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Each of the first four volumes provides 25 probes with easy-to-follow steps for uncovering and addressing students’ ideas by promoting learning through conceptual change instruction. Probes cover topics such as physical, life, and Earth and space science; the nature of science; and unifying themes. Each volume on page 23 provides topic-specific probes. These invaluable books include teacher materials that explain content, identify links to standards, and suggest grade-appropriate ways to present materials so students learn the concepts accurately. Teachers, professional development coordinators, and college science and preservice faculty will find these resources essential and exciting.


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The purpose of this assessment probe is to elicit students’ ideas about biological adaptation. The probe is designed to find out if students think animals intentionally adapt to a change in their environment.

Related Concepts

adaptation, natural selection, variation


The best answer is Phoebe’s: “I think few or none of the rabbits will try to adapt to the change.” The key word here is try. Biological adaptation involves genetic variation that allows some individuals to survive a particular change, such as a change in the environment, better than others. These individuals are then able to survive and reproduce, passing on their genes to successive generations of offspring that will be better adapted for the particular environment. This process is called natural selection, and it leads to adaptation. If the genetic variation that allows an individual to survive the change is not present, the individual cannot intentionally change its structure, physiology, or behavior in an attempt to “try” to adapt to the change and pass on its genes so that its offspring will be adapted. Either the genes are there that allow the rabbit to survive and pass on its traits that enhance survival to its offspring (natural selection) or they are not there. If they are not there, the rabbits can’t intentionally adapt or change their genes by “trying.” Adaptation is not intentional. The rabbits may try to survive by acclimating to the change, but trying to survive is different in a biological sense from trying to adapt. Another problem is the common use of the verb adapt, which implies that an action is being taken by an individual.

Curricular and Instructional Considerations

Elementary Students

In the elementary grades, students build understandings of biological concepts through direct experience with living things and their habitats. They observe and learn about structures, functions, and behaviors that help organisms survive in their environments. They develop an understanding that some organisms are better suited than others to survive in certain environments. They develop beginning ideas about heredity—that is, that some characteristics are inherited and passed on to offspring. These basic ideas establish a foundation that will lead to a later understanding of natural selection.

Middle School Students

Understanding adaptation is still particularly troublesome at this level. Many students think adaptation means that individuals change in deliberate ways in response to changes in the environment (NRC 1996). At this level, it is important to develop the idea of variations in populations of organisms that may give some individuals an advantage in surviving, reproducing, and passing on those traits to their offspring. Teaching students about the selection of individuals is the first step in helping them understand natural selection as a mechanism for species’ change.

High School Students

Biological evolution and its mechanism, natural selection, are major focuses of high school biology. At the high school level, students shift from a focus on selection of individuals with certain traits that help them survive to a focus on the changing proportion of such traits in a population of organisms. Their growing understanding of genetics builds on middle school ideas about variation. However, students at this level may still hold on to the misconception that adaptations can be controlled by an individual.

Administering the Probe

Make sure students understand the probe is a hypothetical situation and that there is a drastic change in the environment when the rabbits move from the southern climate to the northern climate. This change also involves more than just temperature. There may be changes in food, shelter, and predators as well. You might consider having students describe each of the environments first. Feel free to change the context of the probe to an animal and two different environments with which your students are most familiar.

Related Ideas in National Science Education Standards (NRC 1996)

K–4 The Characteristics of Organisms

  • Organisms have basic needs. Organisms can survive only in environments in which their needs can be met. Each plant or animal has different structures that serve different functions in growth, survival, and reproduction.

K–4 Organisms and Their Environments

  • An organism’s patterns of behavior are related to the nature of that organism’s environment, including the kinds and numbers of other organisms present, the availability of food and resources, and the physical characteristics of the environment. When the environment changes, some plants and animals survive and reproduce, and others die or move to new locations.

5–8 Regulation and Behavior

  • All organisms must be able to obtain and use resources, to grow, to reproduce, and to maintain stable internal conditions while living in a constantly changing environment.

5–8 Diversity and Adaptations of Organisms

  • Species acquire many of their unique characteristics through biological adaptation, which involves the selection of naturally occurring variations in populations. Biological adaptations include changes in structures, behaviors, or physiology that enhance survival and reproductive success in a particular environment.

9–12 Biological Evolution

  • Species evolve over time. Evolution is the consequence of the interactions of (1) the potential for a species to increase its numbers, (2) the genetic variability of offspring due to mutation and recombination of genes, (3) a finite supply of the resources required for life, and (4) the ensuing selection by the environment of those offspring better able to survive and leave offspring.

9–12 The Behavior of Organisms

  • Like other aspects of an organism’s biology, behaviors have evolved through natural selection. Behaviors often have an adaptive logic when viewed in terms of evolutionary principles.
Related Ideas in Benchmarks for Science Literacy (AAAS 1993 and 2008)
Note: Benchmarks revised in 2008 are indicated by (R). New benchmarks added in 2008 are indicated by (N).

K–2 Heredity

  • There is variation among individuals of one kind within a population.

K–2 Evolution of Life

  • Different plants and animals have external features that help them thrive in different kinds of places.

3–5 Interdependence of Life

  • For any particular environment, some kinds of plants and animals thrive, some do not live as well, and some do not survive at all. (R) 

3–5 Evolution of Life

  • Individuals of the same kind differ in their characteristics, and sometimes the differences give individuals an advantage in surviving and reproducing.

6–8 Evolution of Life

  • Individual organisms with certain traits are more likely than others to survive and have offspring.
  • Changes in environmental conditions can affect the survival of individual organisms and entire species.

9–12 Heredity

  • Some new gene combinations make little difference, some can produce organisms with new and perhaps enhanced capabilities, and some can be harmful.

9–12 Evolution of Life

  • Natural selection provides the following mechanism for evolution: Some variation in heritable characteristics exists within every species; some of these characteristics give individuals an advantage over others in surviving and reproducing; and the advantaged offspring, in turn, are more likely than others to survive and reproduce. As a result, the proportion of individuals that have advantageous characteristics will increase. (R)
  • Heritable characteristics can be observed at molecular and whole-organism levels— in structure, chemistry, or behavior.

Related Research

  • Many students tend to see adaptation as an intention by the organism to satisfy a desire or need for survival (Driver et al. 1994).
  • Middle and high school students may believe that organisms are able to intentionally change their bodily structure to be able to live in a particular habitat or that organisms respond to a changed environment by seeking a more favorable environment. It has been suggested that the language about adaptation used by teachers or textbooks may cause or reinforce these beliefs (AAAS 1993, p. 342).
  • Many students ages 12–16 display Lamarckian beliefs about inheritance of acquired characteristics. This belief has been demonstrated both before and after instruction in genetics and evolution (Driver et al. 1994).

Suggestions for Instruction and Assessment

  • Refrain from using the words adapt (particularly as an action verb that implies intentionality) or adaptation in elementary grades. Instead talk about characteristics and features that help organisms live in their environments. Teachers’ early use of the words adapt or adaptation, before students understand the genetic basis for passing on traits that enable an organism to adapt, may imply that plants and animals intentionally adapt. This idea is particularly resistant to change at the middle level, perhaps because the idea of intentional adaptation was developed early on. 
  • Some individual organisms, such as humans, do control changes in their structure or behavior in response to an environmental change and are said to “adapt.” Acclimatize would be a better word to use for these noninheritable changes made by an individual during its lifetime.
  • A common activity used in elementary and middle school is to have students design an imaginary organism that is “adapted” to a particular habitat. Be aware, though, that this activity may reinforce the idea that an individual intentionally adapts during its lifetime, rather than species adaptation.
  • Compare and contrast with students the everyday common use of the word adaptation with the scientific meaning of the word. Add this to students’ growing number of examples of the way we use words in our society that are not always the same as the way they are used in science.
  • Help students develop the notion that natural selection leads to adaptation and not the other way around (that adaptation leads to natural selection). It is the genetic variation that leads to natural selection and thus to adaptation of a population.

Related NSTA Science Store Publications, NSTA Journal Articles, NSTA SciGuides, NSTA SciPacks, and NSTA Science Objects

American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). 2001. Atlas of science literacy. Vol. 1. (See “Natural Selection” map, pp. 82– 83). Washington, DC: AAAS.

Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS). 2005. The nature of science and the study of biological evolution. Colorado Springs, CO: BSCS.

Kampourakis, K. 2006. The finches beak: Introducing evolutionary concepts. Science Scope (Mar.): 14–17.

Scotchmoor, J., and A. Janulaw. 2005. Understanding evolution. The Science Teacher (Dec.): 28–29.

Stebbins, R., D. Ipsen, G. Gillfillan, J. Diamond, and J. Scotchmoor. Rev. ed. 2008. Animal coloration: Activities on the evolution of concealment Rev. ed. Arlington, VA: NSTA Press.

Related Curriculum Topic Study Guides (Keeley 2005) “Adaptation” “Natural and Artificial Selection” “Variation”


American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). 1993. Benchmarks for science literacy. New York: Oxford University Press.

American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). 2008. Benchmarks for science literacy online.

Driver, R., A. Squires, P. Rushworth, and V. WoodRobinson. 1994. Making sense of secondary science: Research into children’s ideas. London: RoutledgeFalmer.

Keeley, P. 2005. Science curriculum topic study: Bridging the gap between standards and practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

National Research Council (NRC). 1996. National science education standards. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

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