STEM Makeover: Investigating How Animals Survive During Winter

Warmth Investigation

This experiment is a great way to get your students thinking about how animals survive in the winter. As with many of our labs and activities, we start with the engage stage in the i5Es, which is about learning what students already know about the subject and invoking their curiosity. For winter survival, start the activity by having kids think about how they, themselves, adapt to winter. If you live in a region that doesn’t really have a cold winter (you lucky people, you), you can start by showing pictures of kids dressed for wintery climates. Here are some questions to get your students engaged:

  • How do you stay warm in the winter?
  • What clothing do people wear in the winter?
  • What do you see in the summer versus what do you see in the winter?
  • What animals do you see around in the summer?
  • Do you still see those animals in the winter?
  • Animals don’t wear coats or jackets. How do you think they stay warm in the winter?

Kids may talk about things like adults turning up the heat in the house, having extra blankets in the bed, and/or wearing warm jackets and clothing. These questions will help you determine what your students already know about winter survival.

Once students are thinking about how humans survive winter, the investigation will help them think about how other animals survive as well. In the lab, students will determine which physical changes are the most effective against the cold. We will walk you through the materials needed and what steps to take. There is even a nice video that Teresa created to walk you through (click the table of contents button in the bottom right of the video viewer to skip to different sections):



In this activity, students will investigate the various ways that animals stay warm (fat, fur, feathers, hide, clothing, etc.) and write about what they discover.

The driving questions for this investigation are: How do animals stay warm in the winter? What are some of the best ways to stay warm?

Manufacturers of outdoor clothing are continually on the search for the most effective means of providing warmth. These manufacturers may use fur and/or feathers as insulating materials in their products. Find images of animals in winter to engage and provoke curiosity. Ask questions about these images with your students and see what questions they come up with as well. Here are some examples of possible questions you could ask before you begin your investigation/experiment.

    • How do buffalo, birds, polar bears, sheep, alpaca, rams, rabbits etc. stay warm in the midst of inclement weather? 
    • Can we test to see what each material’s insulation factor is?
    • Will we find a substance that works best for warmth?
    • What are some substances or items that might imitate animal features?
    • How can we create a test to find how effective each material is?

Materials Needed:

Because of its messiness, prepare the lard items ahead of time. Soften lard for approximately 30 seconds in the microwave and then carefully dump into a quart baggie. Fill as much as possible. Place 2nd baggie of the same size inside the lard-filled bag and insert your hand to shape the cooling lard around it. It will form a hand-shaped lard-filled baggie as it cools.

The Investigation:

As mentioned above, your students will create insulated bags that mimic animal insulation. Students can replicate this type of insulated bag with the materials you have provided and other materials they suggest. You create each baggie by filling a quart bag with the material and then placing that inside of a quart baggie that is empty, so the student can slip their hand inside and test how warm the material keeps them. 

Start with the lard, since that needs prior assembly. Then you can have your students help you assemble the other bags with materials like the raw wool, the down feathers or alternative down, and continue with all the materials you have gathered to test. Create as many bags as students brainstorm to try. They may surprise you with the materials that they want to test!

Have a bowl of ice and water ready. Have students place one hand in the ice water to feel how cold it is. Then place the other hand into the lard packet and test the water. Repeat with other prepared baggies. Students are to take notes as to their experiences and personal observations. These initial observations may be somewhat subjective or anecdotal, but you can ask your students if they have any ideas on how you could get more objective data on the insulation. For instance, asking questions such as: Which material is the best insulator? How do you know? How would you be able to measure that?

This can be the point where you supply them with the thermometers and give them some time to explore how the thermometers work. You can guide them to understand that thermometers give more precise measurements than we could get just by feeling the different materials.

Now that students understand these concepts, they can use the bags, cold water, and thermometers to simulate insulation in cold weather and to test which types of insulation work the best. Place a thermometer inside each insulated baggie. Carefully place the baggie into the ice water. You also want to place another thermometer in the ice water to have a comparison. After 30 minutes, either as a class or as individuals, record the temperatures for each insulation type.

Another suggestion is that if you have sub-freezing weather, test the insulated bags outside. Make sure that all your thermometers start with a reading of the inside building, first, and that they are all reading the same temperature. If you do not have sub-freezing weather, try placing your insulated bags in the freezer for 30 – 60 minutes with a thermometer and record the temperature.

After recording your data, you can either have your students analyze it individually or as a class. Have them discuss which insulation types worked the best and which did not work well. Then have them reference their findings to the animals that use these kinds of insulation. For example, a walrus has insulating fat to keep it warm. The baggie with lard simulates the insulating fat from a walrus.

It’s important to have your students share their observations, thoughts, and conclusions throughout this process, instead of just telling them what the conclusion is. Rather than telling them that they’re wrong if they’ve reached a wrong conclusion, ask additional questions to guide their logic and help them get back on the right track. The main purpose of this lab is to allow your students a chance to explore how animals survive the cold in a way that simulates what happens in the real world. By doing a hands-on experiment, students will fill more connected and involved, which will deepen their learning.

Toward the end of this lab, you can also explain that many of these changes that animals experience are physical adaptations. As humans, we do more behavioral adaptations to survive the winter (putting on a jacket, turning up the heat in our home) versus how animals have physical adaptations in order to make it through the winter.

Further Exploration:

  • Try different methods to discover how these materials provide warmth. Add space for air circulation, combine materials, etc.
  • Is it possible to replicate these substances using clothing? What would you use or combine to create a warm outdoor coat? Consider its weight, longevity, and replicability.

Next week we’ll talk more about the different ways animals survive winter and how you can teach these concepts in your classroom. We will also be adding a Winter Survival module to our Resource Library. The Resource Library is free and we add tons of teaching resources to it, including lesson plans, teaching strategies and more!

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5 thoughts on “STEM Makeover: Investigating How Animals Survive During Winter”

  1. Pingback: Winter Survival Strategies: Adaptation, Migration, and Hibernation - STEAM Café

  2. I am wondering if we can do ‘makeover’ this topic for a spacesuit.
    astronauts do not have ample time to ‘adopt’ to extremes in space. Their spacesuit must be made from some special materials …………
    Please do ‘STEM makeover’ on insulation, protection and user-friendly spacesuit
    ( lightweight, simpler, cheaper, safer, ….. )

    1. I like that idea a lot! We can even make ties and comparisons between the environments in space vs. earth, and why one needs a spacesuit to survive. Thank you for the suggestion!

  3. I am wondering if we can do ‘makeover’ this topic for a spacesuit.
    astronauts do not have ample time to ‘adapt’ to extremes in space. Their spacesuit must be made from some special materials …………
    Please do ‘STEM makeover’ on insulation, protection and user-friendly spacesuit
    ( lightweight, simpler, cheaper, safer, ….. )

  4. Have your students investigated space suits and the environments that astronauts work in? What grades and ages are you working with? We will investigate how to best do this activity. Thanks for the suggestion. We want to make sure we meet your needs.

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