Designer Ears: Biology & Perception Science Activity

Exploratorium Teacher Institute
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 short activity, one of many "Science Snacks" from the Exploratorium science museum in San Francisco, provides students with an opportunity to create ear structures that model the ears of familiar animals and explore how they affect their function. 

Intended Audience

Educational Level
  • Upper Elementary
  • Grade 5
  • Grade 4
  • Grade 3
  • Grade 2
Access Restrictions

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

Performance Expectations

4-LS1-1 Construct an argument that plants and animals have internal and external structures that function to support survival, growth, behavior, and reproduction.

Clarification Statement: Examples of structures could include thorns, stems, roots, colored petals, heart, stomach, lung, brain, and skin.

Assessment Boundary: Assessment is limited to macroscopic structures within plant and animal systems.

This resource was not designed to build towards this performance expectation, but can be used to build towards it using the suggestions provided below.

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
This activity allows students to explore changes in their perception of sounds that are detected with different type of ears that mimic the structure of those of familiar animals. After exploration, students should find that ears with more surface area may be better at funneling sound into the ear canal. The class can make hypotheses about why it might be important for particular animals to be able to hear well for their survival. They should be encouraged to explain how large ears can help animals avoid predators, locate prey, and find their mates for reproduction. The teacher can further explain that there are sometimes multiple ways that a structure can help an animal survive, such as the large ears of elephants also helping to dissipate heat in warm climates.

Science and Engineering Practices

This resource was not designed to build towards this science and engineering practice, but can be used to build towards it using the suggestions provided below.

Comments about Including the Science and Engineering Practice
This activity is designed to be primarily observational, allowing students to construct artificial external ears that may resemble those of other animals and experience how the sound they detect changes with shape, size, and material. To address this practice more completely, students could be encouraged to analyze pictures of the ears of animals they are familiar with and make sense of the varied structures they see, possibly generating claims about how they contribute to the animals' survival in their environment. Questions regarding the animals' roles in their ecosystem and about the environments in which they live can lead to meaningful claims about the relationship between structure and function. Students could be asked to provide evidence for claims regarding the suitability of different ear structures for different purposes.

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
The direct experience of how sound reception changes with ear structure can provide a phenomenon requiring students to construct explanations connecting structure and function. The teacher should explicitly direct students to consider ear placement as well as structure in their exploration, and to consider other ear functions such as heat dissipation.

Crosscutting Concepts

This resource was not designed to build towards this crosscutting concept, but can be used to build towards it using the suggestions provided below.

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
Since this activity only addresses ear structure, the teacher should incorporate some consideration of the brain's role in perceiving and responding to sound, and to the ears' role as one of the sub-systems that make up the sensory nervous system of humans and other animals. Other activities could consider different structures (eyes, noses, body coverings, etc.) and how they contribute to survival.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: By presenting students with an opportunity to experience the effects of different ear structures on hearing, this activity provides a phenomenon for them to explore and make sense of. It could be used to introduce a unit on structure and function, or it could incorporate more dimensions of the NGSS if students explain the reasons for the differences they perceive, argue from evidence regarding the advantages/disadvantages of different ear shapes and materials, and test designs to improve the ability of an external ear to hear effectively.

  • Instructional Supports: The Exploratorium's Science Snacks are meant to be short activities rather than full lessons, so there are limited supports provided. There are suggested questions and prompts to guide and support students, including using pictures of animal ears for comparison and design clues and comparing the designs of other students. Background information is given about how different ear structures contribute to survival: locating prey, avoiding predators, communication, and and heat dissipation. An extension mentions the the problem of hearing aids collecting too much background noise, sometimes making it difficult for users to hear effectively. This could be a starting point for a design activity that could challenge students to optimize ear size, shape, location and material.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: There is ample opportunity for the teacher to observe student ear designs and listen to their argumentation and explanations, but no formal assessment is provided. Introducing the activity with a formative assessment question(e.g. "Are all animal ears alike?") could probe student preconceptions. Students could be asked to record observations about each design on a teacher-created sheet or in their science notebooks and to answer specific questions to assess their understanding of the connection between structure and function.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: This resource does not include a technologically interactive component, but internet research could provide opportunities for further exploration of how animals' ear structures and other sensory organs help them locate prey, avoid predators, and find others of their kind.