Panda Bears in Phoenix (2 Day Lesson)

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SWBAT research and design an enclosure appropriate for the survival of an animal that is not native to the environment. SWBAT debate the pros and cons of keeping animals in captivity.

Big Idea

Panda bears used to the cool, damp, mountains and forests of Southwest China. Could they survive in the dry heat of the Arizona desert?

Engage (Day 1)

10 minutes

I get the students interested and excited for the lesson by having a live Panda Bear Cam* playing in the classroom before they arrive. I make sure to write the words, "This is live!" on the board next to the stream, so they know they are watching real animals and not a prerecorded video or fictional movie. I let them watch for a few minutes, without prompting them to write or discuss, but rather allowing them to observe and respond naturally to the scenes in front of them.

Once the students have had a chance to observe the animals for several uninterrupted minutes, I take a few minutes to review what we learned about panda bears in the prior day's lesson, "Which Bear Goes Where?".  I ask the two groups of students who researched polar bears to remind us of the feeding habits, habitats, ecosystem, relationships, and physical/behavioral adaptations of the panda bears that allow it to be successful in its environment. This quick recap helps to activate prior knowledge and to set the stage for the upcoming project.


*While there are many live animal webcams available on the web, I have included a few of my favorite polar bear cams below:


40 minutes

Next,  I print and pass out several pictures of polar bears (see slideshow below). I ask the students to decide which pictures show the bears in their natural environment and which show them in captivity. The students sort them into two categories. One the back of each picture, I have them write down where they think the picture was taken, justifying their decision with evidence from the picture. 

Next, I tell the students they will each have the opportunity to design their own enclosure for panda bear that will be relocated to a zoo here in the Phoenix, Arizona desert.  Students will have to create an environment for the panda bears that closely replicates the characteristics of the environment for which they are adapted. Since Arizona is far away from the natural habitat of the panda bears, this will be a challenging task!

Students first choose to work individually or in teams of two.  One teams have been formed, I prompt the students to consider the similarities and differences between the two environments on the Venn Diagram, using the pictures they sorted as a starting point. For students having trouble with this, I ask them how they were able to determine the pictures taken in the wild vs. the ones taken in captivity.What clues helped them to determine which pictures were of a man-made habitat created for a zoo?

Next, I have them identify and describe the panda bear's habitat needs by listing them on the chart provided. (I print this on the back of the Venn to save time and paper.) Then I have them brainstorm what can be done to meet those needs in Phoenix. Students can use yesterday's posters, as well as other print and Internet resources, to support their work.

Once their research and initial planning is done, the students will use the Design a Panda Habitat* site to create their enclosure. They will create an enclosure for their panda bears and print 3-4 copies, so that it can later be evaluated and critiqued by their peers. 

*For a screencast on how to use the Design a Panda Habitat site, and its benefits to the students, click here!


Explain (Day 2)

15 minutes

Once everyone has finished their design, I collect everyone's copies and redistribute them throughout the classroom, so that each pair of students have three different pieces of work to view. I allow the students time to view the work discuss the merits and drawbacks of the various enclosures. In order to provide more specific feedback about student work, I have the students use a feedback strategy known as "Glow and Grow". (See the reflections for more information on this strategy.) Basically, students  use a "glowing" highlighter (we use bright yellow) to show what was done really well, and a "growing" green or orange highlighter to show areas that could use some improvement or elaboration.


20 minutes

After providing feedback on each others work, we discuss some of the challenges in providing the right kind of habitat for raising polar bears in captivity. We talk about the responsibilities people have to meet the needs of the animals in captivity. We also discuss the purposes of animals in captivity, and discuss arguments for and against such practices. I like to pose questions related to the motivation for captive environments, such as:

  • What is the current status of the animal's natural habitat?
  • Would these animals be able to survive in their natural habitat, or have other factors led to the failure of their survival in the wild?
  • Can the captive environment mimic the natural environment enough as to not disturb their natural behaviors?
  • What conservation efforts to maintain wild places for each species?
  • What conservation efforts are not being done?


This is a great opportunity for debate, and often leads itself that way. I love to encourage the students to debate, but try not to force it, as it becomes artificial if the students don't feel passionately about it. Learn NC and The Noisy Classroom both provide some great information for teachers interested in implementing a structured debate in their classroom. If you don't have time, the students don't tend to enjoy or perform well during classroom debates, or would just like something less involved, you can always send your students to the page on and allow them to post their thoughts and read others.


10 minutes

As a final assessment, I have the students complete the Quickwrite. This will allow them to make connections to this lesson and to prior lessons on habitats and adaptations, while still challenging them to extend their thinking tackle a new idea.