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Engineering Encounters

I Will Survive

An Engineering Design Challenge for the Virtual Classroom

Formal and informal teachers alike have a need for virtual science learning opportunities that offer hands-on learning in both synchronous and asynchronous forms, and even post-pandemic this will be the case. This lesson provides an example that could be used in a camp or a regular classroom for students in grades 3–5. In this article, we describe how to engage elementary students in a virtual engineering design experience through a synchronous or asynchronous experience. While this lesson was designed and implemented in a two-hour virtual synchronous camp experience, it can be modified for use in a regular classroom or for an asynchronous environment.

Prior to Lesson

Because students were joining the virtual environment from a variety of home environments, a materials list was provided ahead of time to ensure students had access to necessary supplies (see Figure 1). Prior to the activity, caretakers were provided with a list of possible materials, specific computer requirements that included a camera, and a short description of the activity. Students and caretakers were given contact information for the instructor team for any questions or concerns about materials or lesson components. As part of the lesson description, students were made aware that prior knowledge of habitats or ecosystems, structural and behavioral adaptations, human influences, and natural impacts to ecosystems was important but not essential as the lesson would provide access to this background information.

Figure 1

Materials list

Recyclable materials around the house that can be used to create the free animal models including, but not limited to,

  • Paper towel and/or toilet paper rolls
  • Paper plates
  • Paper/plastic cups
  • Paper
  • Cardboard
  • Construction Paper
  • Cotton Balls
  • Scissors
  • Tape
  • Glue
  • Markers/Crayons/Colored Pencils
  • Pipe Cleaners
  • Craft Sticks
  • Rubber Bands

Lesson Overview

The guiding question for the activity was “How do the diverse characteristics of different animals make them more likely to survive after a change in their ecosystem?” Students were asked to join an expedition of scientific explorers whose mission was to discover an animal species that survived after a human-induced disturbance or natural disaster. The activity was an engineering design challenge intended to help students apply the concept of how changes in an ecosystem can affect the survival of an animal species (see Table 1 for learning objectives and scoring guide). Working within an assigned biome, students were given an environmental disturbance (this could be any of the following: pandemic, forest fire, pollution, extreme cold, drought, blackout, hurricane, tornado, or earthquake). Using their acquired knowledge of animals that already exist in this biome, students were asked to design an animal species that survived the disturbance and describe the features that aided them in survival. Specific criteria and constraints were provided: The criteria was to design an animal that has at least three unique internal or external features (adaptations) that helped it survive this particular environmental disturbance. Constraints of the design included: the animal must be well suited for its biome and its adaptations must be specific to aiding in survival of the assigned environmental disturbance.

Introduction to Adaptations

To introduce the idea of adaptations, teachers performed a variety of tasks (e.g., peel a banana, open a can or bottle, write something on the board) and asked students what physical structure (part of the body) was allowing them to complete all these activities. Students identified the hands and particularly the use of grasping fingers. Students were then asked to try to do some tasks around their room without the use of their thumb. Tasks could include: get a drink of water, tie their shoe, make their bed, type on the keyboard, etc. Students were invited to share in the chat bar the task they chose and the consequences of not being able to use their thumb (for example, one student noticed that without the use of her thumbs, she needed to use two hands to hold a drink of water rather than one). If in a synchronous environment, a few students can volunteer to report their experiences.

To encourage further discussion, teachers posed the following reflective question, “What other adaptations do humans have for their environment?” The group reflected on structural adaptations, and group discussion yielded examples such as human hair and behavioral adaptations such as mothers caring for their young.

Animal Adaptations

The students explored animal adaptations through a brief Studyjams video (see Online Resources), which discussed specific topics related to adaptations including camouflage, hibernation, natural selection, and instinct. Through a subsequent discussion, the group analyzed why adaptations such as camouflage make sense for certain animals, discussed how adaptations can be inherited, and considered how unnecessary or unfavorable traits gradually disappear in a population over time.

Next, students explored a selection from NSTA’s “I Live Where I Live Because…” interactive ebook. In this exploration, students studied specific physical characteristics such as how different bird species have different beak shapes to adapt for needs such as scooping, tearing, probing, and cracking. Students explored a variety of animals, considering guided questions such as “Why are elephant feet so big and broad?”

Common Misconception

When teaching about plant or animal adaptations, it is important to be aware of a common misconception. Teachers should remind students that adaptations do not occur in a short period of time and that animals do not make an intentional decision to change. Teachers should ensure students are able to articulate that though the environmental disturbance might be short-term, it will affect different species differently based on their existing characteristics (and not that the animal is changing based on the disturbance). For example, a long-haired animal doesn’t decide that the climate is too hot and start growing shorter hair to stay cooler; however, when climate temperature increases (perhaps due to global warming or a temporary fire), organisms who already have short hair may be better suited to survive these disturbances. Biological adaptation involves genetic variation that allows some individual animals to survive in a changed environment. The animals that survive pass on their genes to their offspring, which impacts the next generation’s chances of survival. In a lesson that involves students describing structural and behavioral adaptations that enabled an animal to survive a disturbance, it is essential teachers directly address this common misconception.


The notion of environmental impact on animal adaptations evolved naturally through the discussions of physical and behavioral attributes. To formalize this understanding, the teachers introduced the term biome and students engaged in the “Build a Biome” game (see Online Resources) to study the six biomes: tundra, taiga, deciduous forest, tropical rainforest, grass savannah, and desert. Through the game, each student selected a biome to explore, read a brief overview, and used their knowledge to select the plants and animals that were adapted to the biome. The game included consideration of climate and weather in the biomes and provided interactive feedback. We noticed students tended to be unfamiliar with the taiga, so some time was spent reviewing that biome. To summarize the big ideas, students discussed and were asked to create a list of animals specific for their selected biome. The group discussed which adaptations might allow the animal to survive in its ecosystem. These ideas (shared both orally and in the chat bar) provided inspiration for the culminating design challenge.


It is essential to discuss what beyond the environment necessitates animal adaptations. This discussion included both human-created events and natural disasters. Students explored an interactive map of human impacts on the environment and consequent impacts on animal species in their ecosystems using an interactive tool (see Online Resources). This tool allowed for consideration of the impacts of cities, mining, water use, invasive species introduction, and other human-made disturbances. Students were also able to see geologic epochs, which reinforced the concept of adaptations developing over time rather than suddenly. Students were instructed to study the impacts of changes humans make in the ecosystem and the consequential impact on animal species. To collaboratively summarize this exploration, the group used a shared document with a T-chart connecting environmental disturbances to their impacts on animals (Figure 2).

Figure 2


Students brainstormed environmental disturbances and their impacts on animals


Environmental Disturbance

Potential Impact on Animals


Killing fish that eat those animals in the ocean


Hurts the lungs and gills of animals and humans

Ocean Pollution (spill)

Coral bleaching


Hole in ozone layer

Over Development

Hurts animal homes


Makes animals stuck with trash on their neck


Air pollution


Scares animals away from homes


Makes the animal endangered if too much of it happens


Takes away animal homes


Kills animals


Animals get scared or lost

Students viewed a video of natural disasters that affect the environment and consequential impacts on animal species in their ecosystems (see Online Resources), then they identified three natural changes in the ecosystem and their impacts on animal species. These ideas were organized collaboratively on a shared T-chart.

Design Challenge

To introduce the design challenge, students explored a model for creating scientific drawings, with a focus on illustrating and labeling adaptations (see Online Resources). These expectations were communicated to students as they created 2D and 3D animal designs. The design was situated in a fictitious situation. Teachers told students, “You are about to join an expedition of scientific explorers whose mission is to discover animal species that have survived after a human-induced or natural disaster.” Students were given a scenario such as a pandemic, forest fire, pollution such as an oil spill or nuclear explosion, or a disaster such as a hurricane, tornado, or earthquake. Students were randomly assigned an environmental disturbance their biome has just experienced.

Criteria for designing the organism included that it must have at least three unique internal or external features (adaptations) that help it to survive the environmental disturbance. Constraints of the design included that it must be well suited for its biome and the design can be no bigger than a shoebox. Students first drew a scientific drawing of their design, including labeling the adaptations. Most students created a prototype using materials found around their home. Students without available materials continued to work and design from their sketch.

During their 20 minutes of work time, students were encouraged to incorporate the organism’s habitat in their design, develop a list of adaptations that allow the organisms basic needs (food, water, shelter, air, and predation) to be met, and create a description of predator, prey and symbiotic relationships of their organism. Students who completed their organism quickly were encouraged to consider if their organism met the criteria and potentially add adaptations to better suit it for the biome and disturbance. The following questions were used to prompt and probe students during their work:

  • What inspired your design for your animal species?
  • How and why did you modify your prototype?
  • Why did you choose these adaptations for this animal?
  • What problems did you need to solve and how did you solve them?

Once their organism was complete, students shared first in the synchronous meeting, then presented their designs via Flipgrid, using the following prompt, “After designing your organism to survive in your chosen natural disaster, reflect in the Flipgrid over what worked and what didn’t. Tell us how you would improve your design if you were to do this challenge again. We can’t wait to see everyone’s designs and projects!” In Figure 3, a student describes how a deciduous forest bird who experienced a blackout disturbance uses echolocation to navigate and has snake scales to defend again predators by reflecting light. Another student described a taiga fox who experienced a pandemic that was able to use its big claws to hide underground from airborne viruses. Through Flipgrid, students and teachers viewed students’ presentations, offering suggestions, feedback, and positive affirmation.

Figure 3
Figure 3 Student work example

Student work example


This virtual camp lesson could be tailored for use in a regular classroom setting or for in-person use. It could also be used in real time (synchronously) or asynchronously. Its versatility makes it a great lesson for formal and informal teachers alike to build science and mathematical concepts with students.

Online Resources

Anthropocene: Interactive map of human impacts on the environment and impacts on animal species

BrainPop Video: natural disasters that affect the environment and impact on animal species

Build a Biome game

Flipgrid to Share

NSTA Interactive eBook: I Live Where I Live Because

StudyJams Video and Quiz on Animal Adaptations

Tips for success on animal drawings


Kristin Cook ( is an associate professor of science education and Jessica Ivy ( is an associate professor of mathematics education, both at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky. 

Biology Engineering Environmental Science Teaching Strategies Elementary Grade 3 Grade 4 Grade 5

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