Scientists Build Models

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SWBAT create a model to show that all organisms have external parts that help them survive and grow.

Big Idea

Show me what you know about animals' external parts! Students will use clay to make a 3-D model of an animal and describe how at least one part helps the animal meet its needs.

Instructional Notes

Today I introduce a performance-based assessment.  Students will use clay to create a 3-D model of an animal they choose.  Using toothpick "flags," students will label external parts of their animal.  

Finally, students will take a picture of their model using Pixie software on a iPad.  In Pixie, they voice record a description of how one or more of the animal's body parts helps it meet its needs.  If a similar technology is not available to you, students can write a sentence with the same content.  The models, coupled with written descriptions, make a great "zoo" you could display in your school's hallway!

In the following lesson, students will share their products with one another!

Because today's lesson has many parts, I am extending the time to 45 minutes.  If your school isn't flexible, I suggest making and labeling the models today.  Then, tomorrow have your students write the purpose of an external part.


  • Clay or play-doh
  • Toothpicks
  • Tape
  • Blank or filled-in model labels
  • Cardboard (about 4" x 6" as a base for the models)
  • Writing paper (low-tech option) or Wixie (technology option)


5 minutes

During the warm-up, I describe the assessment expectations, and have students help me create a rubric checklist.

Today, you will show me what you have learned by creating a model of an animal and labeling its external parts.  We will also take a picture of your model, and I'll show you how to voice record to say how a body part helps them animal meet its needs.

I like the idea of a student-led classroom, so I have students make a checklist-style rubric with me.  If that's not your style, feel free to make one ahead of time!

How many external parts do you think you should label to show me you understand what external parts are?  (I am aiming for 5-7.)  Can you label more than that? (Of course, but your minimum for success is 5.)

When you voice record how a body part helps an animal, what information do you need to include? (Name the body part, tell how it helps the animal with a specific need)  Can you tell about more than 1 external part?  (Yes, but you should make sure to give enough details)

I post their list of criteria for success in a central location, so that students may refer to it throughout the model-building and recording process.


35 minutes

I am always a little surprised at how many of my students have not played with play-doh or clay before!  It's important that I model very explicitly how to make an animal in 3-D.

First, I'm taking a large chunk of the clay.  It's kind of hard, so I'm squeezing it to soften it up.  Now I'm going to make a large oval size shape for the animal's belly. Then, I make 4 tootsie-roll-sized pieces for legs.  I need the legs to be thick enough that the belly won't crush them.  See how I'm pushing the bottom of the legs against the cardboard base too, so that the animal sticks to it.  Now I roll a ball for the animal's head... (I continue through the whole process.)

Next, I show students how to tape a paper label to a toothpick and make a flag.  I push the toothpick right into my clay animal (I usually do the eye first and make a stabbing sound for drama as I push it in!).  And I remind them that they must have at least 5 flags.

Students who finish early may leave their models at their desks and read around the room (a common routine) or observe animal specimens at the Science Center.

Once all students are finished and cleaning up, I play a transition song to bring us all back to the rug.  Next, I model how to take a photograph in Wixie, a software program that allows students to photograph their work and also voice record.  I remind students of their criteria for naming and giving details about one external part.  And I model how to voice record.  I have one or two students mimic me and complete the recording right there as examples.  (I call on friends who may have trouble on their own.)

Then, students create their final products.  Again, students who finish early may leave their models at their desks and read around the room (a common routine) or observe animal specimens at the Science Center.


5 minutes

For the closing today, I return to the Essential Question, What does a scientist do?  This question is so very important because it allows students to connect to the Science and Engineering Practices (the blue box on the NGSS standards).  

How were we scientists today?  (We made models.)

I also want students to reflect on whether they used the criteria checklist or not to help guide them today.

While you were working, did you check to make sure you were successful?  How did the checklist help you?

It's important to me that students hear from one another how helpful the checklist is.  I am looking to build self-assessment into my classroom environment, especially for the children it does not come natural to.  

Unfortunately, I was unable to convert the Pixie voice-recording for this website.  You can check the student work samples for the images, but the audio is unavailable!  The images give a good sense of what the models looked like though!



  • Did the student accurately label at least 5 external parts?
  • Did the student orally communicate the purpose of at least on external part?