Adaptation is an essential and miraculous part of the wonder of life. It can be hard to grasp, too, especially if your state mandates the teaching of adaptations before the teaching of natural selection, evolution, DNA, or reproduction. One solution is to teach the concept repeatedly in different grades, in different ways and with different activities. Here are two of our favorites, both of which are adaptable to various grade levels.
The Animal Observation and Creation Experience
One of the simplest ways to approach adaptation is to look at the ways animals move and eat in their environments. You can point out that animals living in different environments have different ways of moving and eating. A whale’s method of eating wouldn’t work if it lived on land. A snake’s method of moving is good for deserts and jungles and even for water, but it wouldn’t work very well if snakes lived on rocky, snow-covered mountains.
A visit to the zoo is a wonderful way to get some animal observations in, but nowadays you can watch many animal videos online, or you can narrow the focus of the experience to observation of your classroom animals.
Have students observe the animals they have access to and make careful notes and drawings. Discuss how each animal is adapted to its environment. Then ask students to choose an environment (real or fictional) they know well, and design an animal that would be very well suited to that environment.
Have students create a labeled drawing or diagram showing the adaptations of their new animal.
- Jungle Walk has a collection of videos showing how animals are suited to their environments.
- Science Netlinks has a version of this lesson with worksheets.
- Another version focuses on predators and prey.
- Maybe you’d prefer plants.
- For older students, go into more detail with a lesson on adaptation in crocodiles.
- Extend the lesson by having students create their new animals as part of a story about a new ecosystem they’ve discovered in a previously unknown valley, on another planet, or in some other dimension they slipped into. Use our Science Fiction Lesson Plans for help with that.
The Bird Beak Experience
When Charles Darwin went to the Galapagos Islands, he saw an amazing variety of finches with all manner of different beaks. Perhaps because this was such a striking experience for him and such an important part of his understanding of evolution, the bird beak experience is still one of the most popular ways to study adaptation.
At its simplest, this experience involves giving students tools that mimic different types of bird beaks and foods that mimic different types of bird food. Allow students to discover how some kinds of beaks work better for some foods than others. Here’s Josepha’s explanation:
Here are some online resources:
- Classic directions for this classic experience.
- A nice collection of photos of bird beaks.
- An essay from Harvard’s Focus with a terrific diagram. This should be a comfortable read for your high school students, and worth working through with middle school students, too, for the example of modern work on the subject of adaptation. Another article on the same research, with another great diagram, can be found at the Harvard University Gazette.
- A PBS lesson for high school uses video and not a gummy worm in sight. If your students haven’t done the bird beak experience before, we’d use it to start off the lesson. I’d also organize the links and resources for this lesson at Google docs — far more classroom friendly.