STEM Lab: Basic Needs and Habitats

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SWBAT work collaboratively to design and construct a habitat that provides the basic needs for a mammal.

Big Idea

Students design, create, and explain a habitat and basic needs!


At my school, every fourth week during science time, my class goes to the STEM lab and works on a collaborative project based on our current science objectives. This is our first visit to the STEM lab and we are building habitats for mammals, since we have learned about them in the classroom and the students have some background knowledge about their basic needs. This lesson could easily be taught in a regular classroom setting during science instruction.

This lesson aligns to Science and Engineering Practice 2 because students are building on prior knowledge to develop models, including diagrams, drawings, and a diorama that represent concrete habitats. Students will also be recording information, including thoughts and ideas, which supports Practice 4, Analyzing and Interpreting Data. They will also be communicating information and design ideas with others in oral and written forms using models, drawings, and writing, that provides details about design ideas which aligns to Practice 8.

For each lesson, I post both the lesson objective from the Essential Standards and a guiding question. Click here to find out why I teach the Essential Standards for science. The guiding question helps students to understand the purpose behind the lesson and to connect to prior knowledge. I have found it helpful because it also keeps me focused on the objectives for the day and it also helps the students to connect their learning from previous lessons when they see a pattern in the questions.

When I first introduce the lesson to the students, I write at the top of the board, 'How can we design a model of a habitat for a mammal?' Students also have this glued at the top of their journal page for today. 


1 Paper box lid per group

Construction paper in various colors

Glue & tape

Markers & crayons

Assorted building supplies, including popsicle sticks, egg cartons, cotton balls, and pipe cleaners

A book box with lots of non-fiction books about each group's selected animal

**Note: I told my students about this project a few days before we began and had each group select their mammal so that I could plan materials that I knew would work with their choices (i.e. popsicle sticks to make a fence for farm animals, green crepe paper for a place with lots of leaves like a jungle, etc.).

Project Jobs

One of the goals of our STEM lab is to get students to take responsibility in a group, so they are assigned jobs. I select the groups and who has each job, and I do that making sure that my recorder has legible handwriting! The jobs are: Team Leader (keeps everyone on task), Recorder (writes most of the information) and Materials Manager (collects and returns materials).

Day 1 Warm Up

10 minutes

We have been studying about mammals, so I begin with a quick review of the basic needs of mammals using our anchor chart we made in this lesson. Then I say,

"Today, we are going to begin a STEM project where you will design an environment that meets the basic needs of the mammal your group chose. Today, you are going to work on a drawing and a diagram of that environment and then tomorrow we will start to build it. To help guide how we create this, we are going to follow the STEM design cycle that we have used before. Let's take a look at each part before we begin".

Engineering Design Cycle Example

I use the design cycle to guide this project for two main reasons. First, it is a great way to keep students focused on how to answer a scientific question, such as 'How can a model show the basic needs of a mammal?' If I were to just ask the question and require a project, my students would not understand that first we need research and a plan, and that after the building is complete there we need to see if we answered the question and share our results. Second, it is an integral part of my school's commitment to STEM education and we are expected to implement a cycle of some kind to promote problem solving skills. As students use the steps, they become familiar with the idea that a solution is not always a quick fix, which teaches them to persevere in problem solving. This supports the Mathematical Practices, which also connects to our classroom instruction.

 We review the design cycle and each part quickly, and then I say,

"The first step of the design cycle is 'Think'. To do this, since you already chose your mammals, you are going to think of everything you already know about the basic needs of your mammal. The recorder in your group should write 'Think' at the top of your paper and then talk together and write or draw a list of the basic needs of your mammal. You have 5 minutes". 

Jobs: Recorder I assign a recorder for each group because this part of their work must be legible. As the students write and discuss the basic needs of their mammal, I walk around and check in with each group to make sure they are addressing all 5 basic needs of their mammal. If they have questions about it, I refer them to their book box that has reference books for them about their mammal.



Here are some examples of this assignment. I notice that my students used a variety of writing styles to record their information, including a list, a numbered list, and written sentences. This is exciting! I have taught about making lists in literacy and I am seeing the cross over! Also, I purposefully put my highest writers recorders so that they (and I) could read their work.

Student Work 1        Student Work 2        Student Work 3

Day 1 Activity

30 minutes

Before students begin to plan their ideas, they need to know what materials they have to work with! I say,

"Now that you have identified your mammal's basic needs, you are ready to plan 2 ways to design a model of their habitat. Let's look at a quick PowerPoint so you understand what kind of model you are making".

In first grade, I recognize that my student have probably never been asked to create a diorama before. Although I typically avoid showing any examples because I do not want students to just replicate somebody else's work, I feel that this time they need to fully understand what i mean by a 'habitat model'. Therefore, I show them a quick Introduction to Dioramas PowerPoint with a few examples so they get the idea. I purposefully chose pictures for the presentation that did not have the mammals they chose so that they could  not copy ideas, but they would still get the idea. I say,

"Now you know what kind of model you will be making about your mammal! On your table, you have two pieces of paper. The recorder in your group should write 'Plan 1' at the top of one page and 'Plan 2' at the top of the other now. Then, you are going to work together to look at the materials in your tub and think about how you could make a habitat model for your animal and draw two different ideas". 

Students Working TogetherFor the activity today, students are going to plan 2 ways they could create a diorama of their mammal's habitat. Watch as students create their Plan 1 and Plan 2. I purposefully include 2 plans instead of 1 in order to include everyone's ideas at the planning stage. When there is only one sheet of paper, I have noticed that the dominant student will take over and few other students get to share ideas. With 2 required plans, the dominant student will control one of them and the other students have an opportunity to work together on the other one. It also provides more physical work space than one sheet of paper, so if more than 2 students are in a group it helps to keep them on task because they can access the paper.

Plan 1 and Plan 2!As students look at their materials and develop ideas, I work with different groups and help them to get their ideas down onto their planning pages. The idea is for students to work collaboratively with some help from the teacher. Watch as students  discuss their ideas!




Here are some examples of the plans students created.

Student Plan 1      Student Plan 2        Student Plan Example 3

Day 1 Wrap Up

10 minutes

After the groups have 2 plans for their dioramas, I say,

"Materials managers, please put all of the supplies back into your box and bring them to me. I will save all of your work and we will choose and build your design tomorrow! Now, who would like to share one idea you had?"

To wrap up for the first day, each group shares one idea they had about their design. This could spark an idea for another group which is helpful and it also provides time to communicate about ideas, supporting Science and Engineering Practice 8.

Day 2 Warm Up

10 minutes

My students are ready to build! First, we quickly review the plans that students designed yesterday, and they have to choose one! I say,

"Yesterday, you made two plans for your diorama model. Today, you need to select which plan you think will work the best. To do this, you need to consider how you are showing that your mammal's basic needs are being met. To show that you have thought about that, I am giving your recorder a page that we are going to complete before we build today".

I pass out the Basic Need Page and I read each question to the students and give them a few minutes to decide, as a group, what the answer is. The recorder writes down the information. The 'Basic Needs' page has two purposes. First, it lets me assess how well the group has thought about the basic needs of their animal in their model. Second, it makes sure that the students are aware that each need must be demonstrated in their model.


Day 2 Activity

30 minutes

Once we have completed the basic needs pages, I say,

Student Working"Materials Managers, please get your boxes. It is time to work on step 3 of the design process, which is 'invent'. Groups, remember to follow the plan you drew and work together! If you need help, I will come around and help you! Work hard!"

Students WorkingMy students are ready to go - they have a plan and materials. My job now is to facilitate and help them to bring their drawings and ideas to life! I work with the students to help them build their dioramas, asking questions as we go, like "How does your mammal get water? Oh, from a pond? Where is the pond in your diorama?"



Collecting MaterialsI also help when they do not know the answer to a question by searching for things with them on the Internet, looking up pictures for them to use for ideas, and gathering materials like sand to use in their project. 

This stage of the cycle may take 1-2 class periods.



Day 2 Wrap Up

10 minutes

After each group has completed their diorama, I say,

"You have worked so hard! Your dioramas look great, and you can really identify the basic needs of each mammal. Tomorrow, we are going to move on to step 4 of the design cycle which is evaluate. We are going to check and make sure that each diorama shows exactly how the mammal satisfies its basic needs. Then, we will move on to step 5 - communicate. You are going to record videos to share the information about your mammal and your model!"