National Agriculture in the Classroom

Significant Surroundings

Grade Level(s)

6 - 8

Estimated Time

Two 60-minute sessions


In this lesson, students will identify basic animal behaviors and hypothesize what causes them. Students will also discover the responsibilities of an animal physiologist.


For class:

1 Per Group:

Per Student:

Essential Files (maps, charts, pictures, or documents)


animal physiologist: a career area studying and observing animals in their natural environment

behavior: the way in which an animal acts in response to a particular situation or stimulus

environment: the surroundings or conditions in which a person, animal, or plant lives or operates

livestock: domesticated animals raised in an agricultural setting to produce commodities such as food and fiber

well-being: the contentment of an animal measured by indicators including behavior, physiology, longevity, and reproduction

Did you know? (Ag Facts)

Background - Agricultural Connections

This lesson is one in a series of 5 related lessons to promote the development of STEM abilities and critical thinking skills, while fostering an appreciation for the people involved in livestock production. For more information about what STEM is, why it's important, and how it can be implemented in your classroom, watch the video, What is STEM? The curriculum includes real-life challenges for students to investigate, inquiry-based labs, and opportunities to plan and construct models. Featured careers include:

An animal’s behavior is determined by genetics as well as experiences in its social (other animals of the same species) and physical (where it was raised) environment. These experiences can cause changes in physiology, the nervous system, and physical structures of the body. Animals change throughout their lives based on their experiences. However, experiences early in life often have the greatest effect on animals and can even affect gene expression.

Animal physiologists study how animals function and behave, including how animals interact with things outside their body, such as temperature, lighting, or sound, plus things inside their body, such as disease, poisons, or diet. This knowledge helps animal physiologists recommend the environmental specifications needed for the animal’s well-being, including housing and nutrition. In this lesson, students will explore how animal physiologists study cattle, horses, poultry, and other livestock in the field, on a smaller scale by conducting experiments with mealworms in the classroom.

Mealworms are the larval form of the mealworm beetle, a species of darkling beetle. They go through four life stages: egg, larva, pupa, and adult.

Interest Approach – Engagement

  1. Have students brainstorm the senses they use to interact with the world around them. Ask students to close their eyes and use their remaining senses (hearing, taste, touch, and smell) to observe their current environment. Facilitate this interaction by prompting them to notice their surroundings with the following questions: What do you feel? What do you smell? What do you hear?
  2. Ask students to open their eyes and briefly discuss their observations. Explain that by making observations, they are acting as animal physiologists. The word “physiologist” comes from the Greek word “physis,” meaning “nature” or “natural” and “ologist,” which means “one who studies.” Animal physiologists make observations, or study, how animals naturally interact within their environment. “Environment” is a term that describes the surroundings or conditions in which a person, animal, or plant lives or operates. An animal’s environment can positively or negatively affect the animal’s well-being. An animal physiologist works to make sure that an animal’s environment includes the ideal temperature, air flow, and shelter they need to be healthy. Remind students that animals can’t explain how they feel, so it is essential that an animal physiologist have excellent observation skills.
  3. Explain to students that in this lesson, they will:
    • identify basic animal behaviors and hypothesize what causes them; and
    • discover the responsibilities of an animal physiologist.


Activity 1: Observing a Mealworm

  1. After completing the Interest Approach/ Motivator, tell students that today they are going to be animal physiologists. Their first responsibility is to evaluate the environmental preferences of mealworms (the larval stage of the darkling beetle). To determine these preferences, they will experiment with different temperatures, lighting, and surface textures and observe how the mealworms respond.
  2. Divide students into small groups and distribute the materials. Instruct students to observe their mealworms using a hand lens and record their findings on the “My Observations” section of the Significant Surroundings Lab handout. If needed, guide observation with the following questions:  
    1. "How many segments does your mealworm have?"
    2. "How many legs does it have?"
    3. "Does a mealworm have antennae?"
    4. "Can you see the mouthparts?"
    5. "How do we know the mealworm is the larval stage of an insect and not a true worm?"
    6. "How does the mealworm move?"
  3. In this lab, students will carry out three different experiments to test the environmental preferences of mealworms. Each half of the shoebox will offer the mealworms a different environment to choose. Students will record their findings on the Significant Surroundings Lab handout. Instruct students to complete the lab activities. Assist and clarify as necessary.

Activity 2: Making a Graphic Organizer

  1. Building on the discoveries made in Activity 1, students will choose a livestock animal (an animal raised in an agricultural setting to produce food, fiber, or labor) to research and create a guide for their ideal environmental conditions, which may include:
      • Temperature
      • Shelter
      • Space
      • Sound
      • Nutrition
      • Bedding
      • Lighting.
  2. Demonstrate how to create a three-dimensional graphic organizer to record students’ research. This educational tool helps students organize information in a kinesthetic way. Watch the step-by-step video on how to create a three-dimensional graphic organizer.
      • Stack three different colored sheets of paper (8 ½" x 11") together, placing each consecutive sheet around ¾ of an inch higher than the sheet in front of it.
      • Bring the top of the sheets downward and align the edges so that all of the layers or tabs are the same distance apart.
      • When all of the tabs are equal distance apart, fold the papers and crease well.
      • Staple the sheets of paper together along the center fold.
      • Fold the graphic organizer in half to create a booklet with a front and back cover.
  3. Instruct students to decorate the cover of their three-dimensional graphic organizer with their name and a picture of their livestock animal. On each tab, students should write the type of environmental condition considered and the preferred condition for their specific animal. Research sources should include books or databases in the library, Internet searches (validating sources), and interviews (primary sources) if possible.

Concept Elaboration and Evaluation

After conducting these activities review and summarize the following key concepts:


ELL Adaptations

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Enriching Activities

Suggested Companion Resources


This lesson was funded in 2012 by the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture through the Secondary Education, Two-Year Postsecondary Education, and Agriculture in the K-12 Classroom Challenge Grants Program (SPECA). Graphics submitted by California Foundation for Agriculture in the Classroom.

Executive Director: Judy Culbertson
Illustrator: Erik Davison
Layout and Design: Nina Danner




Mandi Bottoms & Sherrie Taylor Vann

Organization Affiliation

California Foundation for Agriculture in the Classroom