Shoes! Beaks! They’re All About Structure and Function  

As we watch students arrive for class, we notice that Alejandra hangs her jacket on a coat hook, while Calder reaches for scissors to make a fringe on his picture. Tessa replaces her rain boots with the sneakers from her cubby, and Nick searches for a spoon to eat his cereal. These daily scenes illustrate that students come to school already familiar with structure and function relationships. They know which tool will get the job done; that’s why Nick grabbed the spoon, and not the fork, and Tessa switched to her sneakers before PE.

These daily habits tell us that structure and function is everywhere, and our students already rely on this concept to navigate their world. Students implicitly use structure and function throughout their day, and as educators, we can empower them and deepen their understanding of the natural and engineered worlds by making these relationships explicit.

Of all the objects in a classroom, we love the paper clip to explain structure and function. Grab a paper clip and ask your students, “What does it do?” This reveals the function. Straighten the paper clip and ask, “Does it still hold paper?” No, because you changed the shape, which means you also changed the function. As you might predict, several of your students might point out that the new shape is perfect for poking—a different function.

Now make a paper clip–shape with a piece of string and ask, “Can this paper clip bind paper? It has the right shape after all.” After your students respond no, ask them why not. They may say no because it has the wrong physical properties and is too flexible. This simple exercise helps students understand that the shape and physical properties—the structure—of an object enable its function.  

We developed Quick Start questions to explore the crosscutting concepts. We rely on the four below to deepen our understanding of structure-and- function relationships. Here’s how they work with our paper clip:

  • What does it do? (function) Holds papers together;
  • What is its shape? (structure) Curved, flat, and spiral-shaped;
  • What are the physical properties? (structure) Thin and rigid yet flexible; and
  • How do the shape and physical properties enable the function? The flexible and rigid nature, along with the curves of the paper clip, apply pressure to papers, holding them together.

We invite you to use shoes to further explore this relationship in the engineered world. Before class, channel your “inner Kardashian” and bring various types of shoes, such as sandals, hiking boots, mud stompers, cleats, running shoes, dress shoes, and tap shoes. Make signs that say things like beach, fashion runway, bog, mountain, and dance floor. Ask your students to match the shoes to the signs.

Use the Quick Start questions to reinforce the role that shape and physical properties play in enabling function. Nothing makes this point like donning high heels and trying to kick a goal. Despite having some cleat-like qualities, heels are clearly not the functional equivalent.  

Drawing by Zander Lubkowitz

Structure and function relationships exist throughout the biological world. We bet you have never seen a raptor trying to drink at a hummingbird feeder, nor a pelican trying to peck a tree for insects. The raptor’s beak is sharp and shaped to tear flesh, not sip nectar from tubular- shaped flowers. The pelican’s beak serves as a ladle for scooping fish and does not have the shape or the strength to peck wood and bark.

Image courtesy of Ralph Fletcher, an author, educator, and nature photographer.

Bird beaks are a rich and easily accessible topic for exploring structure and function in the natural world. Observing bird beaks can take place on the playground, through your classroom window, and even in a picture book like Sneed B. Collard’s Beaks!

Image courtesy of Ralph Fletcher, an author, educator, and nature photographer.

A great time to apply the concept of structure and function is when reading aloud, particularly from picture books. Some books—most often nonfiction ones—expressly focus on structure and function: for example, What Do You Do With a Tail Like This? (by Steve Jenkins) or Bridges Are to Cross (by Philemon Sturges). Apply the Quick Start questions to any page in these books to begin the conversation.

Sometimes a question describing an unlikely scenario invites humor, but also focuses students on the way structure enables function. For example, a rope bridge doesn’t work well for a dump truck trying to cross a river. Once you start looking, you will see structure and function everywhere, even in fiction, like the fairy tale featuring houses made of straw, sticks, and bricks. Your students will be amused when they realize that The Three Little Pigs is actually a tale of structure and function going wrong before it goes right.

Teachers have so many opportunities to launch a discussion about the crosscutting concepts in their daily classroom routines, and one of our favorites is the read-aloud. Read-alouds are perfect because the crosscutting concepts shout or whisper on every page of every book, once you know how to find them.

Image courtesy of Ralph Fletcher, an author, educator, and nature photographer.


Valerie Bang-Jensen and Mark Lubkowitz, professors of education and biology respectively, teach at Saint Michael’s College in Colchester, Vermont. They present frequently on the NGSS crosscutting concepts and their book, Sharing Books, Talking Science: Exploring Scientific Concepts With Children’s Literature (Heinemann 2017).

Note: This article was featured in the October issue of Next Gen Navigator, a monthly e-newsletter from NSTA delivering information, insights, resources, and professional learning opportunities for science educators by science educators on the Next Generation Science Standards and three-dimensional instruction.  Click here to sign up to receive the Navigator every month.

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