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Lesson Plans
Animals and Humans Say the Darnest Things
OverviewProcedure for teachersStudent Resources and Materials
Prep for Teachers

Before teaching this lesson, make sure that Web sites are bookmarked on all of the computers in the classroom, and that all of the necessary links are still valid and running. CUE the videotape to the first segment in the learning activity. Make sure that each lab station has all of the necessary components already in place for the start of the lesson. Place all handouts and pencils needed for this lesson on each of the students' desks before class begins.
When using media, provide students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, a specific task to complete and/or information to identify during or after viewing a video segment, Web site or other multimedia presentations.

Introductory Activities: Setting the Stage

Living organisms have unbelievable methods of communicating on a microscopic and macroscopic level. Microscopically, cells release key chemicals to signal when a cell should take in nutrients, make proteins (amino acids), create energy and divide. The ability of a cell to communicate when an action is needed depends on the code of life, DNA. The DNA within the cell directs the making of amino acids (proteins) and maintains metabolic functions based on the sequence within the code.

Macroscopically, humans and animals have shared a common link of communication. Often, the communicative link is founded in a look, a touch, or a sound. In most cases, it is not because of a common verbal language that each species shares. The ability of animals and humans to communicate is not coincidental, but directly relates to the microscopic similarity in amino acid sequences in a variety of protein strands.

This lesson is designed to help students see the similarities in amino acid structures of various organisms, but also gain a greater awareness of the nonverbal communication occurring between animals and humans.

Step 1

Ask students: "How do we communicate with each other (meaning between human beings)?" (Students should respond with such answers as talking, singing, and physical gestures.) Ask your students, "How would two human beings communicate if they did not speak the same language?" (Students might respond with simple terms or gestures signifying their message.) Ask the students the significance of words in a language. (Students would reply with such answers as words indicating a direct act, thought or feeling). In the early days of transcontinental communication, messages were sent by an electronic pattern called Morse Code. Let us investigate how words can be translated into a non-verbal means of communication.

Step 2

Provide the students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking them to log on to the Web site at, type in the words, "Let's have fun" and describe how this means of communication is helpful. The Web site allows students to type in words and then the site plays their message in Morse code. Ask the students why Morse code is helpful in communicating. (Students may state that Morse code is a way to communicate if words cannot be spoken.) Would this be an effective way of communicating today, why or why not? (Students may state that current means of communication are much quicker and more reliable than having to know the Morse Code; people can speak directly via cell phones, email etc.) Allow the students the opportunity to enter their own message to hear what it sounds like in Morse code. Is communication necessary? Why? (Students might say that people need to communicate to conduct business, learn or secure things like food, water or shelter.) What if we could not communicate by voice? By what means would we communicate? (Students would say that we could move our hands to gesture what we need, write notes, etc.)

Step 3

Ask students: How do our bodies communicate to us externally as to how we feel internally? (Students may offer that the heartbeat is an indication of excitement, sweaty palms or shallow breathing may signify nervousness, or fatigue or an illness may signal an internal infection.) Besides the outward physical signs of our bodies communicating to us, our bodies are communicating on a much smaller microscopic level. This type of communication commonly occurs between two cells or maybe even within one cell.

Step 4

Explain to students that different cells and/or components inside of a cell communicate constantly. The means by which a cell can pass information to other cells is through structures called proteins. Proteins, or more specifically, amino acids, instruct the cells when to make energy, to grow and when to divide, just to list a few examples.

Step 5

So let's us find out how difficult it is for a protein to communicate a simple message. (Teachers: This activity is optional depending on your comfort level with students and their means of communicating.) Have the students arrange themselves in rows, either standing or in chairs. Instruct the students that this activity is similar to "Telephone," where a message will be communicated to the first person and they will send the message to the next. The goal will be to try to communicate the same message from one person to the next. Here is the trick: the students cannot use words to communicate the message through their voice, only through physical gestures. Start each row with a simple word, yet a different word. Some suggestions might include: banana, apple, orange, pencil, etc. This will give the students a chance to communicate the word without becoming frustrated. Allow them ample time to communicate the message; this is not a speed game, yet.

For the second round, give each row a small phrase to communicate. The teacher may even tell the students it is a small phrase. Some examples of phrase might include: "Leave me alone," "I am happy," "Give me some money," "I need some help," or "Hey, it's a great day." Again, give each row a different phrase to communicate. This time, instruct the students that they are all simulating proteins sending a message to another cell; so communicating the message quickly is critical. The first team to correctly send the message is the winner. (Teachers may find that some or none of the students correctly communicate the message. This will provide a convenient segue into how difficult it is for proteins to accurately communicate a message within a cell and to other cells.)

Step 6

Just like the game "Telephone" or in Morse Code, both events created a link between two places. Amino acid strands are the communication links inside an animal's body. Each protein or amino acid strand communicates a specific message. That same message in one animal (chimpanzee) can be equally communicated in a different animal (gorilla) Ask the students to list animals who may share similarities based on their primary function (i.e. land dweller, uses oxygen, has opposable thumbs, eats meat or vegetables etc.)? (Students will offer many animals and how they relate in function; some answers might include humans and chimpanzees are similar because of their opposable thumbs; giraffes and gazelles eat vegetation and have four legs; etc). The similarity in animal's functional part or behavior is not coincidental; it is due solely to the presence of similar amino acid strands inside the animals' cells.

Step 7

Many living organisms share common amino acid strands because of their similarity in function. Let us examine the amino acid strand for hemoglobin in five different organisms. Hemoglobin, a protein composed of several long chains of amino acids, carries oxygen in red blood cells.

Step 8

Give each student the handout, "Amino Acid Sequences- Finding Similarities." The handout includes sequences displaying similarities and differences between humans, chimpanzees, gorillas, baboons, lemurs, dogs, chickens and frogs. Instruct students to follow the directions given and fill in Data Tables 2 and 3 using Data Table 1. (Teachers: Refer to the Answer sheet for answers to the handout.)

Step 9

The sequence shown is only a portion of a chain made up of 146 amino acids. The amino acids are abbreviated with a single letter. There are approximately 20 different amino acids in the genetic code. Each amino acid is based and formed from sequences found in DNA (specifically the order of nitrogen bases). Teachers may want to introduce or review the term, nitrogen bases, and the four types of nitrogen bases found in DNA (adenine, guanine, cytosine and thymine).

Step 10

Referencing the worksheet, ask students which organism most closely simulates humans in regards to hemoglobin. (Students should respond with the chimpanzee). What animal(s) are most unlike humans? (Students may respond with frog or chicken). Based on this portion of the chain, would it be reasonable to say that human and chimpanzee hemoglobin could be used interchangeably in each other's bodies based on the small strand analyzed in the handout? (Students would confirm this idea by stating "yes.") On a microscopic level, there is a common language. What is this language? (Students will draw the conclusion that the amino acids between various animals are similar because of the common amino acids in each organism). Since there is a common language of similar amino acids, this allows geneticists to apply similar gene therapy techniques or create common treatments for animals sharing these similar amino acid strands.

Step 11

Students have had a chance to understand the communication that occurs on a microscopic level within a cell. All cells must have this means of communicating in order to maintain a constant internal environment (or homeostasis). There are additional means by which humans and animals communicate. This macroscopic view of communication is accomplished by physical and verbal cues.

Learning Activities

The NATURE episode "Wisdom of the Wild" demonstrates how humans and animal intimate their needs and desires without sharing a common verbal language.

Step 1

CUE "Wisdom of the Wild" to the beginning of the video, where the image shows mist on a mountain. The narrator says, "Hidden in the remote forest of Tanzania, there is a magical world." Provide the students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking the students to speculate how the medicine men learn from the animals in the jungle. PLAY the tape. PAUSE the tape when the screen shows storm clouds forming. The narrator's final words are "deep into the past." Students may not yet have a clear idea of the specific knowledge the animals are passing on. Allow them to form opinions about how the animals communicate the medicinal benefits found deep in the jungle. How can this information be helpful to us in the United States? (Students will state that medicines found naturally may prove to be a better form of treatment of ailments and diseases.)

Step 2

Provide the students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking them to describe what, among the dense forest, helps the medicine man and naturalist find a cure for the chimpanzee. PLAY tape. PAUSE tape when the screen shows the two men pointing to the chimpanzee that is climbing a tree. (Students may respond by saying the tree leaves offer medicinal properties to cure sicknesses caused by parasites, the trees may reveal multiple useful chemical compounds, the cures derived from the leaves may have anti-bacterial, anti-viral and cancer-fighting ingredients).

Step 3

Returning to the original FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION question, have students now offer responses. (Students should respond that the chimpanzee communicated to the medicine men cures that are helpful to the chimpanzee.) Why study the chimpanzee and not another other animals? (Students response should include that the gorilla and chimpanzee are quite similar to humans amino acid sequences in the DNA therefore both species would share similar disorders. Both species might also benefit from the similar treatments to disorders).

Step 4

FAST FORWARD videotape to the point where the screen shows dolphins swimming from right to left. The narrator says, "Dolphins have intrigued humans for millennia." PAUSE tape. Provide the students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION asking them to describe how the dolphins helped the young boys increase their level of communication. PLAY tape. STOP tape when the speech therapist waves goodbye to the dolphins. Check for comprehension, and ask students how to describe how the dolphins helped each boy to increase their level of communication. (Students may offer such ideas as the dolphins may have opened doors of communication by letting the children touch them, hold onto their fins, riding alongside them. The new stimuli may encourage new forms of communication in the disabled boys.)

Step 5

Even though a dolphin weighs several hundred pounds and could easily harm the child; the dolphins do not threaten the children in the least. Their uncanny ability to connect with the children by swimming next to them, letting the children hold on to a dorsal fin or nuzzle the child establishes a non-verbal bond between the dolphin and the children. This connection the dolphin creates between them and the child stimulates a whole new vocabulary for them.

Step 6

Ask the students what value has it been to observe these two scenarios of communication between humans and animals? (Students might respond by saying that communication comes in all forms. It is not simply a verbal action. As humans we need to not only communicate with animals verbally but watch and observe the wisdom they may pass on to us as valuable learning lessons.) After watching how communication occurs between various organisms in the animal kingdom, the students will now collect their own observations of communication. How similar are the chimpanzees to humans with reference to behavior? (Students may include several similar behaviors like walking upright, eating with hands, opposable thumbs, and nurturing of young). How are humans and chimpanzees similar in the hemoglobin amino acid strands? (Encourage students to refer back to the previous activity on Amino Acid Similarities. The chimpanzees and humans are identical for this one protein strand) If more amino acid strands were compared between humans and chimpanzees, would we discover more similarities? (Students would most likely state there would be more similarities since they are most like humans. Some amino acids would differ since humans and chimpanzees do not look exactly alike.) Since the class has observed, through the video, a variety of methods of non-verbal communication between animals and humans, it is time for them to create their own video revealing unique communication between two humans, humans and animals or animal to animal.

Cross-Curricilar Extensions

Step 1

Students will be divided into groups of four or five. Before the groups begin working together discuss the following questions as a class.

  1. What are some common means people use to communicate with each other?
  2. Are there some gestures more common among certain cultures? Why?
  3. How do humans communicate with animals?
  4. Do you think animals understand words communicated to them?
  5. How do animals communicate with each other?
  6. Do you think certain animals have specific gestures for their species? Like what?
Step 2

Provide each group with a handout entitled, "Humans and Animals Say the Darnest Things" handout. The groups will discuss what type of video they would like to create. The video's themes can be centered on one of three themes: a) humans communicating to humans; b) humans communicating to animals or vice versa or c) animals communicating to other animals.

Step 3

The students will then begin work developing a five-minute video. The goal of the project is to videotape students re-enacting the non-verbal communication between either humans to humans, humans to animals, or animals to animals. The class will watch the video and try to guess what the gestures are communicating as shown in the video. The group that created the video will lead the class in a discussion after the video has been shown concerning what communication they were attempting to convey in their production. The class will offer constructive criticism about their work and offer comments about how effective they group was in communicating their notions through non-verbal cues.

Step 4

The goal of the activity is twofold: one goal is to learn how to effectively communicate on video what humans or animals are saying to each other through non-verbal cues and secondly how to communicate constructive criticism to each other concerning the quality of the video. (Note to teachers: The idea of students critiquing other students' work is an opportunity for the teacher to instruct them how to be tactfully communicate their ideas without being offensive; again the concept is teaching students how to effectively communicate with each other).

Cross-Curricilar Extensions

Students can recreate the composition of an amino acid. The various molecules can be found on the web site, Once they have chosen a particular amino acid, they can make choices as to whether they will make in a two-dimensional or three-dimensional form. The goal is to create an amino acid out of construction paper or other available materials. Students should choose different colored materials for each element represented in the molecule.

Language Arts
Students can select one of the following books and write an argumentative paper discussing the pros or cons of the Human Genome Project.

Cracking the Genome: Inside the Race to Unlock Human DNA
by Kevin Davies
An epic-like account of how DNA was actually decoded. The discovery process took several decades to unravel and specifically code for each chromosome.

The Genome War: How Craig Venter Tried to Capture the Code of Life and Save the World
By James Shreeve
Many companies have frantically tried to complete the decoding process. This story capsulated the business and scientific war behind the actually developing the complete code of DNA.

By Matt Ridley
This is an account of the discovery of the whole DNA code from one man's perspective.

Evolution of Sameness and Difference: Perspectives on the Human Genome Project.
By Stan Shostak
This is a discussion of how the decoded DNA may impact our society for years to come.

The Human Genome Project: What Does Decoding the DNA Mean For Us?
By Kevin Alexander Boon
Created by a geneticist, the author discusses his personal involvement in the decoding process.

The Infinite Mind: The Human Genome Project and the Brain.
By Lichtenstein Creative Media
The authors discuss future ramifications of the Human Genome project.

Adam and Eve and the Genome: The Human Genome Project and Theology.
By Susan Thistlethwaite
Theological implications with regard to the Human Genome project are discussed throughout this book.

Students can write and perform skits based on nonverbal cues between humans. The goal is to provide a humorous display of gestures human perform and the notions they are conveying.

Community Connections
  • Visit the Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory in Long Island, New York. This institution continues further DNA and protein studies originated by Watson and Crick.

  • Research current governmental findings on further genetic research in regards to genetic therapy (example - stem cell research).