Animal Detectives

Bridget Mulvey and Carly Warnock
Type Category
Instructional Materials
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 is an interdisciplinary, 5E unit that begins with students becoming animal detectives to explore the school habitat, moves on to students watching wolf families on a webcam, and ends with students forming groups to become "Animal Detectives."  The students investigate a focus animal, with each group having a different animal in their "mission folder". The key questions in the unit are: 'What characteristics does the animal have to help them survive in this environment?', 'What would they need to survive?', 'How might these characteristics help them survive?', 'What traits did the offspring inherit from the parents?', and 'How do the traits vary among the offspring?'. The unit authors suggest that this activity should take ten class periods. A unit overview can be found here.

Intended Audience

Educational Level
  • Grade 3
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

3-LS3-1 Analyze and interpret data to provide evidence that plants and animals have traits inherited from parents and that variation of these traits exists in a group of similar organisms.

Clarification Statement: Patterns are the similarities and differences in traits shared between offspring and their parents, or among siblings. Emphasis is on organisms other than humans.

Assessment Boundary: Assessment does not include genetic mechanisms of inheritance and prediction of traits. Assessment is limited to non-human examples.

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

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
This activity introduces students to many different types of animal offspring and how the offspring resemble their parents. To more fully meet the performance expectation, the students would also need to examine plants and how offspring inherit traits from their parent plant.

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
Through watching the wolves over the live-fed webcam, the students are able to observe the animals and draw their own conclusions about how the parent wolves and offspring compare. The students are asked to look at the animals and make a claim, then support that claim with evidence, allowing the students to begin to construct scientific explanations. Text evidence is also provided to support each research portion of the activity. To more fully satisfy the practice, the students could build and test something to support their explanation. For example, the students that thought that the animals in cold areas had short ears to prevent heat loss could design an experiment to see how much heat an object with a small surface area (short ears) lost, versus an object with a large surface area (long ears).

Disciplinary Core Ideas

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

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
Because various types of animals are being observed/investigated, the students are able to see differences in the information that is inherited from the animal parents. The fact that unlike animals live in different environments is addressed (polar bears live in white snow and brown bears live around brown trees) would support the how the animals function in the environment with the inherited information. Additional activities might include having the students "move" their animals to another group's habitat, and then discuss how the animal's survival would be impacted. Again, to more fully address the core idea, plants should be mentioned in the unit.

Crosscutting Concepts

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

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
Patterns such as small ear size to prevent heat loss in cooler habitats and larger ear size to allow heat loss in warmer habitats are examined by the students.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: This activity is an excellent way to look at animal traits inherited from their parents, but to fully address the standard the student needs to also observe traits that plants inherit from the parent plants. The activity is grade-appropriate, and helps students to observe animals and to make a scientific explanation for what they observe.

  • Instructional Supports: Animal Detectives includes ideas for differentiation (remedial and higher order thinking), a pacing guide, a student observation sheet, journal prompts, student mission folder samples, suggested websites, and a summative rubric. Many of these supporting documents can be found online at The rubric could be improved by adding details, such as the claim/evidence that the student used that showed that they understood (or did not understand) the concept.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: The supporting documents give the teacher suggestions for what to use for formative and summative evaluations in the unit, as well as an observational checklist ready to print out. Again, it would be nice to have a little more information about what claim/evidence data was observed to pass on to the parents in the rubric.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: Students use a web-cam to view animal families, and then use recommended internet sites to research animal traits and habitats. This may be challenging for some third graders, so teacher assistance may be needed to locate information.