Life Science
Structure and Function in Living Systems

Living things are diverse with many different characteristics that enable them to grow, reproduce and survive.

Benchmark: Structures & Survival

Describe how plant and animal structures and their functions provide an advantage for survival in a given natural system.

For example: Compare the physical characteristics of plants or animals from widely different environments, such as desert versus tropical, and explore how each has adapted to its environment.


Standard in Lay Terms 

MN Standard in lay terms:

Students should be able to describe how features of animals or plants help them survive in the environment that it lives in.

Big Ideas and Essential Understandings 

Big Idea:

The big picture here is that form and function are connected.  Students should understand that animals have specific structures that allow them to survive and thrive in a specific environment. Students should be taught about Earth's different habitats or biomes and be able to describe the characteristics of some of the plants and animals living in each.  Students should know that organisms  live in very different environments such as oceans, deserts, tundras, forests, grasslands, and wetlands, these organisms are different from one another because their environments are different. For example, animals with thick fur are able to survive a cold habitat. Gills allow fish to obtain oxygen from water, whereas lungs allow mammals to obtain oxygen from the atmosphere. Desert plants and animals have adapted by conserving the small amount of water they require. The thick, waxy leaves of some plants prevent water loss. Many desert animals are nocturnal and search for food during the cool of night.

CA Science Framework p 51

Benchmark Cluster 

MN Standard Benchmarks: Describe how plant and animal structures and their functions provide an advantage for survival in a given natural system.

For example: Compare the physical characteristics of plants or animals from widely different environments, such as desert versus tropical, and explore how each has adapted to its environment.


A quote, cartoon or video clip link directly related to the standard.

See this page.

See this page.


NSES Content Standard C Life Science

The characteristics of organisms

Organisms have basic needs. For example, animals need air, water, and food; plants require air, water, nutrients, and light. Organisms can survive only in environments in which their needs can be met. The world has many different environments, and distinct environments support the life of different types of organisms.

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.

The characteristics of organisms

Each plant or animal has different structures that serve different functions in growth, survival, and reproduction. For example, humans have distinct body structures for walking, holding, seeing, and talking.

Structure and function in living systems

Living systems at all levels of organization demonstrate the complementary nature of structure and function. Important levels of organization for structure and function include cells, organs, tissues, organ systems, whole organisms, and ecosystems.

AAAS Atlas:

For any particular environment, some kinds of plants and animals thrive, some do not live as well, and some do not survive at all. 5D/E1

Changes in an organism's habitat are sometimes beneficial to it and sometimes harmful. 5D/E4

Individuals of the same kind differ in their characteristics, and sometimes the differences give individuals an advantage in surviving and reproducing. 5F/E1

Changes in environmental conditions can affect the survival of individual organisms and entire species. 5F/M2b

Animals and plants have a great variety of body plans and internal structures that contribute to their being able to make or find food and reproduce. 5A/M2

Benchmarks for Science Literacy:

5A. Diversity of life

By the end of 5th grade, students should know that:

A great variety of kinds of living things can be sorted into groups in many ways using various features to decide which things belong to which group. Features used for grouping depend on the purpose of the grouping.

5D. Interdependence of life

By the end of 5th grade, students should know that:

For any particular environment, some kinds of plants and animals survive well, some survive less well, and some cannot survive at all. Organisms interact with one another in various ways besides providing food. Changes in an organism's habitat are sometimes beneficial to it and sometimes harmful.

Framework for K-12 Science Education

Plants and animals  have both  internal  and external  structures that  serve various  functions  in growth,  survival, behavior, and reproduction. 5LS1.A

Changes  in an organism’s  habitat are sometimes  beneficial to it and sometimes  harmful.  For any particular environment, some kinds of organisms  survive well, some survive less well, and some cannot  survive at all. 5LS4.C

Common Core Standards (i.e. connections with Math, Social Studies or Language Arts Standards):

5.2.1 Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text. For example, students will read text and need to respond to it either written or verbally.

5.2.3 Analyze how and why individuals, events, and ideas develop and interact over the course of a text.

5.2.4  Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.

5.2.7  Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words. Students will use graphs, charts, tables to understand and compare results.

5.6.2 Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.

5.6.7 Conduct short as well a more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation. For exam[le, students could research a topic related to the subject matter.

5.6.8 Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, assess the credibility and accuracy of each source, and integrate the information while avoicing plagiarism.

5.6.10 Write routinely over extended time frames (time for research, reflection and revision) and shorter time frames (a single setting or a day or two) for a range or tasks, purposes, and audiences. Science notebooks would provide the opportunity to meet this standard.

5.8.2 Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively and orally. During science digital media such as webquests, videos are used to help explain a concept, students also are presented with information orally and through experiments in which quantitative data is used to make a point.

5.8.5 Make strategic use of digital media and visual displays of data to express information and enhance understanding of presentations. when students present information they should utilize tools such as prezi, powerpoint or other visual aids to help the audience connect and understand their information.


Student Misconceptions 

Research has focused on what students understand about the living environment at isolated points in time or on how this understanding evolves naturally in students. Research on instructional interventions that improve students' understanding is limited. [1]

Some research indicates that in 2nd grade there is a shift in children's understanding of organisms from representations based on perceptual and behavioral features to representations in which central principles of biological theory are most important. Children at this age can begin to understand that animals of the same species have similar internal parts and offspring. [2]When asked to group certain organisms, lower elementary-school students form groups of different status -- for example, organisms that are able to fly and organisms that fight each other. Upper elementary-school students tend to use a number of mutually exclusive groups rather than a hierarchy of groups. Some groups are based on observable features; others on concepts. By middle school, students can group organisms hierarchically when asked to do so, whereas high-school students use hierarchical taxonomies without prompting. [3]

Elementary- and middle-school students hold a much more restricted meaning than biologists for the word "animal". [4] For example, most students list only vertebrates as animals. Elementary- and middle-school students use such criteria as number of legs, body covering, and habitat to decide whether things are animals. High-school students frequently use attributes that are common to both plants and animals (e.g., reproduction and respiration) as criteria. [5] Because upper elementary-school students tend not to use hierarchical classification, they may have difficulty understanding that an organism can be classified as both a bird and an animal. [6]Elementary- and middle-school students also hold a much more restricted meaning than biologists do for the word "plant". Students often do not recognize that trees, vegetables, and grass are all plants. [7]

Elementary- and middle-school students typically use criteria such as "movement," "breath," "reproduction," and "death" to decide whether things are alive. Thus, some believe fire, clouds, and the sun are alive, but others think plants and certain animals are nonliving. [8] High-school and college students also mainly use obvious criteria (e.g., "movement," "growth") to distinguish between "living" and "nonliving" and rarely mention structural criteria ("cells") or biochemical characteristics ("DNA"). [9]


Ms. Macro is continuing her learning unit about organisms and ecosystems. Students have been studying the diversity of animals and plants that live around the Edgewood lake in their community. While they were studying their local environment the students learned about the various adaptations that the animals and plants in this area had. Students learned about how ducks have special bills that allow them to strain aquatic plants from the lake water, and how loons have long sharp bills that allow them to spear fish while swimming underwater.  Ms. Macro knows the next step in their learning to to study a different environment, but everything around the school is so similar she is worried that students will not clearly see that organisms are adapted to the environment they live in.  

While connecting with her professional learning network (PLN)  in the classroom 2.0 Ning, Mrs. Macro posts a request looking for a classroom in a different area of the US to connect with.  Mrs.  macro also tweets out this same request on twitter to her PLN.

The next day Mrs. Macro has a response from Mr. Blue-Sky in Scottsdale, Arizona. Mr. Blue tells Mrs. M how his students have been studying desert plants and animals for a fifth grade unit on ecosystems.  This is the perfect connection.  After a brief discussion, they decide to get the classrooms together for an initial meeting via Skype, a free Internet video connection.  

When the classes connect via Skype it's a little confusing at first, but everyone quickly settles down and the conversation begins.  Both teachers take turns explaining how students will be matched up with each other from the two different classrooms and they will work together on a shared google doc to complete a presentation about a plant and an animal from each of the two environments. Each student will be the expert in their environment but they must work together to present the information in a cohesive manner.  Both teachers notice how the novelty of using Skype in the classroom is engaging even some of their most unengaged learners.  

As teachers explain the components of the project, they are careful to state requirements as essential questions creating opportunities for students to explore and inquire rather then just complete a list of tasks. Some of the questions teachers use are:

How do the animals in your two environments obtain food? Would the same method work in a different environment? 

If your plants had to switch environments, what would they need to survive? 

Students spend three weeks completing research and working on their projects, students who have access to the Internet ask if they can also work on the project at home over the weekend.  The students use creative commons to access pictures with proper citations, as they were taught by their media specialist.  

Finally students present their work to both classes as a culminating activity. Much of the information in the student presentations meets the learning goal of students understanding that organisms are divers and have adaptations specific to their environment, Mrs. Macro is not surprised, she put a lot of time into the guiding questions that helped the students move through this project and reach the end results. 

The next day Mrs. Macro knows she must asses the students.    She passes out a blank paper and asks students choose two plants or two animals one from the MN environment and one from the desert that they learned about from their friends in Arizona, she asks the students to compare and contrast the physical characteristics of the plants or animals from the two different environments, students are allowed to choose the organism that they researched or a different one they learned about.  Later that evening while Mrs. M is grading the assessment she smiles at her success, the students have a clear understanding of the standard.  


Instructional Notes 

Selected activities:

Bird Beak Buffet- this activity is a hands on simulation of bird beak adaptations to the environment. Bird Beak Buffet

Science NetLinks- Adaptations Lesson: The purpose of this activity is to expand students' knowledge of animal features and behaviors that can help or hinder their survival in a particular habitat. Animal Adaptations

Science Netlinks: Bird Beaks: The purpose of this activity is to explore the relationship between a bird's beak and its ability to find food and survive in a given environment.

Adaptations Activity from Teachers Domain: In this activity, students examine some of the behaviors and physical characteristics that enable organisms to live successfully in their environment. Students begin by viewing and discussing a video about two friends -- one living in a desert and the other living in a rainforest -- who e-mail each other with information about their environment and the organisms that live there. Afterwards, if possible, students exchange via e-mail similar information with students from a different environment. Next, students watch videos about organisms and their adaptations to the Arctic tundra and Sonoran desert biomes. They compare the two biomes with each other and with their own environment. Students then explore animal camouflage (a type of adaptation) through a video and Web activity. Finally, they design organisms that are adapted to a new environment by camouflage. Adaptation

Instructional suggestions

Teachers should look for opportunities to have students observe organisms in their local environment, examples such as bird watching, observing pollinators and other insects, and watching local wildlife.  while observing local organisms teachers should be sure to look for opportunities to observe adaptations especially as they relate to the environment.

A common activity (and many of the activities listed in this framework) used in elementary and middle school science is to have students design an imaginary organism that is adapted to a particular habitat. Be aware that this activity may perpetuate the misconception that organisms intentionally adapt.

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 ways we use words in our society that are not always the same as the scientific use of the words.

A science notebook could be used for this standard so students would have a central place to write their observations, draw the organisms they are studying and also compare and contrast the organisms that live in different environments. The science notebook would allow students to detail their work as well as provide a means for assessment for teachers. That said, assessing science notebooks should be something that you clearly lay out with your students.

Science notebooking is a way to teach students how to record data in a clear and precise way. The students will take ownership in their work and be able to share their data with others. It also allows an experiment to be retested based on the information that the student recorded. FOSS Science Notebooking

Science notebook presentation, how to set up a science notebook How to Set up a Science Notebook

Instructional Resources 

Additional resources or links

Website with video and article on tidal pools and the unique adaptations the creatures that live there have in order to survive. Tidal Pool Adapations

We often talk about the beauty of nature. Well, sometimes you have to dig a little deeper to appreciate the beauty of some funny looking creatures. In this lesson students will vote for what they consider to be the ugliest animal, observe the animal's features and predict how the animal's unique features help it to survive, and create a critter guide that features an "ugly" animal. Students will also research an animal and write a poem that includes factual information about the animal. Ugly? Says Who? also noted in the Language arts section...

Compare Death Valley to a Rainforest This video segment from ZOOM compares and contrasts some of the more interesting climatic and ecological characteristics of the Death Valley desert with those found in the temperate rainforest of the Pacific Northwest.Utilize the discussion questions.            


At Home in the Cold

by Stephen Whitt, Jessica Fries-Gaither

Electronic Book These stories explore adaptations that allow penguins, whales, walruses, seals, and fish to live in the cold water of the Arctic and Southern Oceans. The original magazine article includes related activities and Readers Theater scripts. At Home in the Cold Electronic Book

BrainPop is a subscription service that also has some "free" videos available for students and teachers to use to explain concepts in all subject areas. Vocabulary activities are included in most videos along with additional information and activities.

A note about BrainPOP

BrainPOP creates animated, curriculum-based content that engages students, supports educators, and bolsters achievement.

To start exploring BrainPOP Jr., BrainPOP, BrainPOP Español, and BrainPOP ESL, register for our Free Trial.

Read the scientifically based research that demonstrates BrainPOP's impact and effectiveness.

If you would like to subscribe, visit the BrainPOP Store or our Funding section.

BrainPop movies that address Benchmark

BrainPOP Dolphins

BrainPOP Insects

BrainPOP Reptiles

BrainPOP Spiders

BrainPOP Arachnids

BrainPOP Carnivorous Plants

BrainPOP Giant Squid

BrainPOP Hibernation

BrainPOP Penguins

BrainPOP Pollination

New Vocabulary 


  • feature: any of the distinct parts of the face, as the eyes nose or mouth. The overall appearance of the face or its parts. A prominent or distinctive aspect, quality or characteristic
  • characteristic: a feature that helps to identify, tell apart, or describe recognizably
  • trait: a distinguishing feature, a genetically determined characteristic or condition
  • biome:  a major regional or global biotic community, such as a grassland or desert, characterized chiefly by the dominant forms of plant life and the prevailing climate
  • adaptation: a change in a population that allows an organism to be more successful or suited to a particular  ecosystem.
  • environment: all the conditions surrounding a living thing
  • habitat: The area or environment where an organism or ecological community normally lives or occurs. The place where a person or thing is most likely to be found.
  • advantage: a beneficial factor or combination of factors. A relatively favorable position.
  • survive: to remain alive or in existence.
  • system: a set of things that work together as a whole
  • tropism: the turning or bending movement of an organism or a part toward or away from an external stimulus such as light, heat or gravity.

All definitions can be found on Kids Yahoo!

Technology Connections 

Build a Fish In this interactive activity from Shedd Aquarium, design a fish that has the right adaptations, or traits, to help it survive in a reef environment. Choose a body, mouth, and color/pattern, then release your fish into the ocean reef to search for food and evade predators. Steer your fish around the reef to see how well it survives with the traits that you gave it.

Web-based presentation software for students to use to present information or for you to use to get information to students. Prezi

Classroom 2.0 is the social network for those interested in Web 2.0 and Social Media in education. We encourage you to sign up to participate in the great discussions here, to receive event notifications, and to find and connect with colleagues. This site is especially appropriate to web2.0 beginner teachers.

Twitter- an interactive networking tool where you can create your own professional learning network.

Skype- Video calling: Free video calling makes it easy to be together, even when you're not.

Cross Curricular Connections 

Activity that includes Language Arts, poetry writing that includes an animals unique features. Ugly? Who Says?



Uncovering Student Ideas About Science: Habitat Change. Volume 2 Page 143.  (Level 3) The purpose of this assessment probe is to elicit students' ideas about adaptation. The probe is designed to reveal whether students think individuals intentionally change their physical characteristics or behaviors in response to an environmental change.

1.      Uncovering Student Ideas in Science: Adaptations. Volume 4 Page 114.  (Level 3) The purpose of this assessment probe is to elicit students' ideas about adaptation. The formative probe is designed to reveal whether students think individuals intentionally change their physical characteristics or behaviors in response to an environmental change.

2.      Students can compare and contrast different organisms both plants and animals from different environments and identify what key characteristics make them most suitable for survival in the environment they live in. (level 2)

a.       students should be able to complete this activity based on environments and organisms they are familiar with

4.   What would happen to a plant or animal if it were taken out of it's environment?

a.  Look for students to explain that the traits that the organism has won't help it in a different place. For example, a cactus's waxy outer layer helps it in the dry dessert but what would happen if it were transported into a rainforest?

5. What makes humans different from the animals and plants that we've been talking about?            

Do humans have features that make them adaptable for all environments?

a.  Student should be able to differentiate  what makes humans able to survive in all environments (technological adaptations)


What are key traits that make an animal or plant suitable for a specific system?

1.      Uncovering Student Ideas About Science: Habitat Change. Volume 2 Page 143.  (Level 3) The purpose of this assessment probe is to elicit ideas about adaptation. This probe would be valuable for teachers to ensure they understand students thinking and their own on this topic.

2.      Uncovering Student Ideas in Science: Adaptations. Volume 4 Page 114.  (Level 3) The purpose of this assessment probe is to elicit ideas about adaptation. This probe would be valuable for teachers to ensure they understand students thinking and their own on this topic.


Struggling Learners 

Struggling and At-Risk:

Additional exposure or pre-exposure to activities can be helpful.  Build cooperative           learning groups carefully. Students must be grouped with students who will allow them to participate and use their strengths.  Adapted from: Supporting Special Education Students in Science

English Language Learners 

As in all ELL teaching an emphasis on understanding bricks and mortar vocabulary is important for full understanding of concepts.  Bricks and mortar vocabulary labels (bricks are content specific vocabulary like adaptation.  Mortar are words that a student might need but are not content- for this unit examples might be- system or cycle) and word walls, vocabulary posters,  pre-teaching: accessing prior knowledge, graphic organizers, each activity needs to have reading, writing, speaking, listening component. (Keenan)

The following link will bring you to a pdf that outlines some great ideas to support your ELL students. Support ELL Students

Extending the Learning 


What Should a Science Curriculum for Gifted Students Include?

Source: ERIC: Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education

Emphasis on Learning Concepts. Concepts such as systems, change, reductionism, and scale all provide an important scaffold for learning about the core ideas of science that do not change, although the specific applications taught about them may.

An Emphasis on Higher-Level Thinking. Students need to learn about important science concepts and also to manipulate those concepts in complex ways. Having students analyze the relationship between real world problems, like an acid spill on the highway, and the implications of that incident for understanding science and for seeing the connections between science and society provides opportunities for both critical and creative thinking within a problem-based episode.

An Emphasis on Inquiry, Especially Problem-Based Learning. The more that students can construct their understanding about science for themselves, the better able they will be to encounter new situations and apply appropriate scientific processes to them.(VanTassel-Baska, Gallagher, Bailey, & Sher, 1993).

An Emphasis on the Use of Technology as a Learning Tool. The use of technology to teach science offers some exciting possibilities for connecting students to real world opportunities.

An Emphasis on Learning the Scientific Process, Using Experimental Design Procedures. Such original work in science would require them to read and discuss a particular topic of interest, come up with a problem about that topic to be tested, and then follow through in a reiterative fashion with appropriate procedures, further discussion, a reanalysis of the problem, and communication of findings to a relevant audience. Planning Science Programs for High-Ability Learners


The Multicultural Resource Center has a variety of resources available to support multicultural science instruction.  St Paul Public Schools Multicultural Science Education Resources


Special Education 

The following link will bring you to proven strategies that are specific to science. Supporting Special Education Students in Science



Encourage your child to observe nature around them. Talk with them about different things that you notice as you are walking to the car or on a walk in the park. Pose questions that you may or may not have the answer to and then find out together by looking it up on line or at the library. What adaptations do various animals have? Snowshoe Rabbits for example have feet that are like "snowshoes" which keeps them on top of the snow so they can move from place to place in the winter.

Parents can visit local nature centers and state parks with children, where human interaction with the environment and other living organisms will be highlighted through activities and learning stations. 

PLT family activities from the MN DNR

Project Learning Tree Family Science Activities