Mystery Plant Mystery

The Concord Consortium
Type Category
Instructional Materials
Assessment Item , Interactive Simulation
This resource, vetted by NSTA curators, is provided to teachers along with suggested modifications to make it more in line with the vision of the NGSS. While not considered to be “fully aligned,” the resources and expert recommendations provide teachers with concrete examples and expert guidance using the EQuIP rubric to adapted existing resources. Read more here.



Student use a simulation activity to discover that plants that look alike can have different types of roots, that plants with different types of roots can thrive in soils that have different amounts of moisture, and that plants can adapt their root type to their environment over time. A Teacher's Guide link can be found near the the download button. The guide includes lesson plans, answers to the questions in the activity, and detailed instructions on using the features of the simulation. This is activity 5 of a 10-part series of evolution readiness education resources by The Concord Consortium.

Intended Audience

Educational Level
  • Grade 3
  • Upper Elementary
Access Restrictions

Free access - The right to view and/or download material without financial, registration, or excessive advertising barriers.

Performance Expectations

3-LS3-2 Use evidence to support the explanation that traits can be influenced by the environment.

Clarification Statement: Examples of the environment affecting a trait could include normally tall plants grown with insufficient water are stunted; and, a pet dog that is given too much food and little exercise may become overweight.

Assessment Boundary: none

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this performance expectation, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
This simulation allows the student to plant seeds that will thrive in only one area of a field due to the moisture content of the soil, and then watch over time as the plants adapt to their environment, developing different root systems and spreading out over the entire field. The activity only addresses one trait (root type). Using use this activity along with additional activities that feature other traits will reinforce the concept that traits can be influenced by the environment.

Science and Engineering Practices

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this science and engineering practice, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Science and Engineering Practice
The student can use this simulation to see the relationship between root type, moisture in the soil, and plant development. Mystery Plant Mystery allows the student to identify which plants need what type of soil, then plant the proper type of seed in the given field and watch as the plant adapts its roots to its surroundings. It takes many seasons, but the plant eventually covers the entire field. Data collection is supported visually by a bar graph that shows how many of each root type is planted in the field.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
The simulation illustrates how soil moisture has an effect on the adaptation of root type in plants, but adding additional activities that examine a different trait, especially with an animal, will help students to more fully understand the concept.

Crosscutting Concepts

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this crosscutting concept, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
The connection between plant root type and soil moisture is identified, tested, and used to explain the change in root type in the simulation. The student can use root type, 'X', 'Y', or 'Z' to plant the seeds in soil with different amounts of moisture. When they identify the right type of soil for each seed, they then have to decide how to fill a field with differing moisture levels with only one type of seed. The student can watch as the simulation repeats over many seasons. If the student does not have a successful outcome, they may retry the simulation until they solve the mystery of how to fill the field with flowers. To more explicitly align to the Crosscutting Concept, these connections need to be discussed in terms of cause and effect.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: This resource utilizes all three dimensions of the NGSS. The focus of the simulation supports students in making sense of the cause-effect relationship between moisture in the environment and the most desirable root traits, Students then apply their new found knowledge of trait variation to design solutions to the problem of filling a field with varying degrees of moisture using only one type of plant seed. Since watching an actual plant over many years would not be practical, this model allows the students to see the effect of the environment on several generations of plants in a short period of time.

  • Instructional Supports: The simulation engages students in an authentic and meaningful scenario that reflects the adaptation of plants due the environment in the real world. The resource also poses a focus question (called a Discovery question in the resource) which drives the investigation, then returns to the question at the end of the investigation. Students are asked to respond to written questions throughout the activity, some are short answer and some are multiple choice. Answers to all questions can be found in the Teacher's Guide. The student also can take a picture of their solution that is kept in their electronic journal. The activity does feature some supports for differentiation: the activity does give guidance to students that chose the wrong answer to a multiple choice question, highlighted vocabulary words can be clicked-on for a definition of that word, it gives hints on what trait to observe if a trial is unsuccessful, and it allows a student to go back and check their previous work if they need to refresh their memory to answer a question, and a glossary. The use of a bar graph to show how many plants of each root type are in the field is helpful to visual learners. The resource also develops student understanding of the Disciplinary Core Idea by building on students' prior knowledge and provides opportunities to express their ideas and respond to peer and teacher feedback. Educators and students may use this resource as a Guest without registration, but in order to save student work and 'photos', a student must register and log-in.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: The simulation has short answer questions, multiple choice questions, and 'pictures' of the student progress with growing the plants in the field that go into an electronic journal. It is fairly easy for the teacher to walk around the classroom and observe student computers to see if the student understands the concept simply by observing how the plants in their field are growing. To more fully check for student understanding, the teacher could construct a rubric and scoring guidelines that provide guidance for interpreting student performance.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: Mystery Plants Mystery is a computer simulation that requires the Java Runtime Environment version 5 (sometimes referred to as 1.5) or later with Java Webstart. The game does take a few minutes to load initially, but it runs smoothly and is user-friendly. Almost no glitches were observed after several different uses.