Hands-on Activity Echolocation Experimentation:
Can You Hear It?

Quick Look

Grade Level: 5 (4-7)

Time Required: 30 minutes

Expendable Cost/Group: US $1.00

($5-10 per class)

Group Size: 4

Activity Dependency:

Subject Areas: Data Analysis and Probability, Life Science, Science and Technology

NGSS Performance Expectations:

NGSS Three Dimensional Triangle

Underwater photo of a dolphin calf swimming right below the water surface, looking into the camera.
How do dolphins use echolocation?
Copyright © Stephen McCulloch, HBOI, Southeast Fisheries Science Center, NOAA http://www.sefsc.noaa.gov/species/mammals/photos.htm


Students drop marbles into holes cut into shoebox lids and listen carefully to try to determine the materials inside the box that the marbles fall onto, illustrating the importance of surface composition on dolphins' abilities to sense materials, depth and texture using echolocation. This activity builds on what students learned in the associated lesson about bycatching by fisheries and how it affects marine habitats and species, especially dolphins. Students learn how echolocation works, why certain animals use it to determine the size, shape and distance of objects, and how people can take advantage of dolphins' echolocation ability when developing bycatch avoidance methods.
This engineering curriculum aligns to Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

While dolphins use echolocation to identify the presence of objects, they have difficulty identifying nets, and thus often become entangled in them. Engineers apply their understanding of how dolphins use echolocation to design nets and other techniques to minimize accidental dolphin catch by making nets easier for dolphins to "see." Engineers are often inspired by concepts in nature, such as submarine sonar as a type of echolocation.

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • Explain how echolocation works.
  • Describe how different surfaces sound when impacted and how this relates to echolocation.

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.

NGSS Performance Expectation

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. (Grade 4)

Do you agree with this alignment?

Click to view other curriculum aligned to this Performance Expectation
This activity focuses on the following Three Dimensional Learning aspects of NGSS:
Science & Engineering Practices Disciplinary Core Ideas Crosscutting Concepts
Use a model to test interactions concerning the functioning of a natural system.

Alignment agreement:

Different sense receptors are specialized for particular kinds of information, which may be then processed by the animal's brain. Animals are able to use their perceptions and memories to guide their actions.

Alignment agreement:

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

Alignment agreement:

  • The use of technology affects the environment in good and bad ways. (Grades 3 - 5) More Details

    View aligned curriculum

    Do you agree with this alignment?

  • The process of experimentation, which is common in science, can also be used to solve technological problems. (Grades 3 - 5) More Details

    View aligned curriculum

    Do you agree with this alignment?

  • Understand the effects of environmental changes, adaptations and behaviors that enable animals (including humans) to survive in changing habitats. (Grade 4) More Details

    View aligned curriculum

    Do you agree with this alignment?

  • Explain how animals meet their needs by using behaviors in response to information received from the environment. (Grade 4) More Details

    View aligned curriculum

    Do you agree with this alignment?

  • Summarize evidence that Earth's oceans are a reservoir of nutrients, minerals, dissolved gases, and life forms:
    • Estuaries
    • Marine ecosystems
    • Upwelling
    • Behavior of gases in the marine environment
    • Deep ocean technology and understandings gained
    (Grade 8) More Details

    View aligned curriculum

    Do you agree with this alignment?

Suggest an alignment not listed above

Materials List

  • scissors, tape and marker, for the teacher
  • 1 shoebox per group
  • 6 different textured fabrics cut into coaster-size pieces for each group; example materials: fur, sandpaper, cloth, wood, plastic tiles
  • 6 wooden blocks or other small, flat objects of different heights
  • 6 marbles or other small balls per group
  • (optional) paper cups or small containers, to hold the marbles for each group
  • paper and pencils for each student

Pre-Req Knowledge

Knowledge of data collection, calculating fractions/proportions, analyzing data.


If you had to figure out the location, shape, size and texture of an object without using your sense of sight, how would you do this?" (Let them brainstorm different ideas while you take notes on the board. Then, lead them in a discussion of how dolphins and other animals use echolocation as a tool to do this.)

(Proceed to conduct the activity to illustrate the importance of surface composition on a dolphin's ability to sense it using echolocation.)


Before the Activity

  • Gather materials. You may want to ask students to bring in shoeboxes from home.
  • Prepare the shoeboxes by cutting six holes distributed evenly across the lids. Make the holes small, but large enough to put marbles inside the box easily. Use a marker to number these holes. Use tape to adhere the variously textured fabrics to different sized wooden blocks or similar objects. Tape the six blocks to the bottom of the interior of each shoe box, under each of the six holes. Cover each box with its lid.

With the Students

  1. Divide the class into groups of four students each.
  2. Distribute a prepared shoebox and six marbles to each group.
  3. Have students get out paper and pencils to take notes and observations. Have them number their papers to correspond to the number of holes in their shoeboxes (1 through 6).
  4. Have students drop each marble into one of the holes anduse their senses to make observations on the height and texture of each surface a marble falls onto. As students conduct the activity, direct them to write down observations about what materials and heights they think pertain to each hole. Also have them note what techniques and senses work best when trying to determine depth and texture. Once completed, have groups lift the box covers to see if their guesses were correct, and discuss in their groups why they were correct/incorrect.
  5. After the groups complete the activity, lead a class discussion to share and compare techniques, what worked best, and why it was/was not difficult to determine depth and/or texture.
  6. Conclude by assigning students to write reflective summary journal entries, as described in the Assessment section.


Pre-Activity Concept Review: Following the echolocation lesson, make sure that students understand the basic principles of echolocation. Encourage them to discuss their opinions on bycatching and how echolocation might be part of the solution.

Post-Activity Writing: Assign students to write journal entries that describe their reactions to this activity and what they discovered. Have them write about why they thought what they predicted was right and how it compared to the results. Also ask them to write about how this information could be used to protect dolphins from fishing nets.

Investigating Questions

  • How far do you think the marble fell before hitting the surface? Why do you think that?
  • Did you find it easy or hard to determine the depth of each hole?
  • What would have made the process easier?
  • Were certain surfaces easier to identify (hear) than others?

Safety Issues

  • Give students paper cups to hold the marbles so they do not spill onto the floor.
  • Watch that students do not throw the marbles.

Troubleshooting Tips

If students use all six marbles and want to try the activity again, remove the marbles for the students so that they do not touch or see the surfaces before completion of the activity.

Activity Extensions

Another online echolocation activity is "Echolocation and SONAR: Sound Rather Than Sight" at https://exploresound.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/Echolocation-Indoors.pdf.


Get the inside scoop on all things TeachEngineering such as new site features, curriculum updates, video releases, and more by signing up for our newsletter!
PS: We do not share personal information or emails with anyone.

More Curriculum Like This

Upper Elementary Lesson
Radar: Using Sound for Sight

Students use these concepts to understand how dolphins use echolocation to locate prey, escape predators, navigate their environment, such as avoiding gillnets set by commercial fishing vessels. Students also learn that dolphin sounds are vibrations created by vocal organs, and that sound is a type ...

Upper Elementary Activity
Let Your Ears Do the Walking

Students experience a simulation of echolation, using the sensory method to walk along a path while blindfolded. Students learn how echolocation works, why certain animals use it to determine the size, shape and distance of objects, and how humans can potentially take advantage of dolphins' echoloca...

Upper Elementary Lesson
Caught in the Net: Bycatch vs.Target Species in Ocean Fishing

In this lesson, students are shown pictures of entangled marine animals and then learn the definition of bycatch. This leads to discussions on why bycatching exists, how it impacts specific animals as well as humans, whether the students believe it is an important issue, and how bycatch can be reduc...

Upper Elementary Unit
All Caught Up: Bycatching and Design

Through this curricular unit, students analyze the significance of bycatch in the global ecosystem and propose solutions to help reduce bycatch. They become familiar with current attempts to reduce the fishing mortality of these animals. Through the associated activities, the challenges faced today ...


How Echolocation Works. http://members.aol.com/bats4kids/echo.htm

Mills, Donald. "Echolocation Lab."http://www.accessexcellence.org/AE/AEC/AEF/1995/mills_echo.php

"Discovery of Sound in the Sea: Teacher Resources and Web Links." http://www.dosits.org/dosits.htm


© 2013 by Regents of the University of Colorado; original © 2004 Duke University


Angela Jiang, Pratt School of Engineering, Duke University; Matt Nusnbaum, Pratt School of Engineering; Aruna Venkatesan, Pratt School of Engineering; Vicki Thayer, Nicholas School of the Environment; Amy Whitt, Nicholas School of the Environment

Supporting Program

Engineering K-PhD Program, Pratt School of Engineering, Duke University


This content was developed by the MUSIC (Math Understanding through Science Integrated with Curriculum) Program in the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke University under National Science Foundation GK-12 grant no. DGE 0338262. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the NSF, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Last modified: February 12, 2020

Free K-12 standards-aligned STEM curriculum for educators everywhere.
Find more at TeachEngineering.org