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Inherited Traits Activity - Tweaked to embrace variability for 3rd- 5th Graders ;)

data strategies tweaked lesson plans

Tweaked Lesson Plans 

This article is part of the “LP Tweaks” blog series showcasing how small adjustments to the questions, organization, and/or data moves within your existing curriculum can help align the learning to different data skills for your learners. This original lesson is strong, and the intention is not to communicate otherwise but rather to share how you could adjust things for a different desired outcome.

Written by: Naomi W

So imagine that you have a great data-based lesson from Dr. Dave’s Science on using real scientific data to investigate variations in inherited traits in dogs. In the past this lesson has worked well for your learners to explore concepts related to 3-LS3-1- Analyze and interpret data to provide evidence that plants and animals have traits inherited from parents and that variation of these traits exists in a group of similar organisms, specifically, LS3.B Variation of Traits. By this point in the year, your students have been exploring life science data and they like hands-on graphing activities…and love thinking about puppies.

However, based on your student's performance in the last activity you are looking to give them more time to “recognize and describe variability” in a practiced way to more deeply get at their data analysis and interpretation skills (see Building Blocks for Data Literacy to explore the corresponding data skills of these areas more).

You are torn, you like the Inherited Traits Activity from Dr. Dave’s Science, and your other colleagues are using it, but you are worried the questions aren’t directly getting at the data skills your learners need to practice at this point in the year, but the content is. What do you do?

Let’s check out some easy optional tweaks to make the lesson more what you are looking for now.

Here is an example of how we can add a few suggestions and questions to the lesson to more directly help your current students practice data skills we know they are weaker on (or we are more interested in targeting this specific data interaction) at this point in the year.

First, we can more explicitly remind students to record their results as they are flipping their coins in terms of what that coin toss means for the traits (i.e., long yellow from Mom with a Heads or short brown from Dad with a Tails).

Black text is the original lesson and the purple text are suggested additional questions to add. A full copy of the revised lesson can be viewed here.

Second, the lesson fantastically has students pool their data together across the class into a tally chart. There is an amazing opportunity to also have students visualize the data in graphical form (we put together a template Graph - What Does My Puppy Look Like). Why graph the data? Tally charts are great for counting and reinforcing number sense for our upper elementary students. However, often times visually plotting the data enables us to see other patterns than just numbers alone.



Black text is the original lesson and the purple text are suggested additional questions to add. A full copy of the revised lesson can be viewed here.

And third, a great way to help students translate the data they have collected and visualized (whether from the Tally Chart alone or also from their graph) is to have students make a picture of their puppy and hang up the classroom set. This additional visual representation of the results of the coin flips across the class provides another entry point for students to make sense of the data they collected and what it actually means for the puppies' ears and noses.

Black text is the original lesson and the purple text are suggested additional questions to add. A full copy of the revised lesson can be viewed here.

These suggestions and questions are designed to help students “recognize that values in a group usually vary” in grades 3-5 in appropriate ways. They do not add a large amount to the students' workload, but instead, are designed for more targeted practice of this aspect of building students data skills and science understanding. The suggestions help students realize that all values of inherited traits in a group of puppies will vary, the puppies are not identical. This is an important concept for students to learn. When looking at a litter, students often inevitably ask “Why don’t they all have the same color fur?” or “Why don’t they all look alike?”

Even though the students have looked at pictures before to recognize and describe variability, these suggestions are designed to connect their everyday observations with math skills and critical data thinking to more deeply understand what is happening in the data itself. This will help set students up for more success in recognizing that values in any group will vary.  

Therefore, with the addition of 4 suggestions and 3 new questions, you can continue to use this tried-and-true lesson you found years ago while also better aligning it to your current learners' needs and/or your desired focus areas for your learners to practice data skills. 

To me, that feels like a win-win…using a lesson that you like with a more strategic data focus to help learners build their skills :)

Will this exact tweak work for everyone or every lesson? Absolutely not!

In fact, other adjustments in this lesson could also help students who need to work on their ability to “Notice that values in some groups vary more than they do in other groups” skills. You could redo the worksheet by making some of the traits the same for the mom and dad. Therefore, the result for the puppy will be different and will lead to less variation.

For middle school and high school, you can introduce genes and Punnett squares to determine the probability of variation of traits…with the key component being that values vary. So often we teach about probability with traits in a black-and-white situation of theoretical ratios. But nature always varies :)


For example, Carolina Biological Supply has the kit “Wisconsin Fast Plants® Monohybrid Genetics” and lessons in which students look at the color of Wisconsin Fast Plants across three generations. Here are the class results of a recent run of the investigation in which none of our data for any instance was exactly the theorized 3:1 ratio for a dominant trait…and overall our data were not the theoretical 3:1. Instead the data varied, and this is absolutely normal and ok!

So many possibilities!



The point is that with a better sense of what we are working towards with data skills (see Building Blocks for Data Literacy to explore the range of data skills K-12 our learners should be working to master) we can be empowered to make our existing curriculum work better for us and our learners…rather than needing to find or write all new curriculum.

Give it a try! What in your next lesson with data can you slightly adjust to make it better hit the skills you want your students to practice? Let us know how it goes.