Mystery Plant Adaptation

The Concord Consortium
Type Category
Instructional Materials
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.



Students perform a simulated investigation that models how thriving species are of an organism are adapted to their environments and that variation in a species can help the species adapt to changes in that environment. From the initial planting of a single seed in a field with varying degrees of light, students observe the plant's evolution into ten different varieties. The accompanying Teacher's Guide includes lesson plans, answers to the questions in the activity, and detailed instructions on using the features of the simulation.

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
Teachers will need to pre-teach the relationship between the smaller the leaf, the less surface area and the more sun the plant can tolerate in the simulation. The simulation demonstrates how one type of plant with medium sized leaves can adapt to its environment and end up with ten different leaf sizes. After the simulation, the Darwin finches are introduced to extend this same concept to animals.

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
This simulation provides a model for agricultural engineering, planting a seed, observing the results, and adjusting their seed-sowing plan based on the results. If the plant does not grow, the simulation offers tips on what the student may need to think about to make a better choice. The results from running the simulation are shown in bar graph form, and then students must interpret the graphs to answer the questions in the simulation.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
This simulation demonstrates how a given plant's species traits can vary enough to thrive in a variety of environments with different amounts of sunlight. Plants with large leaves live well in the shade and die in the sunlight. Plants with small leaves do well in sunlight, but die in the shade. Desirable traits are expressed more and more over time as generations of flowers grow and those that exhibit favorable traits reproduce while others wilt and die.

Crosscutting Concepts

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

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
The simulation clearly shows the relationship between the amount of sunlight and the size of the leaves on the plant. The student is given opportunities to identify that sunlight is causing the change, test out the best field space for the plant, and explain why the leaf has adapted from one size to ten different sizes at the end of the simulation. Each plant with a different leaf size has a different color flower, and a bar graph with the same color codes shows the students how many of each type plant is in the field, so that the student may track the number of each type of plant growing in the field.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: This resource is aligned to all three dimensions of the NGSS without explicitly stating so. The simulation (model) supports students in making sense of how sunlight in the environment can have an influence on the trait of leaf size, and then allows the students to plant a flower with a medium leaf size in the proper area and watch the plant adapt over time. Since watching an actual plant over many years would not be practical, this model allows the students to see the cause/effect relationship of the environment and resulting offspring in a short period of time.

  • Instructional Supports: This lesson is number three in a ten part evolution readiness series. To get the most out of this activity, the students should complete lessons one (Virtual Greenhouse) and lesson two (Virtual Field) to get the background knowledge and vocabulary needed for the third simulation. If not, they may be confused by the leaf sizing and how to use the tools. The simulation engages students in an authentic and meaningful scenario that reflects the adaptation of plants due the environment in the real world. 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 have highlighted vocabulary words that the student can click on for a definition, a glossary, it gives guidance to students that chose the wrong answer to a multiple choice question, and it gives hints on what to observe if a trial is unsuccessful. The use of a color-coded bar graph to show how many plants of each leaf type are in the field is helpful to visual learners. The graph is key to understanding how the plant population is changing. Mystery Plant Adaptation poses a focus question (How do variations in a species help a population adapt to a new environment?) which drives the investigation, and then returns to the question at the end of the simulation. This 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.

  • 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 Adaptation 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. Few glitches were observed after multiple users tried out the simulation.