Tonight, my colleague Jesse Wilcox and I are leading some professional development for elementary teachers. For our first activity, we focused on helping our students recognize that while organisms of the same kind do look similar to each other, they are different in many ways.

To start this investigation, we first showed students two earth worms. Then, we asked them what they notice about the worms. After some ideas, we asked, “How are the worms different?” or “What aspects of the worms could we measure or collect data on?” Here, the students noted that we could write down color differences, measure the length or even the circumference”. Now that we had some ideas out there, we decided to give each small group a couple of worms and determine ways to compare the two.

Before handing out the worms, Jesse asked, “how should we handle the worms so we don’t hurt them?” This question helps students (even first graders) take into consideration how to carefully and ethically handle organisms. Then, we distributed the worms and asked students to collect some data.

Importantly, with 1st graders, we might help them create a data table with their various measurements. Yet, if we provide a data table, we’d do so only after they had brainstormed variables to measure and when we introduce the data table, we’d ask them, “How might this help us keep track of our information?”

We give students plenty of time to explore, then bring them back together for a discussion. We ask the students what they notice and document their ideas carefully. Then, after many ideas are on the board, we ask a series of questions to help drive home the point of the lesson:

- What observations did you make between the two worms that are similar?
- What makes a worm a worm?
- Even though these are both worms, why are we able to identify differences?

We then go a bit further and ask, “You are all similar to your parents, but not exactly the same, how do you think that applies to worms?”

To extend the task, we might ask students to observe other organisms (e.g. dogs, fish, plants, etc) to investigate how the organisms of particular kinds are similar and different.

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