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What’s So Phenomenal About Animals?

Using structure and function to explore animal diversity

Imagine peering into a first-grade classroom and hearing a bunch of six- and seven-year-olds saying things like, “WHOA that fish has slits across its eyes” and “it’s got spikes all over its body!” while others exclaim “Why does that animal have a huge nose but the other one doesn’t even look like it has a face?!” This is student engagement at its finest—and this is what happens when you use phenomena-based instruction to light up the world of science for young students. Throughout this unit, students use their initial observations about weird looking animals to help them start to think about structure and function—an important crosscutting concept—and to begin to discover animal diversity.

In this article we highlight the use of the word weird in describing this group of animals with an extreme diversity of physical features because of the entry point this gives to all learners. While most students begin by describing the external features as weird, the class quickly agrees that they need a better way to describe what they actually mean by weird. Choosing to initially allow and highlight everyday language is a conscious shift away from pre-teaching vocabulary and toward students driving their own need for more nuanced ways of describing these phenomenal animals.

Language, Engagement, and Weirdness

Suarez et al. (2020), articulated the following in their STEM Teaching Tool centered on science vocabulary and conceptual meaning:

“Multilingual students’ learning and participation increase when they have access to a broader repertoire of ways to make sense of and talk about the natural phenomena they investigate and observe. It is their right to express themselves using all of their language resources.”

As students engage in “doing science and engineering,” they rely heavily on oral language in trying to make sense of phenomena. Encouraging the use of everyday oral language, especially with emergent multilingual students, can lead to better and more coherent instructional approaches that promote both science and language learning for all students (Lee, Grapin, and Haas 2018).

Ann Rosebery and Josiane Hudicourt-Barnes (2006) wrote that “whether students’ ideas are right or wrong, they nonetheless constitute the intellectual ‘stuff’ available for teaching and learning” (p. 312). It is based on this principle that this unit was designed to leverage the rich intellectual resources that ALL young learners bring to our classrooms. When given the task of engaging a class of seven-year-olds, what could be better than awkward, thought-provoking, strange looking animals? In Mrs. S’s first-grade class, students are presented with eight strange looking animals as the anchoring phenomena for a first-grade life science unit using the crosscutting concept of structure. As the unit builds in complexity, students participate in various investigations, science talks, and engineering tasks that all focus on figuring out core ideas about why those eight animals look so weird.

The Challenges of Finding Time for Science

If you ask any elementary school teacher about challenges regarding science instruction, more times than not, the discussion of time and materials arise. How can I possibly squeeze in hands-on, student-led science instruction when we already don’t have enough time in the day for ELA and math requirements? Where am I getting all these materials? Although we don’t have all the answers, there’s ways to incorporate meaningful, phenomena-based science even with these constraints.

This unit is written broken down into days but is flexible in regards to time. For example, a talk circle might take 10 minutes while an investigation could take 30 minutes. If one day all the time you have is 10 minutes, a quick talk circle can be used to keep students thinking about the phenomena they are trying to figure out. If the following day you are able to dedicate extra time to science, you would then conduct the investigation and the sense-making lesson. Make the unit work for both you and your students. This unit is also cyclical to help the teacher as well as the students understand the flow and discovery of new learning. The visual storyboard (Figure 1) shows the cyclical format: the investigation, sense-making model, connecting new learning back to phenomena, drawing on real-world connections, and new questions to explore. When the new questions arise, the cycle starts back at another investigation. Students quickly pick up on this cycle, and it creates a culture of wondering about phenomena, figuring out, and crafting new questions. This culture supports the use of the storyboard and frequent opportunities to celebrate the new learning with your students. Use those extra five minutes you have randomly throughout the day to discuss your storyboard. Listen to their wonderings and noticings; those five minutes could turn into your next guiding question for an investigation!

Figure 1
Visual storyboard.
Visual storyboard.

The majority of the materials utilized in this unit are consumables that can be already found in your classroom. Another resource is parents; ask parents to collect cardboard, paper towel tubes, bubble wrap, wrapping paper tubes, etc. Nothing gets a six-year-old more excited than using the materials they brought in from home with the class on the next investigation! Be creative and adapt the material suggested to fit into what you have available in your room. Play with one on one, pairings, and small groups to help reduce the amount of material needed to complete investigations.

Anchoring Phenomena: An Overall Guide to the Unit

In this instructional unit, students are the ones driving the learning in order to figure out why there is such diversity in animals, while drawing on science and engineering practices to help build their explanations. Each animal was strategically chosen to pique students’ interest and guide them toward learning how various animals use special structures to survive. For example, the anteater and horned lizard use special structures to eat and drink. The puffer fish and angler frogfish use special structures to defend themselves (spikes and camouflage). The four-eyed fish and the fennec fox use special structures to find and obtain food and water while the armadillo and flying squirrel use special structures to move. Students then begin to piece together that animals have special structures that enable them to survive in more than one way. The horned lizard uses spikes to trap rainwater and funnel it into its mouth as well as protecting it from predators.

This unit kicks off by introducing all eight strange-looking animals to students. These eight animals serve as the anchoring phenomena for the entire unit. Students travel in small groups from each animal picture, writing things they notice on sticky notes. Afterward, the class has a discussion to share what everyone noticed about each of the animals.

Each student writes on a different sticky note what they are wondering about for any of the animals shown. Students come up with questions like, “What are those horns for?” “Does that animal have a mouth?” or “Can it fly without wings?” Students work together with the teacher to sort the questions on a driving question board (a tool to organize student questions; Figure 2) based on four predetermined categories: how living things eat and drink, how living things get their food and water, how living things protect themselves, and how living things move.

Figure 2
Driving question board.
Driving question board.

The Nuts and Bolts

This unit launches with two days of informal preassessments. Students participate in a talk circle discussing what are living things, and what living things need to survive. Mrs. S takes notes on their prior learning and guides their thinking to clarify any misconceptions. The following day, students work collaboratively to draw a habitat and fill it with animals that could survive. As Mrs. S walks around the room, she is able to assess the kindergarten life science standard: living things need water, air and resources from the land, and they live in places that have the things they need. Humans use natural resources for everything they do (NGSS Lead States 2013). With this knowledge, students can be paired and placed strategically to facilitate further learning.

The unit concludes with a summative assessment in the form of an engineering task. Students use a brainstorming sheet to map out a fictitious creature (Figure 3). This creature has to be able to survive in a habitat of the students’ choice. The creature then needs special structures to eat/drink, obtain food/water, move and protect itself. After brainstorming, students engineer their creature in the Makerspace room.

Figure 3
Summative task work example.
Summative task work example.

Day 1: Investigation

Students are presented with an engineering task that invites them to build a device to remove the chips from the bottom of a paper towel tube (Figure 4). Mrs. S strategically chooses the materials given to students to allow them a choice while providing options where they could be successful (string, pipe cleaners, straws, tape) and be challenged (cardboard, paper towel tubes, tinfoil, wax paper). Students eagerly run off to sketch plans in their science notebooks, select their materials, and begin to build! “I’m going to use the straw and suck them up!” says one student. “I can use the string like a fishing pole,” says another. As students assemble their devices, they use the testing station to see if their device is successful. Excitement erupts when one student discovers that placing tape on the end of their device allows the chips to stick to the tape and pulls them out. With encouragement from Mrs. S, students frantically redesign and test their devices. Students that get stuck are encouraged to do a gallery walk by walking around the room and getting ideas from their classmates. Those that accomplish the tasks are challenged to make their device longer to work in the taller tube or redesign to get more chips out at once.

Figure 4
 Figure 4 Student engineering task.
Student engineering task.

Day 2: Sense Making

As devices are tucked carefully away in their backpacks to go home, students gather on the rug to make sense of what they just accomplished. Mrs. S asks students to guide her in making a model to visually represent the engineering task they just completed. Students tell her which shapes to draw and what to label. “Draw a curved line to show where the pipe cleaner bends” suggests one student. “Can I label the tube here?” Mrs. S asks. By asking student permission and allowing them to drive the discussion, students are put in the driver’s seat of their own learning.

Day 3: Anchoring Phenomenon

When students agree the model is completed, their focus shifts to looking back at the anchoring phenomena: those eight strange looking animals. Mrs. S lays out the eight animals from the anchoring phenomena. “So friends, which of these animals did we just learn about?” she says. While students ponder the question, she has them turn to a partner to discuss. “Well it could be the spiky lizard because he has a long skinny tail like the tubes!” the first student suggests. “Or, it could be the puffer fish because he has spikes too!” adds the next student. “Yes, but we didn’t really make it big like a ball!” chimes in another student. This partner discussion enables students a safe place to share their ideas before volunteering information in front of the whole class. When ready, Mrs. S guides students’ focus back to the center of the rug to conduct a talk circle to hear their ideas. Students politely talk to one another while trying to piggie-back off of one another’s ideas. Mrs. S uses talk moves to help focus students back on the topic. For example, Mrs. S pauses the discussion to say “Let’s think about the ideas we’ve heard already. I heard that Student A thinks it could be the lizard because of its long, spiky tail. Student B adds that it could be the puffer fish but Student C isn’t sure because we didn’t make anything big like a ball. What parts of these animals resemble the materials used in today’s investigation?” By quickly interjecting, she has acknowledged her students’ ideas and refocuses the conversation. Once the discussion focuses on the anteater, Mrs. S labels the anteater’s nose as the long tube. The students connect the dots by labeling the chips as the ants and engineered device with the tape at the end as the sticky tongue. Students proudly hang up the class model on our story board for others to see their newly acquired learning!

Day 4: Connect to the Real World

After seeing an engaging video on how anteaters eat, Mrs. S says, “But wait…if the anteater has special structures to help it eat to survive, do other animals have special structures in order to eat to survive too?” Students unanimously agree yes! Students eagerly break off into small groups to brainstorm other animals that use special structure to eat. “Birds have beaks not just for making noises, but to crack nuts too!” says one student. “Sharks have five rows of teeth and they regrow their teeth when they fall out to eat their prey!” adds another student. Mrs. S visits the small groups around the room to help engage the students on the task at hand. “Well what about woodpeckers, why do they have their beak? Why do they peck on trees?” she asks one group. “To get bugs from the trees, I’ll draw that!” responds a student. Once the timer goes off, students bring their drawings to the rug to share. Photos are added to the storyboard to show our expanded learning.

Day 5: Generating New Questions

While students are sharing, Mrs. S purposefully lets other students jump in to ask questions or share ideas. “Do they drink water this way too?” or “Do they have structures to help them catch the food?” This fosters a culture of generating new questions that will contribute to future investigations and learning. “Let’s think, if they have structures for eating food, will they have structures for drinking water too?” she asks students. This strategically leads into the next investigation and discovery of another animal from the anchoring phenomena.

Evidence of Deep Learning: Connecting the Dots

To help students “connect the dots,” the storyboard is structured so it is meaningful to them and purposeful in the classroom. The goal of the storyboard is for students to be able to use it as a resource to help demonstrate their learning as well as guide new questions and learning. By adding the use of photos, students are able to talk through the learning and add examples. Each year this unit has been taught, students come up with more ways to connect their learning with the real world and the amount of photos have increased!


Phenomena does not need to be phenomenal. Oftentimes an intriguing story or a looping gif image will fill students with wonder more than a fizzing volcano or Mentos and Diet Coke eruption. The key is to carefully select phenomena that elicit the kinds of questions that begin an authentic journey for answers for ALL students. This article illustrates how young scientists are supported in using the crosscutting concept of structure and function in their sensemaking about these phenomenal animals!

Kristen Sinoradzki ( is a first-grade teacher at Windermere Elementary in Ellington, Connecticut. TJ McKenna ( is a lecturer of science education at Boston University Wheelock College of Education and Human Development and founder of


Lee, O., S. Grapin, and A. Haas. 2018. How the NGSS science instructional shifts and language instructional shifts support each other for English learners: Talk in the science classroom. In Language, Literacy, and Learning in the STEM Disciplines: How Language Counts for English Learners, 35–52. New York: Taylor and Francis.

NGSS Lead States. 2013. Next Generation Science Standards: For states, by states. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Rosebery, A., and J. Hudicourt-Barnes. 2006. Using diversity as a strength in the science classroom: The benefits of science talk. Linking science & literacy in the K–8 classroom, 305–320. Arlington, VA: NSTA Press.

Suarez, E., P. Bell, A. Mcculloch, and M. Starr. 2020. Overview: Why you should stop pre-teaching science vocabulary and focus on students developing conceptual meaning first. STEM Teaching Tools Initiative, Institute for Science + Math Education. Seattle, WA: University of Washington. Retrieved from

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