Hands-on Activity: Live Like an Animal

Contributed by: Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder

Two photographs: A geodesic dome structure, which is a rigid half-sphere of tessellating triangles. A turtle crawling through the grass with a shell that is a rigid half-sphere of tessellating rectangles.
Figure 1. This energy-efficient geodesic dome (left) at Sandia National Laboratory may have been inspired by the shape and structure of a turtle shell, such as that of the Eastern Painted Turtle (right).
Copyright © Sandia National Laboratories, U.S. Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration; Foundation for Ecological Research in the Northeast, Upton Ecological and Research Reserve http://www.sandia.gov/recordsmgmt/dome.gif http://www.bnl.gov/esd/reserve/images/turtle3.jpg


Students design innovative human shelters that are inspired and informed by animal structures. Each group is assigned an animal class, and then they gather information about shelters used by the animals in that class. After researching the topic and brainstorming ideas, students build small prototypes (models) of the structures. Finally, they present their products, explaining the attributes of the animal structures that influenced their designs.
This engineering curriculum meets Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

Engineering requires creativity in order to introduce innovative technologies and solutions. An excellent way to develop new and innovative ideas is to look to the natural world—plants, animals and other organisms—to inspire new designs, new forms and new technologies. This design technique is called biomimicry. Structural engineers can gather information about animal shelters to inspire their own designs for effective housing options for people.

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • Use the engineering design process to invent a product.
  • Research types of shelters used by vertebrate animals of the same class.
  • Identify features of animal shelters that can inform human shelter design.

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Educational Standards

Each TeachEngineering lesson or activity is correlated to one or more K-12 science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) educational standards.

All 100,000+ K-12 STEM standards covered in TeachEngineering are collected, maintained and packaged by the Achievement Standards Network (ASN), a project of D2L (www.achievementstandards.org).

In the ASN, standards are hierarchically structured: first by source; e.g., by state; within source by type; e.g., science or mathematics; within type by subtype, then by grade, etc.

  • Define the criteria and constraints of a design problem with sufficient precision to ensure a successful solution, taking into account relevant scientific principles and potential impacts on people and the natural environment that may limit possible solutions. (Grades 6 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Solve problems involving scale drawings of geometric figures, including computing actual lengths and areas from a scale drawing and reproducing a scale drawing at a different scale. (Grade 7) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Design is a creative planning process that leads to useful products and systems. (Grades 6 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Make two-dimensional and three-dimensional representations of the designed solution. (Grades 6 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Individual organisms with certain traits are more likely than others to survive and have offspring in a specific environment (Grade 7) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Develop, communicate, and justify an evidence-based explanation for why a given organism with specific traits will or will not survive to have offspring in a given environment (Grade 7) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
Suggest an alignment not listed above

Materials List

Each group needs:

Day 1:

Day 2:

  • scissors
  • glue
  • tape
  • miscellaneous building materials: paperboard (such as cereal boxes), cardboard, construction paper, plastic cups, foil, paperclips, string; in addition, permit groups to request up to 2 additional materials after completing their designs; require them to clearly specify the items and quantities


When you were younger, did you ever build a fort using pillows or tree branches or scrap cardboard? Can you think of an example from nature that may have resembled your fort? To which animal structure was it similar? (Possible answers: A bat's cave or a bird's nest). When engineers use examples from the natural world to influence their design, we call this biomimicry.

Today you are going to design a human structure that is based on an example from the subphylum animal kingdom. Your group will chose a vertebrate class and research ways in which animals of that class find or build their own structures for shelter. Using the information you gather, you will design a human structure that incorporates some of the useful features of the animal shelter.

Let's look at an example. Suppose you chose the vertebrate class Aves, which includes all birds. Your group would research how different types of birds build their nests and what some of the great features of the nests are. What do you think some of the advantages of a nest might be? (Possible answers: Lightweight, strong, sheds moisture, protects from predators, made from readily available building supplies, etc.) Okay, now let's think of how we could build a human shelter that has some similarity to bird nests. Any ideas? (Solicit responses. Probe with questions such as the following.) What is a situation in which a person might want to make a structure out of twigs and mud? Suppose you used an artificial material like nylon threads or metal rods instead of twigs. How could you incorporate these into a nest-like human structure? As a real-world example, for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, the architects and structural engineers who built the main stadium designed it to look like an enormous bird's nest. In today's design challenge, it will be fun to see where your imaginations take you with this project!

A photograph shows fireworks exploding over the 2008 Olympics stadium that resembles a giant bird's nest.
Figure 2. An Olympics stadium structure called the Bird's Nest.
Copyright © American.gov http://photos.state.gov/libraries/amgov/3234/week_1/080808_080716012119_200.jpg


biomimicry: The design process of copying, adapting or being inspired by a real-world example from biology.

phylum: In the classifications of living things, this category ranks below "kingdom."

prototype: A first attempt or early model of a new product or creation. May be revised many times.

subphylum: The classification rank below phylum and above class.

vertebrate: Animals with spinal cords that are protected by bone or cartilage. Vertebrates are one type of subphylum within the animal classification system.


On Day 1, students complete the initial stages of design. On Day 2, they build prototypes (small models) of their shelters. See the With the Students section for more details. During the activity, students follow some of the steps of the engineering design process.


Students start the process of gathering information by choosing a vertebrate class to research and for this activity. The table below provides some example vertebrate classifications. (See the same information at http://anthro.palomar.edu/animal/default.htm.)

Various vertebrate classes
Copyright © Table created by Janet Yowell, Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, University of Colorado at Boulder, 2009. (Based on information provided by Dr. Dennis O'Neil, Behavioral Sciences Department, Palomar College, San Marcos, CA, copyright © 1998-2008 by Dennis O'Neil, http://anthro.palomar.edu/animal/default.htm.)

Biomimicry is the design strategy of borrowing ideas from nature. In this activity, students research how vertebrate animals of the same class build and/or find shelter. They apply what they have learned to designing a human structure with similar features. For example, suppose students were studying the invertebrate class of animals called arachnida. (Note: this class of animals is not an option for this activity, which focuses on vertebrates, and is used to illustrate the process students could follow.) In the arachnida class, spiders are considered an animal of the class. Upon researching spiders, the group would learn that spider's webs are their shelters. With further research, they might discover that the silk of the web has a strength-to-weight ratio that is five times that of steel. Applying this to their own structural design, they could imagine creating a building that replaces reinforced steel with a human-made version of spider silk. By having significantly greater strength, their invented building could be far taller than the tallest buildings of our time. Based on this capability, they could build a prototype that is taller than usual and uses nylon string (to represent the artificial spider silk) as a supporting feature.

Before the Activity

  • Prepare resources for students to gather information on animal classification. This might include reserving computers with Internet access and/or providing reference books.
  • Gather materials for building prototypes.
  • Make copies of the Design Your Animal Shelter.
  • Visit a hobby store to familiarize yourself with  possible building materials to make available OR have items already selected that students may chose from for their alternative building supplies.

With the Students

Day 1

1. Form Engineering Teams: Divide class into groups of three or four students each. Hand out the worksheets.

2. Define the Problem: Have groups each pick a class of animal from the vertebrate subphylum (from Table 1 or its website link in the Background section). Encourage a range of choices so that groups do not all end up researching the same animal. Have each group record its choice on the worksheet.

3. Gather Information: Have students use the Internet or reference books to gather information about the animal class that they have chosen and record their findings on their worksheets. As they take notes, have students write down advantages and disadvantages of the various features.

4. Brainstorming: After gathering information, direct the teams to brainstorm ideas for human shelters or structures that they could design. Make sure the ideas relate to the animal class they have chosen and the information they have gathered about that class. Remind them that as long as their brainstorming is focused on the topic, to follow these guidelines:

  • No negative comments.
  • Encourage wild ideas.
  • Record all ideas.
  • Build on the ideas of others.
  • Stay focused on the topic.
  • Only one conversation at a time.

5. Select Design: Have students pick a design (or a combination of good ideas) from their list of ideas.

6. Sketch: Ask students to sketch a picture of the shelter that they plan to design. Require the sketch to include dimensions. You might want them to include both the real dimensions (as if it were to be built at full scale) and the dimensions of the scaled prototype.

7. Prototype Materials: Have students write down what materials they need to build a prototype (scaled model) of their designs. In addition to the provided materials, offer to buy them up to $3 worth of additional supplies at a craft store. (Alternatively, have them buy/find materials and bring to class.)

8. Group Name: As a closure for the first day, have each group come up with a team name and a name for their structure.

Between Day 1 and Day 2

Review the collected worksheets, and give feedback to each group as time permits.

Day 2

1. Remind students that during the last class, they started to design structures that were based on animal shelters found in nature. Explain that today they are entering the last few stages of the design process. They will buildiprototypes and present them to the class.

2. Distribute materials for each group and have them start building prototypes. Give students a time deadline at which all building must stop. Finish the activity with presentations, as described in the Assessment section.


Safety Issues

Use of scissors and hot glue may require some supervision. Preface the activity with behavior expectations for all students.


Pre-Activity Assessment

Question and Answer: Classification Exercise: Give each student an index card. Direct them to write on one side of the index card (the "Answer" side), the name of an animal and its class. On the other side (the "Clue" side) have them write some of the key features of this animal that places it in that specific class. Then have them write more specific features that identify it as that specific animal.

Collect the index cards. For each card, read aloud the clues and have students guess what class of animal it is. Then have them guess what animal it is. (Students may need to refer to a science text for ideas and classification help, so plan to have those available.)

Activity Embedded Assessment

Worksheet: Have students complete the Design Your Animal Shelter Worksheet, which guides them through the design process. Check their work as they complete it, and collect it at the end of the period. Give students feedback before Day 2.

Post-Activity Assessment

Design Demonstration: After teams have completed building their prototypes, give each group a few minutes to present its shelter design to the rest of the class. Require them to explain what class of vertebrate they were assigned, and what they learned about shelters in that animal class, and then point out how the structure that they designed used some of these features of the researched animal structures.

Activity Scaling

For upper grades, consider adding more constraints to the design challenge. For example, ask students to determine what their inventions will be made from if they were to mass produce the structures. Alternatively, require them to design their shelters that can be disassembled and recycled. If students have some physics background, require them to examine the stability of their structures by doing an analysis of the static forces.

For lower grades, instead of having students complete the research themselves, provide descriptions of types of shelters used by animals.


Benyus, Janine M. Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. New York, NY: William Morrow & Co., 1997.

Foundation for Ecological Research in the Northeast, Upton Ecological and Research Reserve, October 14, 2008. Accessed March 27, 2009. http://www.bnl.gov/esd/reserve/images/turtle3.jpg

Sandia National Laboratories, U.S. Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration. Accessed March 27, 2009. http://www.sandia.gov/

O'Neil, Dennis, "Classification of Living Things: An Introduction to the Principles of Taxonomy with a Focus on Human Classification Categories," Behavioral Sciences Department, Palomar College, San Marcos, CA, March 14, 2008. Accessed October 20, 2009. http://anthro.palomar.edu/animal/default.htm


Christopher Valenti; Karen King; Janet Yowell


© 2009 by Regents of the University of Colorado

Supporting Program

Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder


The contents of this digital library curriculum were developed under grants from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), U.S. Department of Education and National Science Foundation (GK-12 grant no. 0338326). However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the Department of Education or National Science Foundation, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Last modified: August 22, 2018