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This investigation is designed for a field trip to a rocky intertidal beach but it can be adapted for field trip locations with less distinct tidal zones or other types of different habitats in close proximity. Students are introduced to the concept of adaptation in the evolutionary sense that changes in environmental conditions can affect the survival of different kinds of organisms. Before going on a field trip, they watch a video, create a Biodiversity Checklist, use media to research the adaptations of different beach plants and animals, and write an opinion piece to argue from evidence that a particular organism is or is not well-adapted to survive in a particular intertidal zone/habitat. During a beach field trip, they focus their observations on adaptations as they observe and sample specific organisms in different tidal zones. On their return to the classroom, they construct a bar graph to relate the distribution and abundance of species to the environmental conditions in the different tidal zones.
Essential Question(s)
How can a change in the environment change the survival strategies of plants and animals?
What types of adaptations do intertidal seaweeds and animals have that that increase their survival under the environmental conditions that vary across the intertidal zone?
PDF Investigation
Time Required
4-5 1-hour class periods, 2-hour field trip
Life Sciences
Investigation Type
Field Trip, Classroom
Grade Level
NGSS Performance Expectations
Materials Needed

- Spray bottle filled with water
- Whiteboard
- Whiteboard markers
Quadrats (see How to Make a Quadrat)
Quadrat Datasheets (Link to Resources section)

NGSS Performance Expectation

Students who demonstrate understanding can:

Construct an argument with evidence that in a particular habitat some organisms can survive well, some survive less well, and some cannot survive at all. (3-LS4-3)
Clarification Statement: The organisms and their habitat make up a system in which all parts depend on one another.

(Building towards) Make a claim about the merit of a solution to a problem caused when the environment changes and the types of plants and animals that live there may change. 3-LS4-4 


Knowledge - Students will know that:
  • for any particular environment, some organisms can survive well there, some don’t survive well, and some cannot survive at all.
  • plants and animals live in a variety of habitats to which they are adapted and the conditions in those habitats change.
Skills - Students will be able to:
  • explain how specific traits and behaviors affect the ability of particular seaweeds and animals to survive changes in specific environmental conditions, thus their distribution in different tidal zone.
  • construct an argument from evidence.
Local and Cultural Connections
Encourage students to ask questions of their parents, grandparents, or other local experts as part of their research on seaweed and animal species.

Students can explore how traditional Alaska practices and tool-making handed down over generations are adaptations to the local environment. (These would be examples of cultural inheritance but would also convey the idea of adaptation taking place over generations.)

Although the NGSS don’t require assessing student knowledge of the names of organisms at this grade level, learning Alaska Native names for species’ groups that are culturally important (e.g., mussels, clams, etc.) is an emphasis in bilingual education in some Alaska school districts as one means to address Alaska cultural standards.
Teacher Preparation

Develop a Biodiversity Checklist of local beach seaweeds and animals. (See example in Resources section.) You can decide the level of detail in the names you would like your students to learn.

Locate nonfiction library books and other resources for research about local seaweeds and animals. (See Resources section.)

Learning Experiences


(1-2 hrs.)

1.  Ask students: Why do you think some organisms survive well in a certain place?
What do you think would happen if they were moved to a different type of habitat?
Show photos of a couple of different animals to spark student thinking and provide a formative assessment of previous knowledge as students craft their explanations during science discussions or from a written explanation assignment.

2.  Show the first-half or the entire video Adaptation (The first half of video, approximately 7 minutes, introduces the concept of adaptation and distinguishes between structural and behavioral adaptations with Alaskan examples. The second half is a series of mini-talks about the adaptations of opossums, beavers, and sea turtles.)

3.  Provide students with nonfiction books and other media or library time to give students opportunities to observe and identify features and behaviors that help organisms live in their environments. (See Resources section.)

4.  Create a class chart of features and behaviors in specific habitats based on evidence from the video and other resources.

5.  Intertidal Environment Demonstration: Draw a quick sketch of an intertidal profile on the board, from splash zone to lower intertidal zone and review the fact that different zones are exposed at different tides. You may also want to spend a bit of time explaining how tides work and/or reviewing a tide book. 

6.  Choose five students of the greatest height range possible within the group and line them up in front of the class from tallest to shortest. Describe what the intertidal zone is and what it means. 

a. Start with the tallest student as the splash zone. Describe that the splash zone receives very little salt water and only at the highest tides. Give the tallest student a light misting with the spray bottle. Ask the student if they can tell you what organisms they might expect to find in the splash zone. Write or draw those organisms on the board in the splash zone.

b.  Move on to the high tide zone. Give that student two sprays and explain that the high tide zone is exposed to air for longer periods of time than it is covered in water. Ask students to tell you what might be found here. Describe that animals here need adaptations for dealing with desiccation (e.g. hard shells). Review splash zone and high tide zone by giving more sprays to the students.

c.  Move to mid tide zone. Describe how the mid-tide zone is under water half of the time, exposed to air half the time. Give student some sprays. Ask what might be found here and why (animals with somewhat softer bodies). Review all zones, and spray as you go. 

d.  Move to the low-tide zone and describe. Ask if animals in the high tide zone could also live in the low tide zone. Explain that they would be quickly consumed by the numerous predators that can only live in the low tide zone. Review all zones. 

e.  The shortest student represents the sub-tidal zone, so move to the last student. Dramatically unscrew the cap of the bottle as if you are going to dump the whole thing on the student. Describe the sub-tidal zone and ask what lives here. Conclude by stating the sub-tidal zone is always ‘under water’ as you hold the un-lidded bottle over the final student's head.

       (Adapted from Intertidal Environment Demonstration, Center for Alaska Coastal Studies CoastWatch Curriculum)

7.  Work with students to create a Biodiversity Checklist for the seaweeds and animals they can expect to see on their beach field trip. Discuss the differences in the four intertidal zones (splash zone, upper, middle, lower) and the tide pool that might affect the survival of plants and animals. Ask for some predictions of animals that they think would survive well, less well, and might not survive at all in each of the five habitats. Ask them to explain their reasoning in terms of features and behaviors of each animal.


(1-2 hours)

1.  Write each of the organisms on the Biodiversity Checklist you just compiled with the class on slips of paper and place them into a container. Divide the class into four teams (five if the beach field trip site will have both rocky areas in the lower intertidal zone and tide pools). Assign each team one of the tidal zones or habitats they will be visiting on their field trip and then have them draw four or five organisms from the container. (If you have more students than organisms on the list, add some that you know they are likely to observe on their beach field trip. You can also assign some groups the same organisms. Be sure to include seaweeds as well as animals.

2.  Model how to read a nonfiction book and look for clues in the illustrations (for example, One Small Square: Seashore) to gather evidence about adaptations to local beach habitats that help a type of seaweed or animal survive well in a particular zone or a tide pool.

3.  Each student will do research to become the class expert on their animal, and after they complete their research, they will teach their classmates about the animal. Remind students that scientists learn by reading, writing, and researching about information that is interesting and useful to them. Ask each student to write the following questions in their science notebooks as a guide to their research:

       Name of animal: 

  • What does it eat?
  • How does it move?
  • How does it get food?
  • How does it protect itself?
  • Something it does that few other animals can do.
  • Use five words to describe it.
  • Tell if and how it is used by people in your community.

Field Trip Preparation: (20-30 mins.)

Re-visit the discussion about what might happen to an animal that is moved to another habitat than one it lives in now which for beach animals can be a very short distance or happen when a rock is turned over.

Review beach etiquette guidelines or guide students into constructing their own rules.


(30 mins.)

1.  After all the team members have completed their research on their four or five species, have them work together as a team to answer two focus questions in their group:
Which of these species are likely to survive well and which are likely to survive less well?
Are there any species that wouldn’t be able to survive in our zone?
What features and behaviors of our organism support your answer?

2.  Each team member will construct an argument based on evidence in the form of an opinion piece, with references, that supports their answer to these questions for one of the species. They will then make their argument to the other team members. After reading the opinion pieces of the other team members, each student will fill out an assessment. The goal is to help each other develop solid arguments with strong supporting evidence. Students will have another opportunity to collect evidence on your beach field trip.

3.  Create a Biodiversity Checklist form and make copies for each team to use on the field trip. Make copies of the Quadrat Datasheet for each team.

Field Trip (2 hours)


(20-30 mins.)

When you arrive at the beach field trip, review the focus question for their exploration time: What features and behaviors might contribute to the survival of different organisms in each of the intertidal zones and in tide pools?

Provide each team with the Biodiversity Checklist (on a clipboard or piece of cardboard with a rubber band), a pencil, a quadrat, and a Quadrat Datasheet. Discuss how to make an estimate of the number of organisms in an area by sampling a smaller area and counting all of the organisms within the quadrat. Demonstrate how to take a random sample by tossing the quadrat back over your shoulder without looking.

EXPLAIN (Focused Investigation)

1.  The teams will survey the beach zones/habitats beginning with the one they were assigned. They will look for their three animals and one plant in their assigned zone/habitat and also look for additional evidence to strengthen their arguments. If they see more than five of one of their assigned organisms within their zone, they will do a quadrat count three times within that zone and enter data in the Quadrat Datasheet. While exploring their zone/habitat, they will also check all the species they observe on the biodiversity checklist.

2.  After they finish quadrat counts, they will then explore other beach zones/habitats, checking off all of the species they observe in each habitat on their Biodiversity Checklist and looking for additional evidence about whether or not their organisms could survive in each of the other habitats. If they see more than five of one of their assigned organisms within one of the other zones, they will do three quadrat counts there too.

3.  Bring the class back together to share their findings. Did they find their plants and animals where they predicted when they argued from evidence? What did they notice about how well plants and animals were surviving in the places they found them? Did they see some characteristics or behaviors they hadn’t thought of that might help the organisms survive in a particular habitat?

Please note: Depending on the tidal cycle, you may have to modify these directions so students will all be able to survey the lowest zone available.

Back in the Classroom


Back in the classroom, the students construct a scale bar graph together that shows the relationship of the number of animals of each species they observed and counted in each zone or habitat. Ask whether the evidence they collected would support an argument about the adaptations of each of their organisms to the zones where they found them.


Extend learning to other biomes. Visit the Biomes of the World website. Have students compare the plants and animals featured in each biome with those they have documented in their own journals.

Ask students:

- Is what you see the same as what other kids would find in their backyards?

- Which biome has environmental conditions that are most like the place where you live?

- Which biome has environmental conditions that are the most different from where you live?
Have students find an unusual plant or animal that lives in this biome. What’s unusual about this plant or animal? Why might it look the way it does?

Students could work in teams to create an imaginary animal that has a special feature that enables them to survive in a biome with harsh conditions such as the desert or tundra.


(30 – 50 mins.)

High Tide, Low Tide Game

Exploration (10 minutes): Tell your students: We are going to play a game called “High-tide, Low-tide.” I’ll say the name of an animal that lives near the tide line. It will be an animal that spends some of its life exposed at low-tide and some of its life covered with water, at high-tide. To begin with I’ll describe how the animal moves and feeds at high tide. Then I’ll describe how the animal protects itself and behaves at low tide.

Here’s an example: A Barnacle.
You are a barnacle. You have glued your shell to a rock and you sit upside down in your shell house. Each shell house is made of six hard, crusty, plates. When the tide is high the barnacle opens its movable shell plates and throws out its curled, feathery legs. It uses its curled feathery legs to sweep the sea soup for tiny plants and tiny animals and kick them down into their mouths. At low tide, the barnacles show no movement or sign of life. The six hard, crusty shell plates close up tight. The barnacle’s shell makes a moist house and keeps the animal cool. The barnacle sits upside-down in its cool shell house with its head cemented to the bottom and its long feathery legs curled up tight.

When I say: “high tide,” show me how a barnacle behaves at high tide. When I say: “low tide,” show what a barnacle does when the tide is low.

Here’s another example: A Limpet. At high tide, the limpet moves about scraping and scraping the rocks with its tongue. A limpet tongue is like a long ribbon covered with very fine teeth. The limpet creeps along scraping and eating on the thin layer of tiny green plants that covers the rocks. At low tide, a limpet out of seawater does not scrape the rocks for tiny green plants. It pulls its head and the two long feelers inside its cone-shaped shell house. With its wide muscular foot, it plasters itself to the rock with very tight suction. The limpet’s cone-shaped shell protects it from hungry crab, sea stars and shorebirds and it makes a moist pocket for the animal inside its shell.

When I say: “high tide,” show me how a limpet behaves at high tide. When I say: “low tide,” show what a limpet does when the tide is low.

Explanation (10-20 minutes): After students have acted out the examples, ask them to think about the marine animals and plants that they’ve learned about. What would they be doing at high tide and low tide? What are their unique ways of eating and moving?

Art Project Extension: Create a Creature Sculpture

Model the creation of the sculpture.

Use large paper and a picture to support observational drawing.

One step at a time, show students how to:

  1. Draw the form of the animal.
  2. Cut out the animal on the lines.
  3. Staple paper so there are two sides together, with just a couple of staples.
  4. Paint or use markers to draw details (eyes, gills, fins, wings, etc.).
  5. Staple carefully all around, leaving one gap to stuff the creature.
  6. Stuff by putting newsprint into the gap, then staple it closed.

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Have students spread out in the room, or have students work in teams to create one sculpture per small group at a time. Students will use the information from their marine/aquatic animal research to create the sculpture. Encourage children to talk about the specific characteristics of their animal; the number of legs, the shape of the body, use of appendages, etc. The plan that students make is important since this will be the information that is used to inform guests and others of research.

Students will present the finished sculpture to the class or in small groups. Discuss how the sculptures are similar to the real animal or plant, and how they are different. What new details did students learn about their animal or plant as they made their sculptures?

Hang the sculptures with fishing line, make them into mobiles, or just use them to display the forms of creatures for others to see. Students will explain their research and visual details of their creature to guests, family members and others.


Ask the students what would happen if a very large storm sent waves crashing into the beach. Tell them to construct a written argument from the evidence they collected during their field trip to predict the plants and animals that would be able to survive a big storm and either stay in the same place or move back and which might be swept away and likely not survive in the ocean.

Alternative Evaluation: Invent-an-Invertebrate activity requires a variety of props, but provides a way to assess student understanding based on the characteristics he/she invents for their invertebrate and argument that it would survive well. Ask students have made their presentations ask them how well their organisms could survive an oil spill or another type of disturbance that could potentially happen in your local area.
(Invent-an-Invertebrate adapted by Prince William Sound RCAC from a Center for an Alaskan Coastal Studies activity in the 2014 Oil Spill Curriculum)

General Resource


Biodiversity Checklist Example  
Quadrat Datasheet  
For Student Research Projects
Shoreline Environmental Conditions

Environmental conditions on different types of shoreline habitats (e.g., rocky, sandy, estuaries, tide pools)

Non-fiction Children Books
Alaska Ocean ABCs

By Conrad Field

One Small Square: Seashore

By Donald M. Silver (Also available for Arctic Tundra and Pond habitats)

Biomes of North America Series

A Journey into an Estuary, A Journey into the Ocean, A Walk in the Tundra

Biomes of the World

Website has images and information on fresh water and marine ecosystems and the plants and animals that live there.

Teacher Background

Beach and Rocky Shore AdaptationsThe diversity of types of plants and animals that can live in each zone depends on their abilities to tolerate the cycles of exposure to air and submersion in salt water. Depending on the type of beach, wave action and tidal currents can be another challenge for plants to stay in place and obtain what they need from the air or water to make their own food and for animals to stay in the zone where it can find food and defend themselves against predators. For more information about marine invertebrates commonly observed on Alaska beaches, see Meet the Invertebrates. For additional background information about adaptations, see marine invertebrates.

If students are not familiar with the term "adaptation," in the evolutionary sense, you will need to explain that it means the characteristics, features, and behaviors that help organisms live in their environments. The other disciplinary core idea topic in life science for this grade level is the inheritance and variation of traits which lays the foundation for understanding genetic inheritance and natural selection at a later grade level.

The focus should not be on the term or the evolutionary mechanism of “adaptation” for upper elementary students. Instead, they should be given many opportunities to observe and identify the features and behaviors of organisms that allow them to survive where they live. Resources that provide opportunities to infer adaptation can also reinforce the crosscutting concept of Structure and Function and provide opportunities to discuss student reasoning in terms of Cause and Effect. (from NSTA NGSS website

The secondary concept of resiliency can also be introduced through constructing an understanding that if environmental conditions change in ways that affect a place’s physical characteristics, temperature, or availability of resources, the diversity of organisms change. (This is an extension of learning in kindergarten that some plants and animals are able to change their environment to meet their survival needs.) Some organisms will not be adapted to the new environment and others that are may be able to move into the now-favorable environment. Students should be given opportunities to observe situations that involve environmental change over time and to begin surveying and learning methods to estimate and compare the size of populations as an indicator as to how well an organism is surviving in a particular habitat. These changes should include both natural cycles such as those of the tides and changes that are the result of human activities.

A field trip to an intertidal zone provides students with examples of daily changes in physical conditions that visibly influence the distribution of organisms (saltiness, the pattern of immersion or exposure to air, and beach type). They can begin to think about the challenges of survival and reproduction in such a predictably changeable environment, which lays the foundation for thinking about environments that change unpredictably or a faster rate than an organism is adapted to survive.

For this reason, these activities can prepare students for a problem-solving activity involving a local environmental issue to fully address NGSS 3-LS4-4 (Make a claim about the merit of a solution to a problem caused when the environment changes and the types of plants and animals that live there may change.). Examples of Alaska coastal issues with the potential for an impact on biodiversity include pollution of various kinds, including oil spills; coastal erosion, invasive species, and rapid changes in ocean or stream water temperatures that might cause harmful algal blooms.

Prior Student Knowledge:
Most lower elementary school students are still forming a basic understanding of how animals survive in their respective environments. Many students may understand a simple food chain link between two animals but still assume that animals are still independent of each other. Some students are unaware that many animals struggle to obtain adequate amounts of particular food(s) and cannot simply change their diets as other food becomes available. (From AAAS ScienceNetLinks)

Students who have participated in Sea Week beach field trips at younger grades should have observed a diversity of beach animals and seaweeds that can meet their survival needs in different intertidal zones, but not others, and have learned about some unique external structures and their functions. They should also have an understanding that all life cycles involve reproduction and death so they can recognize some young plants and animals and the adult organisms they become when mature.

Possible learner preconceptions, misconceptions and instructional clarifications:

Learner Preconception/Misconception: The terms “adaptation” and “being adaptable” are used to refer to changes that people make on a daily basis. In this sense, people “adapt” to cold or wet weather by putting on appropriate clothing, bears “adapt” to winter by going into hibernation, and plants “adapt” to low light levels by growing more slowly. Students are likely to think of these behaviors as adaptations even though they are responses to short-term changes in the environment that happen within the lifetime of a plant or animal. Whether or not a physical or behavioral trait provides any survival advantage in the set of environmental conditions encountered during a single lifetime, adaptations persist only if reproduction and inheritance occur.
Instructional Clarification: The concept of adaptation should be connected to thinking about the inheritance of traits over more than one generation and to the concept of resiliency of organisms to particular types of environmental change. Although the death of plants and animals can be a sensitive subject for some students, it should be portrayed as the natural end of life cycles and as a possible consequence of a changing environment. This will also lay the foundation for the importance of reproduction to traits in future generations that are best matched to survival under particular environmental conditions.

Learner Preconception/misconception: Many students may understand a simple food link between two animals, but still assume that animals are still independent of each other and depend on humans to provide food and shelter. Some students are unaware that many animals struggle to obtain adequate amounts of their particular food(s) and cannot simply change their diets as other food becomes available.

Instructional Clarification: Emphasis should be placed on the unique characteristics of animals, including what they eat and how they capture their food, and the cause and effect relationships between changes in the abundance or presence of specific plant or animals that are food sources for other animals in a “cascading” way. Food webs concepts are a focus in life science in the 4th grade, but a food chain activity at this grade could be used to demonstrate what happens with the loss of one link in the chain.

Components of Next Generation Science Standards Addressed

Science & Engineering Practices

Engaging in Argument from Evidence
Construct an argument with evidence. (3-LS4-3)

Analyzing and Interpreting Data
Make a claim about the merit of a solution to a problem by citing relevant evidence about how it meets the criteria and constraints of the problem. (30LS4-4)

Disciplinary Core Ideas

LS4.C: Adaptation
For any particular environment, some kinds of organisms survive well, some survive less well, and some cannot survive at all.(3-LS4-3)

LS4.D: Biodiversity and Humans
Populations live in a variety of habitats, and change in those habitats affects the organisms living there. (3-LS4-4)

LS2.C: Ecosystem Dynamics, Functioning, and Resilience
When the environment changes in ways that affect a place’s physical characteristics, temperature, or availability of resources, some organisms survive and reproduce, others move to new locations, yet others move into the transformed environment, and some die. (secondary to 3-LS4-4)

Cross-Cutting Concepts

Cause and Effect
Cause and effect relationships are routinely identified and used to explain change. (3-LS4-3)

Systems and System Models
A system can be described in terms of its components and their interactions.

Common Core

RI.3.1 - Ask and answer questions to demonstrate understanding of a text, referring explicitly to the text as the basis for the answers. (3-LS4-3) (3-LS4-4)

RI.3.3 - Describe the relationship between a series of historical events, scientific ideas or concepts, or steps in technical procedures in a text, using language that pertains to time, sequence, and cause/effect. (3-LS4-3), (3-LS4-4)

SL.3.4 - Report on a topic or text, tell a story, or recount an experience with appropriate facts and relevant, descriptive details, speaking clearly at an understandable pace. (3-LS4-3) (3-LS4-4)

W.3.1 - Write opinion pieces on topics or texts, supporting a point of view with reasons. (3-LS4-3), (3-LS4-4)

W.3.8 - Recall information from experiences or gather information from print and digital sources; take brief notes on sources and sort evidence into provided categories. (3-LS4-1)
3.MD.B.3 - Draw a scaled picture graph and a scaled bar graph to represent a data set with several categories. Solve one- and two-step "how many more" and "how many less" problems using information presented in scaled bar graphs. (3-LS4-3)
MP.2 - Reason abstractly and quantitatively. (3-LS4-3) (3-LS4-4)
Alaska Cultural Standards
B3. Make appropriate choices regarding the long-term consequences of their actions.

E2. Understand the ecology and geography of the bioregion they inhabit.
Developed by Marilyn Sigman, Alaska Sea Grant.
Last Updated on
Last Updated by
Marilyn Sigman
Alaska Sea Grant University of Alaska Fairbanks Alaska Department of Education and Early Development NOAA