What Big Teeth You Have!

Using observation and hands-on exploration, learners understand the connection between teeth structure and function.

By Erin Bailey


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Are you searching for ways to help your students make the connection between an object's shape and its purpose? Try this engaging, inquiry-based lesson, where participants get up close with animal skulls to discover how teeth shape determines their function.

Herbivores, Carnivores, and Omnivores

Part of scientific inquiry is putting together puzzles when some of the pieces are missing. This lesson is designed to give students a chance to solve some puzzles. To begin, make a three-column chart on the board.

  1. In the first column, list three animals: Cow, elephant, and rabbit.
  2. In the second column: Wolf, lion and polar bear.
  3. In the third column: Human, raccoon, and chimpanzee.

Next, gather the class in a circle and ask them what the animals in each column have in common. If they don’t know, let this remain part of the mystery. Now show them several pictures of various mammals—herbivores, carnivores, and omnivores—and have students predict where each animal should be placed on the chart. After this exercise, ask students if they have any new predictions.

While the class is still gathered, read the Scholastic book What if You Had Animal Teeth? by Sandra Markle. This is a nonfiction, though entertaining, look at the function of animal teeth. As you read, make a list of the types of teeth mentioned—incisors, molars, canines, tusks—as well as the animals that have each kind. After reading the book, ask your young scientists if there was any new information in the book to help them with their predictions. Introduce the vocabulary words, herbivore, carnivore, and omnivore and label the columns appropriately.

Exploration #1

Now you are ready to move onto the lesson activity. The materials you will need are: wooden blocks (two per set), staple removers, scissors, frozen corn kernels (thawed), green leaves, and strips of beef jerky.

Procedure: Students will use the tools to determine which shape of tooth would be best for clipping off bits of food, grinding plants, and tearing meat.The corn kernels and leaves can represent plants, and the beef jerky can represent meat. Learners should find that the staple remover works better to hold and tear the food, while the blocks of wood grind the corn easier.The scissors will be able to shred the leaves into smaller bites.

After all participants have had a chance to explore with the materials, discuss their findings and assess their understanding of how the different kinds of teeth help determine which kinds of food an animal will eat.  

Exploration #2

The second part of the lesson can be completed on another day if necessary. For the activity, you will need several mammal skulls placed around the room and numbered for identification purposes. If this isn’t possible, you can use pictures of skulls that clearly show the teeth from a collection put together by Skyline High School; however, the real thing is best.

Gather students together to review what they have already learned about animal teeth. Children should be able to explain that molars do the grinding, canines tear food, and incisors clip off bits of food. Using that knowledge, they will observe the teeth in the animal skulls and determine what kind of diet the animal is likely to eat.

After everyone has made their observations, reveal the names of the mammals from which the skulls came. Children can either research the diets of those animals or you can discuss the information as a large group. Finally, have students imagine that they have a particular animal’s teeth. What would they eat? You can download patterns from Science for Kids so they can create a funny picture.

Related Resources:

Engaging Young Scientists with Inquiry: Part One

This article more deeply explains how lessons can use scientific inquiry. Use it as a guide in your science classroom to rehab typical classroom science lessons.

Teeth and Eating

This lesson for first through fourth grades introduces young learners to the concept that structure determines function. Through online activities, hands-on exploration, and deductive reasoning, children learn that animals have different types of teeth which determine their diets.

Teeth Identification in Omnivores, Herbivores and Carnivores

In a basic lesson for early childhood through second grade, children learn that different teeth have different shapes and different jobs. They construct a raccoon puppet and use corn kernels to represent incisors and molars.

Skulls Tell It All

This exploration for grades 4-8 helps participants make the connection between body structures and functions. Using animal skulls, students look for hints about whether the animal was a predator or prey. They examine teeth shape and eye socket position and then draw conclusions.