March/April 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 6

Crosscutting Concepts Part 2: Structure and Function

Posted: Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015

by Valerie Joyner

Cross Cut Symbol for Structure and Function. Used with permission from CrossCutSymbols.  http://crosscutsymbols.weebly.com/

Cross Cut Symbol for Structure and Function. Used with permission from CrossCutSymbols. http://crosscutsymbols.weebly.com/

In January we explored, the NGSS crosscutting concept of patterns in the primary grades through the lens of earth, space, and ocean sciences. This month we will take a look at the crosscutting concept of structure and function as it relates to the life sciences.

While structure and function are not taught in kindergarten, they are covered in 1st and 2nd grades. The early study of structure and function is necessary for laying the groundwork for all students’ science education throughout the grades. The importance of early childhood science in grades K-2 cannot be emphasized enough.

“In grades K-2, – students observe that the shape and stability of structure and designed objects are related to their function(s)” (NGSS, Appendix G). Just as a fork with prongs makes eating noodles easier, and a spoon with a bowl makes a better tool for sipping soup, plants and animals have structures that assist them in their survival. Take for example:

  • red tubular flowers attract hummingbirds, pollinators with long slender beaks
  • many berries have protective thorns; small animals shelter in their thorny thickets
  • African trees grow tall to avoid grazers; giraffes have long necks to reach them
  • kangaroos use their tails for stability so they can stand and bound on two legs
  • bats and foxes have big ears to catch more sound so they can hear and hunt better

In first grade 1-LS1-1, students “use materials to design a solution to a human problem by mimicking how plants and/or animals use their external parts to help survive, grow, and meet their needs.” Coming up with simple investigations to illustrate these connections between structure and function can be challenging but here are a few ideas.

Have students make tiny chairs, each with one Dixie cup and no more than three toothpick legs, with a mini marshmallow as a base for each toothpick leg. If you have them start with two legs each and graduate to three, they will notice and appreciate the stability added by the kangaroo’s third appendage, its tail.

First grade scientists can also draw and cut out different size and shape paper ear extensions to see if their hearing improves. Show some basic examples like small triangle cat ears, tall skinny rabbit ears, and large triangle fox ears, and direct students to make any size or shape animal ears they want. Then switch styles among themselves so they can all try several different sizes and shapes (making sure no one actually inserts anything into their ears).

In second grade 2-LS2-2, students “develop a simple model that mimics the function of an animal in dispersing seeds or pollinating plants.” Here are a few possibilities for compelling investigations still simple enough for the age group.

Have second grade students make simple Dixie cup “flowers” with fuzzy sticks (pipe cleaners) sprinkled with cornstarch for stamens and pollen. Students can visit the flowers with bees they make from fuzzy sticks and note how the “pollen” sticks to the “bees”.

As a follow up, make Dixie cup “seed pods” by putting some wild bird seed in each cup, covering with tissue paper and securing with rubber bands. Students then go outside and poke small holes in the “seed pod” with a pencil and sprinkle seeds, mimicking behavior of animals that disperse seeds by brushing against or eating flowers and letting some of the seed scatter about.

Hands-on models for demonstrating to kids how structure and function relate to each other are even richer when they complement experiences outside the classroom, like guided hikes, sock seed walks (with old socks on over shoes and pant legs to collect and examine “hitchhikers”), and outings with family and friends. It helps to invite students to make observations about structures throughout their days and share them in the classroom during science time. Kids can speculate together on what functions different structures may serve for the observed plant or animal.

As teachers, we’re always looking for more variety in activities so we can adapt to different student needs and classroom settings. As you integrate this concept into your teaching toolbox, keep an eye out for ideas and investigations to help primary kids connect structure to function. Above all, please share ideas and experiences with colleagues in your school and with us in this newsletter to enrich science learning for all students.

This article is the second in a series exploring crosscutting concepts and offering ideas for applications in the primary grades. Crosscutting concepts “provide students with connections and intellectual tools that are related across the different areas of disciplinary content and can enrich the application of practices and their understanding of core ideas.” (NRC, 2012, pg. 233)

There are seven fundamental crosscutting concepts so necessary for students to learn effectively, throughout all grade levels in all disciplines. These are 1) patterns, 2) cause and effect, 3) scale, proportion, and quantity, 4) systems and system models, 5) energy and matter: flows, cycles, and conservation, 6) structure and function, and 7) stability and change.

Look for another crosscutting concept featured in the next issue, and in the meantime, we’d love to hear from you about your experiences with teaching any of these fundamental connecting concepts to primary students.

Written by Valerie Joyner

Valerie Joyner

Valerie Joyner is a retired elementary science educator and is CSTA’s Primary (grades K-2) Director.

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