Designing a Digestive System

Type Category
Instructional Materials
Model , Simulation , Informative Text , Interactive Simulation , Activity
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.



This interactive simulation of the human digestive system provides student the opportunity to understand the coordination of the parts of the digestive system to perform the overall function of this body system. In the simulation students manipulate different organs and answer questions provided by nine pages of student exploration sheets. The exploration sheets guide students through a short prior knowledge piece, information on how to use the simulation and a design your own digestive system. In the interactive simulation students chose the order of the major organs of the digestive system, the minor organs and the location for capillaries and lymph glands. Students also choose from one of six kinds of food and then run the simulation. The results give students the percent of their food that is digested and the consistency of the feces. Students can rerun the simulation making different choices and even leaving two organs out to determine the effects on digestion. Exploration sheets guide students in understanding the complexity and variety of organs and chemicals that work to break down food, absorb food and eliminate food wastes from the body. The student exploration sheets also include the vocabulary addressed, students’ predictions, describing the changes in results and giving an explanation for those changes. Breakdown of the main food nutrients and enzyme function is included. The student sheets provide guides for three different runs with students setting their own parameters for the runs and drawing conclusions from the resulting changes. The exploration sheets include diagrams of the digestive system and the villi. Teachers can view student assessment responses by assigning the simulation to a class created within the eLearning site. This site offers free access for 30 days.

Intended Audience

Educational Level
  • Grade 11
  • Grade 10
  • Grade 9
Access Restrictions

Available by subscription - The right to view and/or download material, often for a set period of time, by way of a financial agreement between rights holders and authorized users.

Performance Expectations

HS-LS1-2 Develop and use a model to illustrate the hierarchical organization of interacting systems that provide specific functions within multicellular organisms.

Clarification Statement: Emphasis is on functions at the organism system level such as nutrient uptake, water delivery, and organism movement in response to neural stimuli. An example of an interacting system could be an artery depending on the proper function of elastic tissue and smooth muscle to regulate and deliver the proper amount of blood within the circulatory system.

Assessment Boundary: Assessment does not include interactions and functions at the molecular or chemical reaction level.

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this performance expectation.

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
This interactive simulation and accompanying student exploration guide explicitly addresses the PE, as it engages students in using a model of the human digestive to understand the function of each organ, the function of the accessory organs of digestion and the amount of nutrients absorbed by the digestive system. In the simulation students are encouraged to try different orders for the major organs and accessory organs and in doing so, the model emphasizes the changing effectiveness of the digestive system for different nutrients. One change instructors need to consider is to use incorporate the more commonly used names of the main organs of the digestive system. The simulation uses “large” and more often the teachers of science would incorporate the word “major” organs instead. The organs that produce the enzymes are usually referred to as the accessory organs not the small organs as named in the simulation. The inclusion of capillaries and lymph vessels in the simulation is an excellent addition and makes the simulation more suitable to secondary that middle school classes. By clicking on each major organ and each accessory organ, the function and breakdown products are given. The breakdown products of starch, proteins and fats are also included in the student exploration guide.

Science and Engineering Practices

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this science and engineering practice.

Comments about Including the Science and Engineering Practice
The simulation explicitly engages students by having students pick the major organs (called the large organs) and the accessory organs (called the small organs) and the order of each. Students also select a food and then run the simulation with their chosen selections. The simulation then tells how well the food is digested based upon percentage of digestion. Motion such as peristalsis and interesting sounds enhance the simulation. Teachers should utilize the handout assignments provided as part of the classroom materials.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

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

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
The DCI is explicitly addressed because the overall goal of this simulation is for students to understand that the functioning role of each part of the digestive system and it illustrates the dependency of the proper relationship and correct function of each of the parts of the system. Descriptions of the function of each of the main organs are part of the student exploration guide and fit together strongly with the simulation. It would be valuable for students to complete this portion before running their first simulation. The role of the accessory organs is determined by the students as part of the simulation as the digestion of carbohydrates, proteins and fats is determined by picking the different foods and utilizing the feedback given to students in the simulation. Teachers will need to be purposeful in assisting students in making these connections successfully.

Crosscutting Concepts

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this crosscutting concept.

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
Teachers could ask students how the different organs of the digestive system work together. This could include questions of what they determined happened to functions of organs when the student tried to place the organs in the wrong order. Teachers might also ask students why it is important to look at the system as whole and not just parts of the digestive or any other body system. Students could also share their results with class members.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: The identified Disciplinary Core Idea, the Crosscutting Concepts and the Performance Expectation are all align explicitly with the three dimensions of the NGSS. This simulations provides students with the opportunity to work with and make relevant choices concerning the design and function of the model.

  • Instructional Supports: Before running the simulation, students will benefit from discussion of the two prior knowledge questions and the warm-up questions provided in the student exploration sheets. The guiding questions for the functions of the digestive organ are a strong component of this simulation. Students may need some help to separate mechanical from chemical digestion and the role of enzymes if the class is not familiar with enzymes. The guiding questions in the student exploration sheets are very helpful for facilitating student understanding and to help focus students’ attention on key concept. The open-endedness of this simulation is a positive incentive for student engagement and the accompanying sounds provide some humor. There is much content material addressed in this simulation and teachers can use this as the basis of additional lessons on functions of individual digestive organs or as a connection to introduce enzyme function. This simulation might provide a good starting point for breakdown of each of the three main food groups from macromolecules to their digestion products. Instructors could provide support to students by checking for understanding and providing guidance during the completion of the simulation and sheets. Teachers should provide additional support by discussing answers for the entire student exploration packet and providing an open discussion of the results by facilitating a class discussion on the key concepts following the simulation. The simulation requires students to use visual media (i.e. digital snapshots of models) to illustrate their understanding of concepts presented in the simulation and student exploration sheets. However, the simulation does not require students to present this information to others. Teachers might expand on this connection by asking students to share their findings with other students.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: The included student exploration sheets provide for one space for students to take a snapshot or make a drawing of their choice of organ arrangement and include the results from this arrangement. There are also several questions and charts included in the exploration sheets. The student exploration sheets are a strong component of this simulation but the overall concluding or summary assessment provided is weak. Also, the assessment report feature does not provide an effective means for the teacher to return feedback to the student. Teachers could overcome these limitations to some degree by circulating, monitoring, and giving feedback face-to-face as students work on the simulation in a computer lab or similar setting. . The assessments provided could certainly be increased by the instructor.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: The simulation is interactive and makes effective use of computer models and interactive simulations as well as instant feedback for the results of the simulation. Teachers can review student answers immediately.