Animal Responses to Information

This unit was designed in collaboration with teachers from the Campbell Union School District

How do animals receive and respond to different types of information? How do animals use the information to guide their actions and behaviors within their environments? In this unit students explore these questions by learning about animal senses and then engaging in several activities and a simulation where they experience first-hand how to perceive their surroundings and use the information to make decisions and guide their own behaviors. The unit culminates in a design challenge where students develop an animal model with input sensors and then create a decision tree that demonstrates how the animal processes and responds to information.

Educational Outcomes

  • Students describe how animals use their senses for survival
  • Students identify uses for objects found without using sight for sensory perception
  • Students use a simulation to evaluate the effect of limited sensory perception on decision making
  • Students create a decision tree (flow chart) that predicts animal behavior based on environmental conditions
  • Students develop an animal model with sensory receptors and describe its behavior to environmental input

STEAM Integration

Students watch videos to learn how animals perceive the world around them and discuss how animals use this information for survival, providing practice and experience with using digital information to investigate phenomena. They engage in kinesthetic simulations (performing arts) to model the experience of being non-sighted while identifying objects and distances with their remaining senses. Students create a decision tree model to predict animal behavior under certain environmental conditions. The design challenge brings student through the design thinking process as engineers and allows them to apply the science concepts learned in previous lessons on animal responses to information received via external sensory receptors.


NGSS 4-LS1-2: Use a model to describe that animals receive different types of information through their senses, process the information in their brain, and respond to the information in different ways.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy W.4.7: Conduct short research projects that build knowledge through investigation of different aspects of a topic.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy SL.4.1: Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade 4 topics and texts, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly.

Unit Materials

This unit can be completed using the RAFT Makerspace-in-a-Box kit. The kit contains many items with various attributes useful for different purposes by students. Examples include rigid items for structure such as craft sticks, plastic rods, and cardboard tubes; flexible/cuttable items such as foam, chenille stems, straws, and cardstock for making customized structures; and items serving as connectors such as paper clips, binder clips, and stickers/tape. Note: Some lessons call for additional items not included in the kit. We encourage facilitators to be creative and provide other materials to explore in the lessons. Questions? Email us:

Maker Journal Pages

Students record their learning in Maker Journal pages, sheets containing tasks and prompts specific to each lesson in the unit, including the culminating design challenge. These sheets encourage students to reflect on their learning throughout the unit and can be used as part of a larger student portfolio with which to demonstrate growth in concept knowledge and design skills. These sheets can be copied for students or recreated by students in a bound notebook.

Tips for an Active Classroom

Communication is critical in the design process. Students need to be allowed to talk, stand, and move around to acquire materials. Help students become successful and care for the success of others by asking them to predict problems that might arise in the active environment and ask them to suggest strategies for their own behavior that will ensure a positive working environment for all students and teachers.

Design Thinking

Our integrated STEAM units incorporate a non-linear design thinking model, with each phase being repeatable to allow students to rework and iterate while developing a deeper understanding of the core concepts. The phases of the design thinking model are:

Empathize: Work to fully understand the experience of the user

Define: Process and synthesize findings from empathy work to form a user point of view

Ideate: Explore a wide range and variety of possible ideas for solutions

Prototype: Transform ideas into a physical form with which to learn and interact

Test: Refine prototypes, learn more about the user, and refine original point of view

Lesson 1: The World According to Animals (45 min)

Students obtain information and learn about different animal sensory receptors and the types of stimuli they are intended to detect. Students use this information to discuss in teams how animals use the sensory input to survive in their environments.

Learning Targets

  • Students will be able to describe the sensory receptors common to a variety of animals
  • Students will be able to describe how animals use the information received from sensory receptors to survive

Essential Questions

  • How do animals receive information about their environments?
  • How do animals use this information for survival?



  1. In preparation for this lesson, search the internet for pictures of animal sensory receptors ahead of time to provide additional examples for students. Choose pictures from different types of animals such as snails, dogs or cats, fish, and insects to broaden the discussion.
  2. Ask students to think about how they know when the Sun is setting. Ask for volunteers to share ideas. Lead them towards the idea of perceiving the sunset through the senses (see sample dialog below).
  3. Students access these videos: Amazing Facts on Animal Senses (2:59) | Animal Senses (1:34).
  4. Students list sensory receptors mentioned in the videos and their associated stimuli in the Maker Journal.
  5. Students work in teams to brainstorm and discuss ways that animals use the information they receive from the environment to survive. They record their ideas in the Maker Journal and choose one animal, sensory receptor, and its role in the survival of the animal as an example to share in a whole class discussion.

Sample teacher and student dialog

T:  “How do you usually know when the Sun sets? What information tells you this and how do you receive that information?”

S: “I notice the Sun getting lower in the sky.” “It starts getting dark!” “I know because I can see the Sun going away.”

T: “In other words, you received information through your eyes, quickly thought about it, and determined the Sun is setting. Today we will explore this idea further by watching videos and then discussing how animals use information from their environment to survive. Make sure you all participate and be ready to discuss and share your ideas!”

S: “Can we work together?” Do we choose a specific animal?” “Where do we write things down?”

T: “You will work in teams and choose an animal that will serve as an example for your ideas. Your ideas will be recorded in the lesson Maker Journal.”


Student groups discuss and compare their findings on different sensory receptors and their associated roles in survival of a specific animal. Check Maker Journal entries for evidence of learning about sensory reception.

Lesson 2: Use Your Senses (45 min)

Students identify, describe and determine uses for objects concealed in a grab bag without being able to look at the objects, modeling a type of sensory deprivation. They determine how their sense of touch and other senses help them make decisions about what the object is and its potential uses.

Learning Targets

  • Students will be able to obtain information about objects without using the sense of sight.
  • Students will be able to make decisions and develop ideas for potential uses of the identified objects.

Essential Questions

  • In what ways do your senses help you describe an object?
  • How do your senses help you understand what an object is useful for?
  • How is the information about an object sent to your brain?


  • Random objects (foam, craft sticks, caps, paper clips, etc.)
  • Medium-sized paper or cloth bags
  • Paper or cloth for making blindfolds
  • Pen or pencil
  • Internet access
  • Computer and/or mobile device
  • Web resources: Sensory Information Processing


  1. Read and/or post the following sentence for students to read: “Different types of information are sent to the brain through different sensory receptors, allowing experiences to be perceived, stored as memories, and thus influence behavior.”
  2. Students share their own example of something they saw (perceived) and remembered that also influenced how they behaved. Examples: Images from scary movies that still make a person uncomfortable or an accident that changes the way a person drives.
  3. Put random objects in bags. Give a bag to each student group. One group member quickly makes a blindfold.
  4. Students take turns putting on the blindfold and reaching into the bag to take out an object. They describe the object based on what they feel, smell, or hear and how it may be used based on their perceptions.
  5. After all group members have taken a turn, students discuss how their senses help them to make decisions about what the object is and then discuss how it might be used. They record their observations in the Maker Journal.
  6. Present or have students access the video: Sensory Information Processing (5:56)
  7. Students record their understanding of how sensory receptors are able to detect different types of information to send to their brain and inform their decisions and ideas in the lesson Maker Journal.

Sample teacher and student dialog

T: “How does sensory input affect our behavior?”

S: “When I hear a good song I feel happy.” “If I touch something hot I will avoid it next time!”

T: “Yes! Our behavior is primarily based on information we perceive about the world. Today we’re going to experience sensory deprivation, that is, we’re not going to use all of our senses. Do you think you can identify objects in a bag without looking at them?”

S: “I can do it! I’m good at playing games in the dark so this should be easy!”

T: “You will work in groups, be blindfolded, and must remove objects from the bag so your group mates can see them. Describe and identify them based on what you perceive with your senses and then discuss how that information guided your thinking about the objects.”


Students write their own descriptions of the relationship between sensory inputs and animal behaviors based on the lesson.

Lesson 3: Bat and Moth! (45 min)

Student teams play a game called “Bat and Moth”, similar to Marco Polo. Students discuss how they use their senses to make decisions on how to “capture” the moth. In other words, students experience behavioral changes influenced by information obtained via the senses.

Learning Target

  • Students will be able describe how sensory inputs such as sound can influence animal behaviors

Essential Questions

  • How do bats use their senses to find prey?
  • What information from the environment do bats rely on (what are they trying to sense)?
  • How does hearing sound help bats and other animals make decisions and change behaviors?



  1. Preparation: Remove any hazards and obstacles from the space such as loose cords, extra furniture, student backpacks, etc.
  2. Present or have students access these videos: Bat Sense (3:08) | Wonders of Echolocation (3:18)
  3. Review the rules of playing Marco Polo and then describe the game in terms of bats and moths (see sample dialog below). Remind students to avoid running or lunging towards the students playing the moth.
  4. Students determine the bat and moth roles for their groups. The bat students say “Bat” while the moth students say “Moth.” The bat student must listen and use sound to get to the moth students.
  5. Students switch roles until all group members have taken a turn as the bat.
  6. Students reflect on the experience in the lesson Maker Journal.
  7. Student groups discuss the essential questions with another group and record their ideas in the Maker Journal.

Sample teacher and student dialog

T: “Who here has played Marco Polo?”

S: “You close your eyes and listen to people respond to “Marco” by saying “Polo”, and then you get them!”

T: “We will play a similar game called “Bat and Moth” having the same basic rules. Choose who in your group will start as the bat and moth. For the bats, make sure your eyes stay closed and don’t cheat! If necessary, make a quick blindfold or cover your eyes with your hands.”

S: “Why are we playing this?” “How does this relate to our study of senses?”

T: “This activity simulates how bats perceive sound and distance information and use it to find prey. They get the information, process it in their brains, and act accordingly. The best way to understand this is to experience it. Play nice, be safe, and have fun!”


Students review their Maker Journal entries and have other students ask them questions about specific sensory receptors the bats and moths use. Students reflect on the lesson and share their experiences.

Lesson 4: What is a Decision Tree? (45 min)

Student teams reflect on their experiences in the Bat and Moth game in Lesson 3. They learn about and then create decision trees to demonstrate how information perceived by the bat leads to changes in its behavior. These types of models will be applied during the design challenge lesson in this unit.

Learning Targets

  • Students will be able to design a decision tree
  • Students will be able to use a decision tree to demonstrate how sensory information leads to behavioral changes in animals

Essential Questions

  • What is a decision tree?
  • How can decision trees be used to describe a bat’s behavior while tracking a moth?


  • Pen or pencil
  • Chart paper


  1. Review the Bat and Moth simulation from the previous lesson with students (see sample dialog below for ideas).
  2. Let students discuss how they used their sense of hearing as bats to find and capture the moth.
  3. Model an example decision tree on a large chart in front of the class. Create the tree based on student decisions regarding playing outside under certain weather conditions (see lesson Maker Journal for example).
  4. For each condition in the decision tree, have students indicate whether or not they would play outside (count raised hands). Write the numbers of students in the tree in the appropriate spaces.
  5. Facilitate a discussion on how the moth used its senses and made decisions to avoid being captured by the bat.
  6. Each student group uses the template in the lesson Maker Journal to create a decision tree based on the discussions and their experiences playing Bat and Moth.
  7. Student groups compare and discuss their decision trees.

Sample teacher and student dialog

T: “Think about the previous lesson where we played Bat and Moth. How did the bat use its senses to catch the moth? What decisions did the moth make? How were those decisions reflected in its behavior?”

S: “The bat used sound to determine how far away the moth was in a direction.” “The moth detected the bat and moved away from it!”

T: “Yes! Today we are going to represent those decisions visually in something called a decision tree. These representations look like flowcharts, which we’ve used before in class. We’ll complete one together as an example and then you will work with your groups to design your own decision trees.”

S: “How will we know what to put into the decision trees?”

T: “Think about your own experience while playing Bat and Moth. When the moth sounded close by, did you decide to walk quicker towards the sound? Does that seem like what a bat would do when hunting for prey?”


Student groups discuss and compare their decision trees and explain their rationale for the design. Review the logic represented in the group decision trees and provide suggestions for improvement.

Design Challenge: Animal Models

Student teams choose an animal to model, including its external sensory receptors. They ideate to develop ideas for the animal model design and then build a prototype according to the criteria and constraints. Teams create a decision tree to demonstrate how sensory information is processed by the animal, leading to changes in behavior. During the test phase, student teams share their models with another team that reviews the model and decision tree and provides feedback to the sharing team. Teams use the feedback to make necessary changes to improve the model.

Design Prompts

  • Build a model of an animal that includes its external sensory receptors.
  • Create a decision tree for the animal showing its predicted behavior based on information obtained by the sensory receptors depicted in your model.


  • RAFT Makerspace-in-a-Box
  • Markers, pens, pencils
  • Tape
  • Binder clips and/or paper clips
  • Scissors, staplers, hole punches, rulers
  • Computers or mobile devices
  • Internet access


  1. Present and explain the design prompt(s) for this challenge (above).
  2. Review and define the criteria and constraints listed below and these terms: iteration, prototype. Alternatively, you can define them together as a class, providing students with voice and choice.
  3. Assign student teams or assign students to specific groups.
  4. Students follow steps in the design process and record their progress in the challenge Maker Journal.
  5. Students share and compare their design solutions, reflect on the data collection/calculations, and provide peer feedback for improvement on future iterations.

The criteria and constraints for this challenge are listed below. Criteria are the requirements for the design or its expected functions or abilities. Constraints are limitations on the design such as time, space, available materials, money, etc. The criteria and constraints are also listed in the Maker Journal pages for this challenge.

Criteria & Constraints

  • Model clearly resembles a real animal
  • Model includes 2-3 sensory receptors common to the animal
  • Model stays intact
  • Model built with at least 6 different provided materials
  • Model completed in the given time
  • Model includes a decision tree predicting behaviors for the animal based on sensory input

Ideate Phase

During the ideation phase students should have ample time to discuss and research their ideas and potential impact. All ideas are welcome during the ideation phase, and students should be encouraged to think big. Students should capture their ideas using the Maker Journal or a digital tool (Google doc, other). Keep in mind students may return to this phase as many times as needed.

Prototype Phase

Students select one of the designs from the ideation stage to create using various materials. Initially they will have a rough prototype of the design that should eventually get better as they test it and make refinements. Students may also want to experiment with solutions that focus on changes in behavior. In this case encourage them to create a detailed plan as well as a device that will help to remind them or encourage this change in behavior. Students use the Maker Journal to draw and label their designs. Students may need to return to this phase as they iterate.

Test Phase

Students self evaluate as they test their designs in the Maker Journal. This activity should be focused on brevity and conducted at a brisk pace. Students should be going through ideas, building prototypes and evaluating their designs for at least three or four design cycles. Build time should be quick and designs should be kept simple. Students may return to this phase as they iterate.


Student groups discuss and compare their solutions and give each other feedback on the quality of their animal models, representation of sensory receptors and the decision trees. Students also give suggestions for improvements to the design for future iterations. During the presentations, help students focus their thinking on the data collected or constructive feedback and interpreting the results to better define the design prompts.