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Smithsonian Science for the Classroom™: How Can Animals Use Their Senses to Communicate? 1-Use Module



Grade 4. Module Highlights: In 15 lessons over 20 class sessions, students investigate how animals, including humans, use their internal and external structures to sense the world around them, process information, communicate information to others, and react accordingly. In the first focus question, students explore the senses, including how light travels when we see an object. They compare animal eyes and analyze how their structures support different survival needs. In the second focus question, students explore how the brain processes information through experiencing optical illusions and analyzing data from research into how birds can learn to avoid distasteful insects. In the third focus question, students put together what they have learned to investigate how animals can communicate with each other using a variety of signals. They compare how often live fiddler crabs communicate using claw-waving in social and nonsocial contexts. In the fourth focus question, students consider problems in communication. They discover that nightingales sing louder in noisy urban environments and explore how humans can communicate over great distances in very little time using digital signals. In a written assessment, students model the interactions when a cat sees a mouse. For the science challenge, students analyze data based on testing with models to construct an argument about which firefly flash patterns would be most effective for finding a mate.

This module includes a teacher guide, 10 Student Activity Guides, 16 Smithsonian Science Stories student readers, and enough materials for 32 students to use 1 time.

Alignment to the Next Generation Science Standards*
Performance Expectations:

  • 4-LS1-1: Construct an argument that plants and animals have internal and external structures that function to support survival, growth, behavior, and reproduction.
  • 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.
  • 4-PS4-2: Develop a model to describe that light reflecting from objects and entering the eye allows objects to be seen.
  • 4-PS4-3: Generate and compare multiple solutions that use patterns to transfer information.
  • 3-5-ETS1-1: Define a simple design problem reflecting a need or a want that includes specified criteria for success and constraints on materials, time, or cost.

Disciplinary Core Ideas
LS1.A: Structure and Function

  • Plants and animals have both internal and external structures that serve various functions in growth, survival, behavior, and reproduction.

LS1.D: Information Processing

  • 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.

PS4.B: Electromagnetic Radiation

  • An object can be seen when light reflected from its surface enters the eyes.

PS4.C: Information Technologies and Instrumentation

  • Digitized information can be transmitted over long distances without significant degradation. High-tech devices, such as computers or cell phones, can receive and decode information—convert it from digitized form to voice—and vice versa.

ETS1.C: Optimizing the Design Solution**

  • Different solutions need to be tested in order to determine which of them best solves the problem, given the criteria and the constraints.

ETS1.A: Defining and Delimiting Engineering Problems

  • Possible solutions to a problem are limited by available materials and resources (constraints). The success of a designed solution is determined by considering the desired features of a solution (criteria). Different proposals for solutions can be compared on the basis of how well each one meets the specified criteria for success or how well each takes the constraints into account.

**Indicates a DCI that is addressed in the module but not summatively assessed.

Science and Engineering Practices

  • Developing and using models
  • Analyzing and interpreting data
  • Engaging in argument from evidence
  • Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information


  • Defining problems
  • Planning and carrying out investigations
  • Using mathematics and computational thinking
  • Designing solutions

Crosscutting Concepts

  • Patterns
  • Cause and effect
  • Systems and system models
  • Structure and function


  • Scale, proportion, and quantity

Concepts and Practices Storyline
Focus Questions and Lesson Summaries
Focus Question 1: How can animals sense the world around them?
Lesson 1: Now You See It

We see objects because light reflected from their surface reaches our eyes.
Students carry out an investigation by manipulating components in a system to determine what allows us to see objects.
Lesson 2: The Eyes Have It
Internal and external eye structures support different functions for survival.
Students analyze animal eye structures for patterns in structures that support similar functions.
Lesson 3: Survival Sense
Animals have a variety of sense receptors specialized for different kinds of information.
Students obtain, evaluate, and communicate information about animal senses and structures and collaboratively construct an argument for which sense an animal relies on most for survival.

Focus Question 2: How can animals process and respond to information?
Lesson 4: Can You Believe Your Eyes?

Information from the senses is processed in the brain.
Students analyze optical illusions using tools and develop a model to show how body structures work as a system to form the images we see.
Lesson 5: Live and Learn
Animals can use their memories to learn and guide their actions.
Students analyze data from an investigation to develop a model that explains how songbirds can use their structures to learn to avoid distasteful insects.
Lesson 6: Quick Study
Information from multiple senses, as well as memories, can be integrated when animals decide how to react.
Students engage in argument from evidence to support a prediction about the type and timing of sensory information that would cause birds to learn the fastest.

Focus Question 3: How can animals send and receive information to communicate?
Lesson 7: Sending and Receiving

Communication requires a sender, signal, and receiver.
Students obtain and evaluate information from a text about the components of an animal communication system.
Lesson 8: Do the Wave
When receivers are not present, communication is not possible.
Students plan and carry out an investigation into the components of the fiddler crab communication system.
Lesson 9: Conferring with the Flowers
Plants have structures that support survival and that can sometimes be used to communicate information to animals.
Students engage in argument from evidence about what counts as a plant-animal communication system.

Focus Question 4: What are some challenges in communication?
Lesson 10: I Can't Hear You!

Animals can solve communication problems.
Students analyze and interpret data to make an argument about how urban noise causes nightingales to sing louder.
Lesson 11: What's the Code?
Computers send messages as digital signals of 1s and 0s.
Students design and test a solution to represent a picture with patterns of 1s and 0s and short and long flashes of light.
Lesson 12: Messaging Faster
Solutions to human communication problems vary based on criteria and constraints, but digital signals solve many problems and allow messages to be sent quickly and accurately.
Students obtain information from text to define human communication problems and their solutions including the relative speed of those solutions. They argue from evidence to compare different designed solutions based on the criteria and constraints of the solution.

Science Challenge
Focus Question 5: How can fireflies communicate to attract a mate?
Lesson 13: Firefly Flashes Part 1

Fireflies identify mates using species-specific flash patterns.
Students obtain information about how fireflies use flash patterns to communicate and plan for a model by identifying key components and interactions.
Lesson 14: Firefly Flashes Part 2
Flash patterns can be modeled to test how likely they are to be confused for similar patterns.
Students use an electric firefly model to test how differences in flash patterns affect their ease of identification.
Lesson 15: Firefly Flashes Part 3
Scientific arguments are based on evidence.
Students use data from testing with a model to develop an argument about whether fireflies with more distinct flash patterns are better at communicating.

*Next Generation Science Standards® is a registered trademark of WestEd. Neither WestEd nor the lead states and partners that developed the Next Generation Science Standards were involved in the production of this product, and do not endorse it.


Shipping Information or Purchase Restrictions
  • USDA or USDOT regulations restrict this item from shipping to these locations: Washington. HI residents must contact the HI Department of Agriculture before ordering.
What’s Included:
  • How Can Animals Use Their Senses to Communicate? Teacher Guide
  • 10 How Can Animals Use Their Senses to Communicate? Student Activity Guide
  • 16 Smithsonian Science Stories Literacy Series™: Sending Signals
  • 1 Digital Access to Teacher Guide and Student Literacy (for 32 students)
  • 1 Living Materials Order Sheet, How Can Animals Use Their Senses to Communicate? (for 4 male fiddler crabs, 2 female fiddler crabs, food, and Instant Ocean® Synthetic Sea Salt) (voucher item)
  • 1 Aquarium Dip Net, 3"
  • 16 Ball, Ping-Pong®
  • 9 Battery Holder, Size D
  • 8 Battery, Size D
  • 30 Bobby Pin
  • 4 Bowl, Water, Plastic
  • 24 Box, Cardboard, No. 742
  • 16 Card Set, Animal Eyes, Set of 6
  • 8 Card Set, Firefly Flash Pattern, Set of 4
  • 9 Card Set, Insects, Set of 5
  • 8 Card Set, Optical Illusions, Set of 4
  • 8 Card Set, Plant Structures, Set of 2
  • 8 Card, Firefly Argumentation
  • 8 Card, Firefly Illustration
  • 1 Conditioner, Tap Water, 3.3-oz Bottle
  • 30 Connector Wire with Alligator Clips
  • 1 Container, Plastic, 16 oz
  • 16 Flashlight, LED (with batteries)
  • 1 Group Role Poster, 24 x 36"
  • 1 Humus, 1.6-L Bag
  • 8 Knife Switch, Single Pole/Single Throw
  • 16 Lens, Dual Hand
  • 20 Light Bulb, Grain of Wheat
  • 1 Pail Lid, for 1-gal Plastic Pail
  • 1 Pail, Plastic, 1 gal
  • 3 Sand, Marine, 5-lb Bag
  • 1 Spoon, Measuring, 1/4 tsp
  • 4 Tank Lid, for 1-1/2-gal Plastic Tank
  • 4 Tank, Plastic, 1-1/2 gal
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