The Platypus is an Enigma! Day 1

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Students research traits of the platypus to determine if it is a mammal.

Big Idea

Using various resources, students gather information about traits of the platypus to question science.


15 minutes

Teaching students to question science as well as know that identifying specialized parts, connecting it to other research and then drawing their own conclusions based on evidence is a valuable and essential scientific skill. This research project challenges whether or not a platypus is a mammal.

Materials needed for Platypus research:

Several Books about Platypus: We used A Platypus Probably, and other books that I asked our local library system to check out specifically for this project. I had checked out about 15 books so that students had a lot to choose from. 

Websites for this research: Healesville Sanctuary, National Geographic, Live ScienceBBC, and the Australian Museum. These sites contain various methods of communicating facts that fourth graders can easily glean information from. The National Geographic site contains videos.

 I opened up the lesson today by telling them I had a riddle: What has a bill but doesn't quack, runs like a lizard and was first thought to be a total joke? We took a minute and a few guessed right. I told them that I had been to Healesville Sanctuary in Healesville, Austalia a few years ago. I talked about what it was like to watch the platypus in their zoo habitat area and in the hospital.


We talked about how the platypus was thought to have been a hoax* when explorers first brought one back to England. I explained that I wanted them to question not the fact that they are real, but to question if they think it really IS a mammal. I reminded them that scientists change their minds through further research. It happens in space all of the time, and I referred to Pluto as an example. 

But before we began, I asked them to bring up their summaries on Google Drive  from the 5 Vertebrate Research lessons and then their science notebook to make sure we have all of the traits of each vertebrate very clear prior to this research.

We reviewed traits for the five vertebrates and listed them on the whiteboard together. I included anything they were missing, including that reptiles have particular bone structures ( a special plate in their backs) and that birds have certain patterns of chromosomes different than mammals. I added this in because I know that sometimes this comes up in research and they don't understand it without me front loading the information. 

When we were done, I spread the books from the library out on the floor telling them that they needed to use one book and two websites at least. This way, the books are enough to go around in a relatively short time. If students finish quickly, they have the option to keep researching and adding a resource. I had emailed the above websites to each of them, explaining that they are welcome to use the movies on the National Geographic site. We were almost ready to begin!


* I wouldn't recommend that students explore this site alone because of some of the content and photos. However, it does a nice job with platypus.

Beginning the Research

35 minutes

Before we began I passed out a copy of the  Platypus Gathering Grid. This was a familiar type of grid resembling the gird they used as they researched traits of the five vertebrates. This grid allowed them to fill in details as well as note their own "extra information" so that they could decide what other information should be noted, but focusing on external and internal specialized structures of the animal. I went over each detail of the gathering grid with them whole class and asked for questions. I assigned them one column to be complete before the end of class. They were to gather as much information as possible in 35 minutes. I told them specifically that they could not talk! I explained that socializing would slow the process down and that focused work would be their best strategy to get it done. They had already proven they could skim and scan in their prior lessons, but time management was now the challenge.  There was some grumbling about not being able to talk, but I explained that if they had a question, they should ask me today or ask if they could talk with their neighbor. This set the tone for serious focused work in the classroom. Afterward, I worked with a small group of students to reinforce their skim, scan, and gather skills. The research took two class periods. I integrated it into language arts class to help speed up the process.

I wrote the Driving Question on the Board: Is a platypus really a mammal?

I told them that their learning goal was to prove it through their research or refute it with a strong argument using their data as support.


10 minutes

I noticed that students were working very diligently for that full 35 minutes. When I told them it was time to stop, they didn't want to! I asked them to meet me in front of the SB because I had a short video about platypus research to share with them. I told them that they could bring their science notebook to take notes from the video and were welcome to include what they learned in their paper if they chose. 

After the video, I asked what they thought was amazing. Several shared that they were amazed at how scientists simply clip skin to use for DNA and that there were people actually studying why the size of them is different. 

This video evokes a different reaction from each group I show it to, but the point of showing it at the closing is to help them understand that the platypus is extremely complicated.

I closed by saying, What if we question science this time? What if we can decide what a platypus really is, would we choose a mammal? What if the only information we had was what we could gather through video observation, researching the books we have and using only the website. 

What parts of the platypus show different vertebrates? We listed, bill, spur, egg laying, to list a few. 

I wanted to know from them what they learned about researching today because as this process is growing, it is important to make them aware of each other's realizations and struggles. I asked about a book vs webpage being easier, and they really discussed the difference of  exploring paper vs webpage on the iPad and the challenge it brings. A lot of students liked the books better. I taked to them and guided them about infering when we read science in either a book or a webpage and quickly went over one section about hunting to clarify meaning. I told them that we would continue the research, and then we would revisit the discussion about questioning science. Having to stop was a disappointment for one student as others expressed their strategies. But we agreed that having to be quiet really got the job done!