K-12 Teaching and Learning From the UNC School of Education

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Learning outcomes

Students will:

  • demonstrate their ability to make relevant observations and to make predictions based on their current understandings.
  • demonstrate the ability to use numbers to make estimations of time and temperature and to make comparisons.
  • construct an understanding of how the polar bear’s coverings furnish protection from the cold.

Teacher planning

Time required for lesson

5 hours


  • a bowl of ice water
  • a thermometer
  • shortening (to simulate the polar bear’s layer of fat)
  • a small quart sized plastic bag
  • a large gallon sized plastic bag
  • a stop watch (optional)
  • a large chart for recording estimations and actual times
  • lab notebooks (heavy cardboard with paper attached)


Before students visit the North Carolina Zoo, they should have a clear understanding of the purpose of the trip. The concept of lab books and how they are to be used should be discussed with the students. The students should have some prior knowledge about polar bears to receive maximum benefit from their observation of the polar bear exhibit.


These activities can take place over several days and can be sequenced to fit the need of your students.

Activity 1

  1. Visit the North Carolina Zoological Park (or other facility you might have access to) to observe the polar bear in its simulated habitat.
  2. Assign students to work in small groups of four or five, to be facilitated by a teacher, teacher assistant, or parent volunteer, as they make and record observations in their lab books.
  3. Encourage the children to draw the polar bears in their habitat. Questions such as the following can be used to stimulate thinking during the observation period: What kind of coverings does the polar bear have? How does the polar bear’s covering protect if from the cold climate? How does the polar bear’s white fur also provide other protection? What do you think keeps the polar bear warm in the cold water? How long do you think the polar bear can stay in the cold water? Facilitators and zoo personnel can be available to stimulate thinking, to answer questions, and to help the children record their observations.

Activity 2

  1. In this lesson, small groups of children participate in a hands-on experiment and discussion designed to help them develop an understanding of how the polar bear stays warm in the icy waters of the Arctic. Presented with a bowl of ice water, the children predict what the temperature might be.
  2. Using a thermometer, take a measurement to determine the exact temperature. The children then estimate how many seconds they can comfortably hold a bare hand in the icy water versus how long they can hold a hand in the water wearing a “blubber glove”—(two plastic bags with a layer of shortening between them to simulate the polar bear’s fat layer).
  3. Their estimates are recorded on a chart along with the actual times, so that comparisons can be made. For first grade students we counted ONE one-thousand, TWO one-thousand, etc. to time the seconds, but a stopwatch could also be used. Each child in the group should have an opportunity to make estimates and then to carry out the experiment.
  4. Throughout the activity the teacher will facilitate interaction among the students as they make predictions, comparisons, and observations.

Activity 3

  1. In the third activity, the children will demonstrate what they observed and learned from the zoo experience and the “hands-on” experiment through writing and art. (To further enhance the scientific concepts being addressed in this series, information about bears should be interwoven throughout the curriculum. The children should be exposed to literature, poetry, and songs about bears to further enhance their overall learning.)
  2. Each child will share his/her new understandings with the class. This sharing and discussion time will allow the children another opportunity to reflect on and evaluate what they have learned through their observations, experiments, and discussions.


  • Observe students during the activities to determine if they understand the concepts being presented.
  • Discuss with students the observations and recordings they made at the zoo.
  • Following the “hands-on” experiment, students will write and/or illustrate what they learned about the polar bear.
  • Activity 3 is also a form of assessment.

Supplemental information


Since I believe that the study of science should be integrated with other subject areas, this sequence should also include literature, language arts, and mathematics components. Although this specific sequence is focused on the polar bear, it could be part of a broader science segment to explore the functions of body coverings for a variety of animals.

  • North Carolina Essential Standards
    • Science (2010)
      • Grade 4

        • 4.L.1 Understand the effects of environmental changes, adaptations and behaviors that enable animals (including humans) to survive in changing habitats. 4.L.1.1 Give examples of changes in an organism’s environment that are beneficial to it and some that...

North Carolina curriculum alignment

Science (2005)

Grade 4

  • Goal 1: The learner will make observations and conduct investigations to build an understanding of animal behavior and adaptation.
    • Objective 1.01: Observe and describe how all living and nonliving things affect the life of a particular animal including:
      • Other animals.
      • Plants.
      • Weather.
      • Climate.
    • Objective 1.03: Observe and discuss how behaviors and body structures help animals survive in a particular habitat.