Characteristics of Life

I teach a 9th-grade Integrated Science course. This means I need to incorporate the disciplines of life science, earth and space, and physical science all into my class. That's a lot of standards to cover! Earth and Space and Physical Science are my wheelhouse and where I focus most of our classroom time on. My class is our students' only exposure to the Earth and Space concepts in high school and the 11th-grade state science test cover these standards, so I spend the majority of my units connecting Earth and Space and Physical Science concepts. I have been looking for more avenues to touch on those life science concepts in class without overburdening my students with another unit. This year, I added Characteristics of Life to my Introductory Unit 0 as I introduce Claim - Evidence - Reasoning, Sketchnotes and to build our Science Notebooking skills.

I started my students off with the following scenario.

NASA is sending a team of astronauts to Mars in search of life. You and your team have been asked by NASA to create a set of criteria and/or characteristics for what makes something “alive”.

Students were given 5-7 minutes to work in groups to come up with a list of criteria or characteristics for what makes something alive. As a class, we compiled all of our characteristics into a list on the main whiteboard. After some debate, as a class, we decided we needed to investigate some objects to help narrow our list down.

Students were given 10 items (shell, yeast, pinecone, seaweed, soil, cork, popcorn kernels, a leaf, and a rock). Students were tasked with identifying if the object was Living or Non-Living, and if it was a living object was alive, dormant, or dead. Check out Becca's ( from Science Lessons that Rock), Characteristics of Life activity for this. I had to stop myself from giving them too many options. You could also use a sponge, feather, paper, yogurt, dried beans, fossils (I have some petrified wood), mealworms, starfish, or sand dollars. Side note, when I do this again next year, I might put a lot of options out and have students choose 8 of them to investigate to add more student choices into the lesson. Some of the items students were definitive on their Living/Non-living designation. Other items such as the cork, popcorn kernels, and pine cones inspired some lively discussions.

Groups then were tasked with designing small-scale experiments to test if certain objects were Living/Non-Living. As a class, we chose three objects that offered up some living debate in class, Popcorn kernels, pinecones, and seaweed. Students viewed each under the dissection microscope to gather additional information for their analysis. We decided the corn kernel looked like a seed so we would try planting it in the greenhouse. This was also a test to see if my students could follow directions and plant 2 kernels in their pot. As evidenced above, we still need some work on following instructions.

Every day, my 9th graders raced into the greenhouse to check on their popcorn and tend to their plants. While their popcorn kernels were sprouting, we brainstormed characteristics that living organisms have. We generated a large list and then had a class discussion to debate our characteristics. Once we narrowed down our list, students investigated the 8 characteristics of life that scientists generally agree upon through an interactive drawing.

Students created a sketchnote in their notebooks about the 8 characteristics of life.

Our final task on this unit was to complete a Claim Evidence Reasoning Statement for the phenomena, The Strandbeest. "Is the Strandbeest alive?"

We watched the video below as a class and then embarked on a very contested debate on if the Strandbeest was a living organism based on our 8 characteristics of life. What makes something alive? If a tree created the wood that comprises the Strandbeest and the tree was alive and the wood has cells, does that make everything made out of wood alive? The debate was so engaging, that I let my students continue to debate the entire class. After we finalized our lively discussion, students independently completed their CER using all the evidence they gathered from the Exploratorium website, video, interactive drawing, and class discussions.

This was an extremely engaging first lesson that introduced our science notebooking activities, sketchnotes, a refresher on CER, and got the students into the greenhouse and actively engaging in Argument from Evidence.