Unit Plans About Organisms, Their Adaptations, and Their Environments

In Lessons About Organisms, Their Adaptations, and Their Environments, we explained that before students can understand how changes in climate affect living organisms, they first must understand that all organisms are adapted for life in certain climates. In this article, we share a unit plan that develops this understanding by focusing on local plant species. We also highlight a set of similar plans focused on polar mammals.

The learning cycle

The units are modeled after a learning cycle framework built around five key steps – Engage, Explore, Explain, Expand, and Assess.

Summary of Purpose for the Unit
This unit is designed to provide primary students the opportunity to investigate the characteristics and adaptations of plants. It uses hands-on experiences, research, and class discussions.

Standards Alignment

National Science Education Standards: Science Content Standards
Science content standards are found in Chapter 6 of the National Science Education Standards. You can read more about where these topics are covered in national standards in the Curriculum Connections article.

Science as Inquiry (Grades K-4)

  • Ask questions about objects, organisms, and events in the environment
  • Communicate investigations and explanations

Life Science (Grades K-4)

  • The characteristics of organisms
  • Organisms and their environments

Life Science (Grades 5-8)

  • Diversity and adaptations of organisms

IRA/NCTE Standards for the English Language Arts
View the standards at http://www.ncte.org/standards.

1 – Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts.

3 – Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts.

4 – Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.

5 – Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.

7 – Students conduct research on issues and interests.

8 – Students use a variety of technological and information resources to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.

11 – Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.

12 – Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes.

Unit Outline


Flowering Barrel Cacti. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Review what plants need to survive. Show students pictures of plants from areas unlike your own (rainforest plants, palm trees, and cacti are good choices for many locations). Ask students if they have seen plants like this in your area. Hold a brief class discussion, and lead students to pose the unit question How do plants in our area compare to ones around the world?


If at all possible, allow students to go outside and observe local plants. The schoolyard, a local urban or metro park, or even students’ homes and neighborhoods would be suitable locations. Students might draw pictures of plants they observe. They could also take pictures using a digital camera. They might also be able to sample leaves to bring back to the classroom. (Please check the rules and regulation of your site before allowing students to pick any vegetation. Make sure students are able to identify poison ivy, poison oak, or any other plant that would be harmful to touch.)

Back in the classroom, identify the plants that students observed and generate a list of species. Student-friendly field guides are available in most local libraries. You can also find guides for most states online (search for plant field guide and the name of your state).

If an outdoor excursion is not feasible, consider generating a list of plants that grow locally. Students may be able to brainstorm some species. You can add to that list by consulting a gardening book or web site. Locate your plant hardiness zone (typically shown on a color-coded map) and look for plants that are recommended for that zone. You might also invite a park naturalist, master gardener, or other person who works with plants to come in and help the class generate a list of local plants.

Note: This experience can be modified to fit both the K-2 and 3-5 grade ranges. Teachers of younger students may opt to conduct this exercise as a whole class activity, or in small groups with adult assistance. Younger students might also generate a short list of local plants – just a few species. Students in upper elementary will be able to work more independently – either as individuals or in small groups. They should be able to generate a longer list of species.

Next, research each local species and its needs in terms of temperatures, sunlight, and rainfall. This research may be conducted as a class, in small groups, or individually; it may rely on books or online reference sources; it may be recorded in students’ science notebooks or on chart paper for the whole class to see.

Pacific Island Flowers, Franklin Park Conservatory. Image courtesy of mwhaling, Flickr.

Once research has been completed, identify plants that grow in different environments around the world and research their needs in terms of temperature, rainfall, and sunlight. Again, the strategy for implementation will depend on the age and abilities of students in your class. Teachers of younger students might pre-select a few plants and conduct the research as a class, while older students might be assigned to a particular location or type of environment and research plants and their needs independently.



In this phase, students should identify similarities and differences between the local plants and those from faraway locations. Students might use a Venn diagram or a T-chart to record ideas and organize their thinking. Note: Students will be most successful if they compare and contrast two species, not all the plants researched.


Discuss student findings as a class. As you discuss the similarities and differences, help students to see that the plants they researched are found in environments that meet their needs.

Students should create a product to share what they’ve learned about plants and how they are adapted to their environments. This can be accomplished in many ways:

  • Students might each create a page for a class book. Each page would depict and describe a local plant and explain how it is suited for your area.
  • Students might use images from the outdoor experience to create a PowerPoint, Glog, or VoiceThread describing how local plants are adapted to their environment.
  • Students might write a newspaper article explaining what types of plants are suitable for gardening in your area.
  • Students might make a video showing local plants. Their narration would explain the plants’ needs and how they are adapted to the environment.
  • Students might make a book, poster, or Glog showing examples of plants that do and do not grow in the local area. Accompanying explanations should explain why.


In this phase of the unit, read Plants Need the Perfect Place and discuss the text as a class. The text takes students on an imaginary tour of the Franklin Park Conservatory in Columbus, Ohio, to explain how plants around the world are adapted to their environments. Use either Designing a Native Plants Garden (Grades K-2) or Design a Regional “Eco Park” (Grades 3-5) in conjunction with this text. In these lessons, students apply their knowledge to design a garden or an ecological park with the appropriate plants and animals.


This unit provides opportunities for both formative and summative assessment.

Formative Assessment
Formative assessment is conducted throughout the unit. For example:

  • Observation of students’ participation in class activities throughout the unit will provide insight into their current understanding and engagement with the topic.
  • Student completion of research will provide insight into their ability to locate information in books or online.
  • Student completion of the Venn diagram or T-chart will indicate whether or not students sufficiently understand the connection between the needs of specific plants and the environments in which they live.

Summative Assessment
Students’ work for the final assignment serves as summative assessment for the unit. Student work can be assessed with a rubric that includes criteria for scientific accuracy, use of vocabulary, and overall quality of work.

If you’d like to focus on animals instead of plants, you might use the polar mammals units described below. The plans could also be modified to focus on other environments or all animals, not just mammals.

Polar Mammals: Unit Outlines
These units are designed to provide primary and elementary students the opportunity to investigate the characteristics and adaptations of polar mammals. They use hands-on experiences and nonfiction text and focus on the marine and terrestrial mammals of the Arctic. Students share their knowledge through the creation of a class book, blog, or VoiceThread.

This article was written by Jessica Fries-Gaither. Jessica is an education resource specialist at The Ohio State University and project director of Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears. She has taught in elementary and middle school settings. Email Jessica at beyondweather@msteacher.org.

Copyright May 2011 – The Ohio State University. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1034922. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. This work is licensed under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Creative Commons license.

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