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Lizards in the Cold Activity - Tweaked for Middle School ;)

grades 6-8 math science strategies tweaked lesson plans vizualizations

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


Let’s imagine you are looking for a lesson to help your students better explore MS- LS4-4, “Construct an explanation based on evidence that describes how genetic variations of traits in a population increase some individuals’ probability of surviving and reproducing in a specific environment (Natural Selection)”. 

You come across a great data-based lesson –  Lizards in the Cold – from HHMI BioInteractive using scientific data on how extreme climate events, such as storms, can drive natural selection in populations. Your students have been studying natural selection in this unit and they have liked the hands-on graphing that you have done with them in the past. And you are excited about how this lesson could help them use the data to pull apart the graph and understand what they are looking at.

However, based on your student's performance in the last unit you are looking to give them more time to “Grasp the structure of and read information from two-dimensional scatter plots with x and y scales” in a practiced way to deepen their “Visualizing Data”  skills (see Building Blocks for Data Literacy to explore the corresponding data skills of these areas more).

You are torn, you like the Lizards in the Cold lesson from HHMI BioInteractive, 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 of what you are looking for now for your students.

Lizards in the Cold Educators Materials

Here is an example of how we can add a few 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. 

As some orientation to the map and graphs: 

  • Figure 1 is a graph showing the five populations of anole lizards along a latitudinal transect. Due to the latitudinal transect, the further north you are in Texas, the colder the temperatures. Therefore, anole lizards in the north have a greater cold tolerance.  

  • Figure 2A is a line graph. This is showing us the measured temperature at which anole lizards lost their coordination over time for two of the populations. 

  • Figure 2B is a scatter plot. This is showing us the mean Critical Minimal Time, aka the temperature at which anole lizards lost coordination, values for all five populations in the summers of 2013 (closed circles) and 2014 (open circles). 

The new questions are designed to help students “Grasp the structure of and read information from two-dimensional scatter plots with x and y scales” (and a line graph) in grades 6-8  in appropriate ways. Specifically, they provide more targeted practice of these skills by explicitly directing students' eyes to particular parts of the scatterplots and supporting map. These new questions will help the students get a better understanding of the data they are looking at first. Being oriented to the data actually on the page is a critical first step for middle school learners so that they can then more deeply explore if there are correlations between that data and natural selection.

It is easy for us as experts to forget that students need to understand the data first in order to make observations to answer data-based questions on the worksheets.  These added questions are explicitly designed to help the students dive deeper into how to read the given data to explore the phenomena or natural selection through a real-world example. 

As a note, typically when students are looking at multiple graphs they analyze one graph at a time. 

With the addition of 12 new questions – 2 new questions about Figure 1, 5 further questions about Figure 2A, and 5 new questions about Figure 2B, – you can use this exciting new lesson you found while also aligning it with 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 an exciting new, real-world 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 suggested adjustments in this lesson could help students that are needing to work on another aspect of “Understand the Structure of Graphs and Maps” skills at this time of the year: Identifying the measurements that are represented in a graph, map, or legend, and point to features in the graph or map that represent them. The fact that the students are looking at one map and two graphs to obtain data about the same population of anole lizards is a hard concept for students to grasp. Having students look at each graph and map individually and assess the data that is given before trying to compare the data to each other can be difficult for students. It is like comparing apples to durians. They are both fruits, but very different. Some options:

  • Have students cover up the other graphs with a piece of paper so they are not distracted by the others. 

  • Jigsaw the graphs so that some groups are looking at Figure 2A and others are looking at Figure 2B and then come back together as a full class to share out findings.

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.

Interested in diving more deeply into helping students make sense of different graph types? Join us at our next Data Trailblazers Bootcamp training! More information here: