How do Animals Obtain Energy?

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SWBAT explain how the energy in an animal's food was once energy from the sun.

Big Idea

In this lesson, students will use multiple resources to research how animals obtain energy. Teams will use their research to construct and share posters with their classmates.

Lesson Overview

Inquiry Based Instructional Model

To intertwine scientific knowledge and practices and to empower students to learn through exploration, it is essential for scientific inquiry to be embedded in science education. While there are many types of inquiry-based models, one model that I've grown to appreciate and use is called the FERA Learning Cycle, developed by the National Science Resources Center (NSRC):

1. Focus

2. Explore

3. Reflect

4. Apply

A framework for implementation can be found here

I absolutely love how the Center for Inquiry Science at the Institute for Systems Biology explains that this is "not a locked-step method" but "rather a cyclical process," meaning that some lessons may start off at the focus phase while others may begin at the explore phase. 

Finally, an amazing article found at, How Inquiry-Based Learning Works with STEMvery clearly outlines how inquiry based learning "paves the way for effective learning in science" and supports College and Career Readiness, particularly in the area of STEM career choices. 

Unit Explanation

In this unit, students will first develop an understanding of the biotic and abiotic factors within ecosystems, the characteristics and classification of living organisms, and how plants and animals obtain and use energy to fulfill their needs. 

Then, students will delve deeper into the NGSS standards by examining the interdependent relationships within an ecosystem by studying movement of matter between producers, consumers, and decomposers by creating models of food chains and food webs.  

At the end of this unit, students will study ways that individual communities can use science ideas to protect the Earth's resources and environment.  

Summary of Lesson

Today, I will open the lesson by reviewing the roles of producers and consumers in ecosystems. Students will then explore how the energy in animals' food was once energy from the sun. Each team will use their research to construct a poster. At the end of the lesson, students will share their posters with classmates by participating in a Gallery Walk.

Next Generation Science Standards  

This lesson will support the following NGSS Standard(s):

5-PS3-1.    Use models to describe that energy in animals’ food (used for body repair, growth, motion, and to maintain body warmth) was once energy from the sun.  

5-LS2-1.    Develop a model to describe the movement of matter among plants, animals, decomposers, and the environment.  

Scientific & Engineering Practices

For this lesson, students are engaged in the following Science & Engineering Practice:

Science & Engineering Practice 7: Engaging in Argument from Evidence

Students will construct an argument that "energy in animals' food was once energy from the sun" using evidence from resources. 

Crosscutting Concepts

To relate content across disciplinary content, during this lesson I focus on the following Crosscutting Concept

Crosscutting Concept 5: Energy and Matter 

Students will develop an understanding that energy can be transferred between plants and animals. 

Disciplinary Core Ideas

In addition, this lesson also aligns with the following Disciplinary Core Ideas

PS3.D:  Energy in Chemical Processes and Everyday Life

The energy released [from] food was once energy from the sun that was captured by plants in the chemical process that forms plant matter (from air and water). (5-PS3-1)

LS1.C:  Organization for Matter and Energy Flow in Organisms

Food provides animals with the materials they need for body repair and growth and the energy they need to maintain body warmth and for motion. (secondary to 5-PS3-1)

Plants acquire their material for growth chiefly from air and water. (5-LS1-1)

LS2.A:  Interdependent Relationships in Ecosystems

The food of almost any kind of animal can be §traced back to plants. Organisms are related in food webs in which some animals eat plants for food and other animals eat the animals that eat plants. Some organisms, such as fungi and bacteria, break down dead organisms (both plants or plants parts and animals) and therefore operate as “decomposers.” Decomposition eventually restores (recycles) some materials back to the soil. Organisms can survive only in environments in which their particular needs are met. A healthy ecosystem is one in which multiple species of different types are each able to meet their needs in a relatively stable web of life. Newly introduced species can damage the balance of an ecosystem. (5-LS2-1)

LS2.B:  Cycles of Matter and Energy Transfer in Ecosystems

Matter cycles between the air and soil and among plants, animals, and microbes as these organisms live and die. Organisms obtain gases, and water, from the environment, and release waste matter (gas, liquid, or solid) back into the environment. (5-LS2-1)

ELA Integration

To add depth to student understanding, when I can, I'll often integrate ELA standards with science lessons. Today, students will work on meeting CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.5.2: Determine two or more main ideas of a text and explain how they are supported by key details; summarize the text. In this lesson, students will be using multiple resources (both print and digital) to locate key details that support the main idea, "energy in animals' food was once energy from the sun."

Choosing Science Teams

With science, it is often difficult to find a balance between providing students with as many hands-on experiences as possible, having plenty of science materials, and offering students a collaborative setting to solve problems. Any time groups have four or more students, the opportunities for individual students to speak and take part in the exploration process decreases. With groups of two, I often struggle to find enough science materials to go around. So this year, I chose to place students in teams of three! Picking science teams is always easy as I already have students placed in desk groups based upon behavior, abilities, and communication skills. Each desk group has about six kids, so I simply divide this larger group in half. 

Gathering Supplies & Assigning Roles

To encourage a smooth running classroom, I ask students to decide who is a 1, 2, or 3 in their groups of three students (without talking). In no time, each student has a number in the air. I'll then ask the "threes" to get certain supplies, "ones" to grab their computers, and "twos" to hand out papers (or whatever is needed for the lesson). This management strategy has proven to be effective when cleaning up and returning supplies as well!  


10 minutes

Lesson Introduction & Goal 

I invite students to gather on the front carpet. Sometimes I feel that students are able to grasp new information better if they are closer to the board and joined together to inspire deeper conversation. 

To begin, I introduce today's learning goal: I can explain how the energy in an animal's food was once energy from the sun.

Roles in Ecosystems Poster

Referring to the Roles in Ecosystems Poster (created with students during a past lesson), I continue: Today, we are going to take a closer look at how animals obtain energy by reviewing the roles of organisms within an ecosystem. 

To encourage active engagement, I randomly pass out about 10 words cards to students: Review Cards. As I review the poster, students tape their word cards over the top of the corresponding words on the poster. For example, when I review the importance of the sun's energy, this student will tape the card that says, "sun's energy" over the top of these words on the poster: Sun's Energy Card. My hope is that this process encourages students to listen and watch attentively!

During this review process, I make sure to review the following key points: 

  • All organisms in the food chain need the sun's energy to survive.
  • Through the photosynthesis process, producers, such as grass, absorb the sun's light energy to produce food (stored sugar and starches).
  • The sun's energy is passed on to consumers when a consumer eats the plant or eats other animals. Consumers cannot make their own food, so they have to consume other organisms. 
  • (Less of a focus today: The sun's energy is then passed on to decomposers when plants and animals die.)

Analyzing the Main Idea 

I write the following main idea on the board:The energy in animal's food was once energy from the sun. 

As a team today, you will be researching and creating a poster. Your goal will be to find evidence that supports this main idea. Let's take the time to really think about our audience today. If you present your poster and main idea to an audience, what sort of questions might your audience have? 

As students make suggestions, I make abbreviated notes next to the main idea sentence: Decompose the Main Idea Sentence. Here are examples of student ideas:

  • What is the food chain? 
  • What is energy?
  • Does all food have energy from the sun? 
  • What is the sun's energy? 
  • What would it be like without the sun's energy?
  • What are producers and consumers and how important are each of these roles in an ecosystem? 


By taking the time to take apart the main idea sentence, this poster assignment becomes more purposeful and clear. My hope is that students research will be inquiry-based and productive! 


40 minutes

Getting Ready 

Again, you'll be in charge of making your own poster as a team. Using multiple resources, your goal is to find evidence that supports the following main idea: The energy in animals’ food was once energy from the sun.  

I invite one student in each group to get a computer. I have found that students work more collaboratively if they are circled up around one computer instead of focusing their attention on three separate computers. 

I also ask students to get a white poster (11 x 17 paper), lined paper, a Main Idea SlipFood Chain Pictures (students are always asking if they can include clipart), and a different colored marker for each student on their team. Asking each student to use a different colored marker allows both the students and I the opportunity to monitor the participation levels of all students on the team. Students will often take extra care to make sure all students on the team have written equal amounts of information on the poster.  

Teacher Note: At the end of today's lesson, students will participate in a Gallery Walk where students will provide other teams with feedback on their posters. Prior to this lesson, we reviewed our last Gallery Walk and discussed ways to improve. At this time, I remind students of our discussion: 

  • Remember to number each fact so that students can easily refer to a specific part of your poster when leaving feedback.
  • Be cautious when using pronouns (it, they, them) as the audience doesn't always know what "it" is! 
  • Write neatly so your audience is able to effectively read your poster! 



All students in my class have email addresses so sending an email with resource links is quite easy! Here are the resources that students use today: 


Monitoring Student Understanding

Once students begin working, I conference with every group. My goal is to support students by asking guiding questions (listed below). I also want to encourage students to engage in Science & Engineering Practice 7: Engaging in Argument from Evidence.

  1. Do you agree that _?
  2. What do you think about _?
  3. What is most important?
  4. What would happen if_?
  5. What does this remind you of?
  6. Are you surprised by anything?
  7. How has this text changed your thinking? 
  8. What conclusion can you draw about ____?
  9. How does the energy in an animal's food come from the sun? 


Student Conferences

During several conferences today, I draw students' attention to the text in a specific resource, Food Chains and Food Webs (p.126), that states, "A food chain is a model that shows how energy and nutrients flow from one organisms to another in an ecosystem. Arrows show the direction of energy and nutrient flow." This provides a great opportunity for students to discuss the direction of the flow of energy and to also make their poster more precise by adding arrows. 

When discussing the main idea at the beginning of this lesson, a student wondered if all the energy is passed on each time an organism consumes another organism. I purposefully take the time to conference with this student and to direct his attention to the first page of the resource, Energy Flow in an Ecosystem, where the author states, "In general, only about 10% of the energy that an organism eats is passed on to the next organism in the food chain."

For students needing a more in-depth explanation of how plants produce their own food using photosynthesis, I direct these students to the first page of the resource, The Roles of Organisms in an Ecosystem. Instead of answering student questions or correcting misconceptions directly, I try to encourage the student inquiry process by guiding them to research information from specific resources. 

Student Work

Here are examples of all ten team posters during this time:


I'm happy to see many key facts on team posters that align with today's goal: 

  • The sun gives energy to producers (plants). The consumers eat the producers. The sun's energy is passed on. 
  • When you eat chicken for dinner, some of the sun's energy goes into your body.
  • A food chain is a model that show how energy and nutrients flow from one organism to another in an ecosystem.
  • Producers are very important in the ecosystem because a producer gives a consumer food.
  • One poster has arrows in-between each step of the food chain and each of the arrows is labeled "sun's energy."
  • Energy starts with the sun and passes on from producers to consumers.
  • When any part of the food chain changes, it affect the flow of energy throughout the web. 


Teacher Note: I was very careful to provide students with a lot of freedom with making decisions on poster design as this encourages student ownership and problem solving. At the same time, I continually reminded students of the one expectation for producing a quality poster during this time: Construct a poster that is fact-based and will make sense to someone who doesn't know how animals obtain energy. Students strived to meet this expectation, not because this assignment was graded, but because they knew that their peers would soon be analyzing their work to leave constructive feedback. 

Reflect & Apply

20 minutes

Time to Share! 

Now that students have constructed evidence-based arguments that support the idea that energy in animals' food was once energy from the sun, it is important to provide students with the opportunity to share their findings. For this reason, I want students to share their research with other students by participating in a  Gallery Walk.

A Gallery Walk can look many different ways, however the main goal is for students to rotate around the room in order to provide feedback for other groups. 

To set students up for success, I review the Gallery Walk Prompts with students: (Gallery Walk Poster) and I explain: Today, you will be rotating as a team from poster to poster. You will have 4 minutes to read and discuss how each group presented their information and to provide a question or feedback. 

I ask each team of students to set out a lined sheet of paper on a clipboard (to collect peer feedback) next to their posters on their desks. I also explain the order in which groups will rotate. 

Gallery Walk 

Student teams did a great job rotating and providing feedback for other teams during this time. I took this time to help support groups as they read and more importantly, think about, other team's posters. 

Teacher Note: The last time we completed a Gallery Walk, I provided students with 2 minutes to read other students' work and provide feedback. This didn't seem to be enough time, so today, I extended this time to 4 minutes. This seemed like too much time as some students became off task. Next time, I think i'll try 3 minutes! 

Revisions & Celebrations 

Following the gallery walk, students return to their posters to read peer feedback and to make revisions. I ask a few students to share which feedback is the most helpful. For example, one group shares feedback that helped them identify a mistake in their wording. They were then able to go back and make their poster more clear.