Document Camera

San Diego Zoo Web site:



For a directory of zoos in the U.S., use this Web site:



  • chart paper (with a ready-to-fill-in comparison graphic organizer drawn on it)
  • chart markers
  • sun bear adaptations note-taking chart (1 per student)
  • mini-sketch notebooks (1 per student)
  • rubric (see sample)
  • poster paper
  • pencils
  • crayons
  • markets
  • construction paper
  • cardboard
  • clay
  • wood scraps
  • string
  • wooden craft sticks


  • adaptation: modification of an organism or its parts that makes it more fit for existence under the conditions of its environment (an organism’s structures and behaviors that allow it to survive in its habitat)
  • design: to create, fashion, execute, or construct according to a plan
  • habitat: the place or environment where a plant or animal naturally or normally lives and grows


Part 1: Introduction

Session 1: Introduction to Habitats and Sun Bear Zoo Habitat design

1. Start with a conversation about animal habitats.  Students will discuss similarities and differences of zoo habitats and nature’s habitats.  Teacher and class chart key discussion points on a large comparison graphic organizer (this chart may be used for future reference during design process, and a double bubble thinking map or venn diagram may be used).&nb sp; This chart will represent the ideas discussed today and in the following sessions, and students will use this for reference.  Address the topic of animal needs by making connections to animal adaptations and environments.  Make sure to include recreational, terrain, vegetation, food, and shelter needs in the discussion.

2. Visit San Diego Zoo Web site: http://www.sandiegozoo.org/animalbytes/t-sun_bear.html Introduce students to sun bear facts by engaging in a shared reading of this short article.  During and after reading, teacher and students will take notes on sun bears’ adaptations.

3. Present preliminary design challenge: “Based on the sun bear’s adaptations, what will the sun bear need in its zoo habitat?” Students work individually first, then in partners, brainstorming lists and sketches about the ideal zoo habitat for the sun bear.  They will finalize their ideas in the beginning of next session.

4. Teacher will facilitate partner group brainstorming discussions, and help students think about how they would like to visually represent their ideas.  “What kind of materials will you need to construct this habitat?  What will be included in your drawing?”

Session 2: Present preliminary ideas for habitat

1. Start whole group discussion to review sun bears’ adaptations.  Share ideas about sun bear habitats.  Students may take ideas from discussion back to their design partnerships to revise and finalize sketches and ideas about their sun bear habitat design.

2. Students will work in design teams of two people, to finalize a design for sun bear habitat.  They will work on a presentation to share their ideas with the class; presentation will include a visual, either a labeled drawing or diagram of habitat, or a physical representation made from recyclable materials. Teacher may provide recyclable scrap materials for students.

3. Students will also construct a list of words to use in their presentation to communicate their habitat ideas to class.  They may include drawings or sketches to present to the class as well.

4. Students present ideas for habitat designs.  Using a co-constructed rubric by the teacher and the students, the students will evaluate if the design meets the adaptation needs of the sun bear.


Part 2: Investigate Sun Bear Habitat problem and redesign zoo habitat

1. In this part, students will take a trip to the zoo to investigate the sun bear habitat problem.  They will interview zoo experts to learn about the history of the sun bear zoo habitat, and observe the current zoo habitat.  Based on their research, they will identify current problems of the habitat, and work in a design group of three or four students to redesign the habitat to solve any current problems.

Session 1: Trip to the Zoo

1. Students gather design notebooks and pencils to take notes and to make sketches of observations during trip.  They will walk in pairs, for support and for management.

2. Students will meet with zoo experts, who will provide information about the history of the sun bear zoo habitat and its design at the San Diego Zoo.  (Note: Students will learn that upon the opening of the exhibit, the sun bears almost destroyed the habitat, so the habitat had to be redesigned to preserve the zoo habitat; for more info, go to http://www.sandiegozoo.org/zoo/ex_sunbear_forest.html )  Encourage students to ask many questions to get more data on the sun bears’ preferences, behaviors, and structures.

3. Students will visit the sun bear exhibit.  Students are responsible for taking notes, and drawing a sketch of the current sun bear habitat.

4. Teacher will videotape discussions with zoo experts, and the visit to the current habitat, for a reference to use when back in the classroom.

Session 2: Debrief zoo trip and identify problems with current exhibit

1. Start a discussion with class about information gathered during the zoo field trip. What materials were used to construct habitat?  Why did the zoo have to redesign the habitat?

2. Identify current problems.  What problems did the zoo experts share with us?  Why are they problems?

3. Students work through brainstorming process, first individually, then as a design group of three or four people.  “What are some possible solutions to these problems?”  Students quickly record ideas through sketching, writing, or diagramming.

4. Students share brainstorming ideas in group.  Group develops ideas with the most potential to solve problem.  They will sketch and write to articulate these ideas.

5. Group shares ideas with class.  Through open discussion, group obtains feedback that they may or may not use during the final design solution process.

Session 3: Finalize design solution and present to class

1. Student groups will work on final sun bear habitat design to share with the class.  The groups will produce representations of their ideas. These may include diagrams, models, or written and oral presentations.

2. Students share final solutions.  Students use a rubric that they co-created with the teacher to evaluate if their group’s solution meets the needs of the San Diego Zoo and of the sun bear’s adaptations.


  • Co-created Rubric:  Based on the co-created chart and sun bear adaptation notes, allow fifteen to twenty minutes to co-create a rubric with students (see sample rubric).  The rubric will consist of four criteria: Group and class discussion participation, following the design process, and meeting the needs of the animal adaptations in the habitat design.
  • Differentiate Instruction: Monitor partner and small groups to make sure that they are supporting each other through writing tasks; younger students may need a graphic organizer in their sketch books to focus their data collection during the field trip.

Enrichment Extension Activities

Students may go through the habitat design process again, but with a different animal and different zoo habitat problems; this time, the process should take less time, as the students are familiar with the process.

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