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Animals is one of the six Carbon TIME units. If you are new to teaching Carbon TIME, read the Carbon TIME FAQ: Which Units Should I Teach.

The goal of the Animals unit is to introduce students to organic matter and chemical energy (in the context of digestion and biosynthesis) using the tools for reasoning and environmental literacy practices that students will engage with in other units. Students develop required capacity to distinguish organic matter from inorganic matter, and to understand how differences in the chemical make-up of materials influences how materials and energy are transformed and moved between systems.

The Animals
Unit supports students in using core disciplinary ideas, science practices, and cross-cutting concepts to develop scientific explanations of how different animals transform matter and energy as they grow, move, and function.

Follow these steps to get ready to teach the Animals Unit.

Lead Editor for 2018-2019 Version

Kirsten D. Edwards, Department of Teacher Education, Michigan State University

Principal Authors

Christa Haverly, Department of Teacher Education, Michigan State University
Christie Morrison Thomas, Department of Teacher Education, Michigan State University
Kirsten Edwards, Department of Teacher Education, Michigan State University
Hannah K. Miller, Department of Teacher Education, Michigan State University
Charles W. “Andy” Anderson, Department of Teacher Education, Michigan State University

Contributing Authors

Beth Covitt, Jenny Dauer, Jennifer H. Doherty, Allison Freed, Wendy Johnson, Deborah Jordan, Craig Kohn, Lindsey Mohan, Joyce Parker, Emily Scott, Elizabeth Tompkins, Nicholas Verbanic, Pingping Zhao


Craig Douglas, Kendra Mojica

This research is supported in part by grants from the National Science Foundation: A Learning Progression-based System for Promoting Understanding of Carbon-transforming Processes (DRL 1020187) and Sustaining Responsive and Rigorous Teaching Based on Carbon TIME (NSF 1440988). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation or the United States Department of Energy.

This unit is also available online at Contact the MSU Environmental Literacy Program for more information:

The Driving Question

The Animals Unit starts by asking students to express their ideas about the driving question about an anchoring phenomenon.

Carbon is the key! In the unit, students learn to tell the story of how matter and energy are transformed as they move through animal systems. A particularly powerful strategy for explaining how animal systems transform matter and energy involves tracing carbon atoms. For more information about the Next Generation Science Standards
disciplinary core ideas included in this unit, see sections on the Matter Movement, Matter Change, and Energy Change Questions below and the Unit Goals.

Research base. This unit is based on learning progression research that describes the resources that students bring to learning about animals and the barriers to understanding that they must overcome. It is organized around an instructional model that engages students in three-dimensional practices.

Before beginning the Animals Unit, you need to decide what to teach and importantly, what not to teach! Use this page to choose the unit sequence that’s most appropriate for your students.

  • Some activities are REPEATING ACTIVITIES (). Omit these activities if students have already completed them in another unit (unless you’d like students to repeat them as review).
  • Other activities are TWO-TURTLE ACTIVITIES (), which place a higher demand on students. Decide whether the higher demand required by these activities will be useful or distracting for your students. The Carbon TIME Turtle Trails Document document provides further info about choices for making units more or less demanding, depending on your students’ needs.

Unless otherwise noted in the table below, all activities in the unit should be taught.

Animals Unit Sequence and Decisions Table


Activity Sequence


Make a Decision


(60 min)

1.1 Animals Unit Pretest (20 min)



1.2 Expressing Ideas and Questions About Animals (40 min)




(2 hr

5 min)

2.1 Zooming Into Plants, Animals, And Decomposers (40 min)

These activities are exactly the same as equivalent ones in Plants and Decomposers Units. Do not repeat these activities in multiple units unless students need a review. Also, in Activity 2.1, the “Cells: The Building Blocks” reading is optional.

2.2 Molecules Cells Are Made Of (45 min)

2.3 Molecules In Cells Quiz (20 min)

2.4 Questions About Animals (30 min)



(2 hr

40 min)

3.1 Predictions About Mealworms Eating (50 min)



3.2 Observing Mealworms Eating (60 min over 2 days)



3.3 Evidence-Based Arguments About Mealworms Eating (50 min)




(1 hr

20 min)

4.1 Molecular Models For Cows Moving and Functioning (40 min)

The molecular modeling part of Activity 4.1 is the same as the molecular modeling for cellular respiration in the Plants and Decomposers Units. Do not repeat unless for review.

4.2 Explaining Cellular Respiration (40 min)


There are multiple scaffolds you can choose from to use with Activity 4.2 including the cellular respiration PPT, the Three Questions Checklist, example explanations, and a reading. Choose options that fit for your class at this time.


(1 hr

20 min)

5.1 Tracing Cows Growing (40 min)



5.2 Molecular Models For Cows Growing (40 min)

Activity 5.2 is exactly the same as molecular modeling for biosynthesis in the Plants and Decomposers Units. It’s also a 2-turtle activity. Consider skipping 5.2 if you’ve already taught it in another unit or if it’s too advanced for your class.

5.3 Explaining Digestion (40 min)


In Activities 5.3 and 5.4, you can choose from among similar scaffolding tools as those listed for Activity 4.2

5.4 Explaining Biosynthesis (40 min)



(2 hr)

6.1 Explaining Other Examples of Animals Growing, Moving, and Functioning (50 min)


Activity 6.1 has explanations about 3 different animals. Consider a jigsaw format with different students becoming experts on different animals and then sharing/comparing.

6.2 Comparing Animals And Flames


In Activity 6.2, students will compare flames and animals.

6.3 Functions Of All Animals (50 min)


In Activity 6.3, students will develop an explanation that applies to all animals.

6.3 Animals Posttest (20 min)



Here, we present two ways to think about how lessons are sequenced in the Animals Unit. The Instructional Model, immediately below, emphasizes how students take on roles of questioner, investigator, and explainer to learn and apply scientific models they can use to answer the driving question. Further below, the Unit Storyline Chart highlights the central question, activity, and answer that students engage with in each lesson of the Animals Unit.

Instructional Model

Like all Carbon TIME units, this unit follows an instructional model (IM) designed to support teaching that helps students achieve mastery at answering the driving question through use of disciplinary content, science practices, and crosscutting concepts. To learn more about this design, see the instructional model.

animals unit map

The core of the Carbon TIME IM is the Observation, Patterns, Models (OPM) triangle, which summarizes key aspects to be attended to as the class engages in unit inquiry and explanation. The OPM triangle for the Animals Unit, shown below, articulates the key observations students make during the unit investigation, the key patterns they identify through analyzing their investigation data, and the central scientific model that can be used to answer the unit’s driving question. During the inquiry portion of the unit (Lesson 3), the class moves from making observations to identifying patterns, eventually using these patterns to make evidence-based arguments. During the explanation portion of the unit (Lessons 4, 5, 6), the class learns the atomic-molecular model, makes connections across scales, and uses the atomic-molecular model to explain how animals grow, move, and function. Across the unit, classroom discourse is a necessary part of 3-dimensional Carbon TIME learning. The Carbon TIME Discourse Routine document provides guidance for scaffolding this discourse in lessons.

animals unit observations, patterns, and models

The tables below show goals for this unit in two forms. A list of Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) addressed by this unit is followed by a table showing specific target performances for each activity.

Next Generation Science Standards

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) performance expectations that middle and high school students can achieve through completing the Animals Unit are listed below. To read a discussion of how the Carbon TIME project is designed to help students achieve the performances represented in the NGSS, please see Three-dimensional Learning in Carbon TIME.

High School

  • From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes. HS-LS1-2. Develop and use a model to illustrate the hierarchical organization of interacting systems that provide specific functions within multicellular organisms.

  • Matter and its Interactions. HS-PS1-4. Develop a model to illustrate that the release or absorption of energy
    from a chemical reaction system depends upon the changes in total bond energy.

  • Matter and its Interactions. HS-PS1-7. Use mathematical representations to support the claim
    that atoms, and therefore mass,
    are conserved
    during a chemical reaction.

  • From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes. HS-LS1-6. Construct and revise an explanation based on evidence for how
    carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen from sugar molecules may combine with other elements
    to form
    amino acids and/or other large carbon-based molecules.

  • From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes. HS-LS1-7. Use a model to illustrate that
    cellular respiration is a chemical process whereby the bonds of food molecules and oxygen molecules are broken and the bonds in new compounds are formed resulting in
    a net transfer of energy.

  • Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics. HS-LS2-5. Develop a model
    to illustrate the role of
    photosynthesis and cellular respiration in the cycling of carbon among the biosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere, and geosphere.

Middle School

  • Matter and its Interactions. MS-PS1-1. Develop models
    to describe
    the atomic composition of simple molecules and extended structures.

  • Matter and its Interactions. MS-PS1-2. Analyze and interpret data
    on the properties of substances
    before and after the substances interact to determine if a chemical reaction has occurred.

  • Matter and its Interactions. MS-PS1-5. Develop and use a model to describe how the total number of atoms does not change in a chemical reaction and thus mass is conserved.

  • From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes. MS-LS1-3. Use argument supported by evidence for how the body is a system of interacting subsystems composed of groups of cells.

Materials You Provide

Activity 1.1: Animals Unit Pretest (20 min)

Activity 1.2: Expressing Ideas about How Animals Grow (40 min)

Activity 2.1: Zooming into Plants, Animals, and Decomposers (40 min)

Activity 2.2: Molecules Cells Are Made of (45 min)

Activity 2.3: Molecules in Cells Quiz (20 min)

Activity 2.4: Questions about Animals (30 min)

Activity 3.1: Predictions about Mealworms Eating (50 min)

Activity 3.2: Observing Mealworms Eating (60 min over 2 days)

Activity 3.3: Evidence-Based Arguments about Mealworms Eating (50 min)

Activity 4.1: Molecular Models for Cows Moving and Functioning: Cellular Respiration (40 min)

Activity 4.2: Explaining How Cows Move and Function: Cellular Respiration (40 min)

Activity 5.1: Tracing the Processes of Cows Growing: Digestion and Biosynthesis (40 min)

Activity 5.2: Molecular Models for Cows Growing: Digestion and Biosynthesis (40 min)

Activity 5.3: Explaining How Cows Grow: Digestion (40 min)

Activity 5.4: Explaining How Cows Grow: Biosynthesis (40 min)

Activity 6.1: Explaining Other Examples of Animals Growing, Moving, and Functioning (50 min)

Activity 6.2: Comparing Animals and Flames (50 min)

Activity 6.3: Functions of All Animals (50 min)

Activity 6.4: Animals Unit Posttest (20 min)