MiddleSchoolPortal/Organ Systems: Function Diversity and Uniformity

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Organ Systems: Function, Diversity, and Uniformity - Introduction

Though most famous for his painting and sculpting, had a keen interest in human body systems — not a particularly popular topic in the late 1400s and early 1500s.

Da Vinci’s interest in mechanics and proportions is revealed in this drawing, called Vitruvian Man, and his notes. But his interest did not stop there. No, he needed to know what lay beneath the visible surface. According to a da Vinci scholar, "Leonardo's approach, with its notions of layers, levels, transparency, cutaways, sections, opens up the body in a new way" (Veltman, n.d.). Thus, the artist is credited with the beginning of studies in human anatomy; an example of human curiosity advancing science for subsequent generations.

Middle school students are also keenly interested in human body systems, but for perhaps less lofty reasons than da Vinci's. Their's is more related to their awareness of the rapid changes in their own bodies. Regardless of the reasons for their interest, middle school students are primed and intrinsically interested in body system studies. The National Science Education Standards (NSES) has this to say regarding middle school science:



This period of development in youth lends itself to human biology. Middle-school students can develop the understanding that the body has organs that function together to maintain life. Teachers should introduce the general idea of structure-function in the context of human organ systems working together. In this publication we provide resources designed to meet several goals of the NSES encompassed within the Life Science; Personal and Social Perspectives; and Science and Technology Standards, using body systems as the context. We begin in the Background Information for Teachers section with opportunities to brush up on content knowledge regarding cells, tissues, organs, organ systems and their coordination, and comparative anatomy across taxa. We also provide information regarding modern technologies related to some organs and organ systems, such as the pump for diabetics, LASIK surgery, and artificial hearts.

Other sections in this publication provide lessons and activities for students on topics of structure and function of cells, tissues, organs, and organ systems as well as information about comparative anatomy and diversity. In this way, students may study body systems from two perspectives: within and between species in alignment with the diversity and adaptation aspect of the NSES Life Science Standard. In addition, new technologies associated with human body systems are explored. As always, new technologies come with social and personal implications, also for investigation in this publication and aligned with the NSES. So prepare to enlighten your students in new ways, and get started now!

Background Information for Teachers

The National Science Education Standards do not advocate teaching human body systems by fragmentation, or by studying each system in isolation. However, a certain degree of that is needed in order to comprehend certain components. The important thing for teachers to keep in mind is that after some study of isolated parts, they must facilitate student comprehension of a holistic, conceptual understanding of the systems' coordinated operations with each other, both within and between taxa, via comparative anatomy for example.

Below are two concept maps from the NSDL Strand Map Service. These maps illustrate connections between concepts and across grade levels. Systems, one of several Common Themes is the first map, followed by Basic Functions--one of seven maps under the Human Organism Heading. Only the grades 6-8 band of each map is shown here. Clicking on a concept within the maps will show NSDL resources relevant to the concept, as well as information about related AAAS Project 2061 Benchmarks and National Science Education Standards. Move the pink box in the lower right hand corner of the page to see the grades 6-8 learning goals. You may also wish too look at Disease, Human Development and Human Identity.

In addition, our understandings of the malfunctions and diseases of body systems and the technologies used to correct malfunctions are important to students’ comprehension of the personal and social implications of these technologies. Resources provided in this section are meant to arm you with the background information you need to be able to facilitate student understanding of these issues related to body systems.

Inner Learning Online This award-winning commercial site has a page devoted to each of 10 different body systems. Each page consists of an interactive illustration of the body system, which the user can roll over to find additional information regarding the organs. Thus, the entire system can be visualized, as well as each organ within the system. In addition to using this site for your own content knowledge, you may find yourself using parts of the site for whole-class presentations, or assigning students to visit specific pages.

Ethics lessons This page has links to an ethics primer, lessons, and additional resources. The primer will position you well to include a lesson on bioethics as related to the use of some technologies designed to enhance body system functions. Free registration is required.

Weight loss surgery The epidemic of American obesity and an increase in frequency of these surgeries make study of weight-loss surgeries, the related technologies, and affective issues an appropriate piece in a unit on the digestive system. This page from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) provides links to a variety of resources that will help you get the facts. There are videos of gastric by-pass and lap-band surgery, and links to articles for the layperson under Latest News.

Lasik interactive tutorials Many of your students’ parents have had this surgery and perhaps even some of your students. Learning about LASIK surgery is a logical extension to a study of the organs of our sensory system. This tutorial is a link from a more comprehensive page, also from the National Institutes of Health, and has three options for the viewer: presentation with questions, without questions, or text version.

Inventor of the week : Robert Jarvik This concise article is appropriate for students too. It provides a nice segue into a discussion of the pros and cons of technology. Though the artificial heart prolongs life, what can be said regarding the quality of that life? Should technology be used just because it's there? Does Jarvik's artificial heart have value beyond the obvious?

Insulin pumps Some your students or their family members may be currently using or considering use of the insulin pump to control their diabetes. You can help your students gain an understanding of how the pump works in relation to the rest of the digestive system. This article from the American Diabetes Association provides comprehensive information.

Biological diversity animals III This page from a comprehensive online biology text contains an evolutionary history of animal groups with detailed information, illustrations, and photographs on Phyla Echinodermata; Hemichordata; Chordata; Subphylum Vertebrata; Classes Chondrichthyes; Osteichthyes; Amphibia; Reptilia; Aves; and Mammalia, among others! The classes can be compared for their major anatomical differences and discussed in the context of function and ecology. For a narrower focus, compare some representative mammals only.

In other Middle School Portal publications, we have highlighted useful resources relevant to the present publication's goals. The next two resources listed here point you to those pages. They contain lessons and activities for use with students, but most of the resources also contain background information for teachers.

Lessons on cells, tissues, and organs "Living systems" is a broad term. The National Science Education Standards include study into the organization of living systems, which most people equate to cells, tissues, organs, organ systems, and organisms. Resources on this page focus on structures and the related functions, such as the nose and related nerve tissues and the brain. To emphasize that not every living thing’s organization follows this pattern to its end, we included a stand-alone resource on microorganisms. Since the eye is a popular topic of discussion in evolution, we have included an inquiry activity on that organ as well.

Lessons on organ systems and organism behavior Keeping with the traditional idea of organization of living systems, this section focuses on the higher levels of organ systems and organisms. Both animal and plant-related resources are included. Since behavior includes the concept of homeostasis, has evolutionary roots, is related to both genetics and environment, and is adaptive, we have included resources addressing those topics as well.

Body System Lessons and Activities

In addition to the activities found in the last two resources in Background Information for Teachers, we present a few more activities here, touching on many of the human body systems. These resources are meant to complement your existing lessons.

Cells Alive This resource is presented first because organ systems have the cell as their fundamental unit of structure and function. The interactive animation allows for self-study of cell structures. Choose "Cell Models" from the left navigation bar, then click on "animal cell" and roll over an organelle to get a close-up image and written explanation. Remind students this is a representation, a model, of a generalized, fictitious, animal cell. Ask, do you think all golgi bodies are really yellow, and all cell nuclei are really blue? In other lessons, students can look at actual images of cells from particular tissues that may not appear, at first, to resemble the images seen here.

What is a Stem Cell? Meet Stem Cell Guy. This interactive website from the Genetics Science Learning Center explains to students what a stem cell is and how cells differentiate through an animated stem cell. Students can differentiate Stem Cell Guy into a variety of different cell types, showing how each type performs different jobs in their tissue. Stem Cell Guy also illustrates the sources of different types of stem cells and their range of differentiation at What are some different types of Stem Cells? The site also provides teacher lesson plans and resources.

Exploring microscopes An introduction to the light microscope provides step-by-step instructions that facilitate discovery of how the microscope affects an image. A Java-based interactive simulation is also included.

Tissues of Life This web site from the Science Museum of Minnesota offers a fun and interactive way to learn about the structure and function of the body's tissues. While some activities are designed to complement a visit to the museum exhibit, the web site also includes many stand-alone features. For example, with Explore Body Tissues, students can take a look at cross sections of human bodies, browse through a gallery of scar photos (and perhaps add a photo of their own!), explore areas of the human body at 30x actual size, or play a game while learning about the different cells involved in wound healing. Tissues of Life does not include lesson plans, but this engaging site would be a great addition to related classroom activities for a range of grade levels.

Radiographic anatomy of the skeleton This tutorial uses X-ray images to demonstrate the anatomical features of the human skeleton. Divided into eleven modules, the tutorial presents the bones, landmarks, and articulations of the upper extremity (shoulder, elbow, forearm, wrist, and hand), lower extremity (pelvis, knee, ankle, and foot), and spine (cervical and lumbar regions). For each image, visitors can view a labeled version or click on a structure to learn its name.

Bones : does drinking soda affect your health? Although intended as a math exercise, this quick activity is an appropriate extension to a study of the skeletal system. Students not only apply knowledge of bone tissue cells but also use science skills of data analysis and interpretation.

Access Excellence: A Walk Through the Gut To complement a study of the digestive system, and to formatively assess students, try this hands-on cooperative lesson directing students to simulate and analyze the passage of food through the digestive system. Originally designed for special education and special needs students at the high school level, it is appropriate for middle school students as well. The site includes short sections on materials, procedure, group questions, and more.

From the Heart This video segment describes the basics of the circulatory system: how the heart pumps the blood that carries oxygen and nutrients throughout the body. A support essay and questions for discussion are included. Free registration is required.

Lungs : information and breathing facts This self-guided, animated, and interactive tutorial is something students can peruse at their own pace.

Skin This is also a self-guided, interactive tutorial in the style of the lungs feature above.

Comparative Anatomy and Diversity

The National Science Education Standards states, "Although different species might look dissimilar, the unity among organisms becomes apparent from an analysis of internal structures, the similarity of their chemical processes, and the evidence of common ancestry."

Many museums and universities across the country have extensive animal collections (e.g., Smithsonian, Washington, D.C., American Museum of Natural History, New York, The Field Museum, Chicago, and the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, University of California Berkeley). If you are lucky enough to be located near one, consider making arrangements for either a field trip there, or for a museum representative to visit your school, armed with samples of course. There is typically no or a low cost, which might be covered by your principal's fund or a parent-teacher organization fund.

You can let the museum staff members know your objectives and goals so they can tailor their presentation and materials appropriately. Students enjoy the novelty of a guest presenter who has specialized knowledge and resources. This section contains other resources meant to facilitate student acquisition of the notion of simultaneous animal diversity and uniformity.

Tetrapod Limbs This illustration from Evolution by Monroe W. Strickberger shows the remarkable similarities between the bones in the forelimbs of various tetrapods, all of whose limbs serve different functions. Before giving students a copy of the essay on homologies, ask them to speculate on how such different animals can function in their different niches with such similar bone structure. Free registration is required.

Animal diversity web high school sample exercise This page is an example of how you might use the Animal Diversity Web from the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology with your own students. Identify your objectives, then create a worksheet that helps students achieve the objectives. You may have students focus on similarities/differences in a particular body system among specified animal groups. Don't forget the opportunity to touch on the affective domain by allowing students to identify things like their favorite animal and why, the most amazing taxa of animals and why, and questions about animals that occur to them as they peruse this site and complete the assignment.

Technology Related to Body Systems

Heart wearing out? Wish you could see better? Need a new knee or hip? Thanks to technology, all of these problems have solutions. Portions of the resources presented in Background Information for Teachers are relevant to this section. In addition, resources in this section highlight some other technologies related to body systems, aligning with NSES content domains of Personal and Social Perspectives and Science and Technology.

Kids and pumps Chances are you are teaching one or more children with diabetes. This brief page raises awareness of the pump and the pertinent considerations related to children with diabetes. There is also a link to Kids Voices, where children with diabetes have posted messages. The postings are numbered and alphabetical by first name. Most begin by telling their age and when they were diagnosed. For example, Number 495, 12-year-old Michael, has had diabetes for four years and writes of his initial fear and how he manages. He also invites readers to respond.

What is a pacemaker This article describes what a pacemaker is and how it works. New vocabulary is hotlinked to definitions. There is also a link to an animation of how the heart works.

How LASIK works This page from the web site How Stuff Works explains LASIK and mentions three other types of vision-correction surgeries. Go on to the next page to learn the specifics regarding the particular kind of laser used in LASIK. Did you know both laser and LASIK are acronyms? Send your students on a hunt to find out what they stand for.

3D Medical animation of a knee replacement This brief video does a nice job of illustrating most of what is involved in the surgery. Students can identify the anatomical structures shown.

SMARTR: Virtual Learning Experiences for Students

Visit our student site SMARTR to find related virtual learning experiences for your students! The SMARTR learning experiences were designed both for and by middle school aged students. Students from around the country participated in every stage of SMARTR’s development and each of the learning experiences includes multimedia content including videos, simulations, games and virtual activities. Visit the virtual learning experience on The Human Body.


The FunWorks

Visit the FunWorks STEM career website for youth to learn more about a variety of careers in the medical field.

Latest Science News from the New York Times

NYT > Microscopes

News about Microscopes, including commentary and archival articles published in The New York Times.

NYT > Bones

News about Bones, including commentary and archival articles published in The New York Times.

National Science Education Standards

A study of human organ systems aligns with the following domains of the National Science Education Standards.

Life Science Content Standard C

Structure and Function in Living Systems

  • Living systems at all levels of organization demonstrate the complementary nature of structure and function. Important levels of organization for structure and function include cells, organs, tissues, organ systems, whole organisms, and ecosystems (See Unifying Concepts and Processes).
  • All organisms are composed of cells — the fundamental unit of life. Most organisms are single cells; other organisms, including humans, are multicellular.

Specialized cells perform specialized functions in multicellular organisms. Groups of specialized cells cooperate to form a tissue, such as a muscle. Different tissues are in turn grouped together to form larger functional units, called organs. Each type of cell, tissue, and organ has a distinct structure and set of functions that serve the organism as a whole.

  • The human organism has systems for digestion, respiration, reproduction, circulation, excretion, movement, control, and coordination, and for protection from disease. These systems interact with one another.
  • Disease is a breakdown in structures or functions of an organism. Some diseases are the result of intrinsic failures of the system. Others are the result of damage by infection by other organisms.

Diversity and Adaptations of Organisms

  • Millions of species of animals, plants, and microorganisms are alive today. Although different species might look dissimilar, the unity among organisms becomes apparent from an analysis of internal structures, the similarity of their chemical processes, and the evidence of common ancestry.

Science and Technology Content Standard E

Abilities of Technological Design

Identify appropriate problems for technological designs. Students should develop their abilities by identifying a specified need, considering its various aspects, and talking to different potential users or beneficiaries. They should appreciate that for some needs, the cultural backgrounds and beliefs of different groups can affect the criteria for a suitable product. (See Content Standard A)

Design a solution or product. Students should make and compare different proposals in the light of the criteria they have selected. They must consider constraints — such as cost, time, trade-offs, and materials needed — and communicate ideas with drawings and simple models.

Evaluate completed technological designs or products. Students should use criteria relevant to the original purpose or need, consider a variety of factors that might affect acceptability and suitability for intended users or beneficiaries, and develop measures of quality with respect to such criteria and factors; they should also suggest improvements and, for their own products, try proposed modifications.

Understandings About Technological Design

  • Science and technology are reciprocal. Science helps drive technology, as it addresses questions that demand more sophisticated instruments and provides principles for better instrumentation and technique. Technology is essential to science, because it provides instruments and techniques that enable observations of objects and phenomena that are otherwise unobservable due to factors such as quantity, distance, location, size, and speed. Technology also provides tools for investigations, inquiry, and analysis.
  • Perfectly designed solutions do not exist. All technological solutions have trade-offs, such as safety, cost, efficiency, and appearance. Engineers often build in back-up systems to provide safety. Risk is part of living in a highly technological world. Reducing risk often results in new technology.
  • Technological designs have constraints. Some constraints are unavoidable, for example, properties of materials, or effects of weather and friction; other constraints limit choices in the design, for example, environmental protection, human safety, and aesthetics.
  • Technological solutions have intended benefits and unintended consequences. Some consequences can be predicted, others cannot.

Science in Personal and Social Perspectives Content Standard F

Risks and Benefits

  • Individuals can use a systematic approach to thinking critically about risks and benefits. Examples include applying probability estimates to risks and comparing them to estimated personal and social benefits.
  • Important personal and social decisions are made based on perceptions of benefits and risks.

Science and Technology in Society

  • Technology influences society through its products and processes. Technology influences the quality of life and the ways people act and interact. Technological changes are often accompanied by social, political, and economic changes that can be beneficial or detrimental to individuals and to society. Social needs, attitudes, and values influence the direction of technological development.
  • Science and technology have advanced through contributions of many different people, in different cultures, at different times in history. Science and technology have contributed enormously to economic growth and productivity among societies and groups within societies.
  • Scientists and engineers work in many different settings, including colleges and universities, businesses and industries, specific research institutes, and government agencies.
  • Scientists and engineers have ethical codes requiring that human subjects involved with research be fully informed about risks and benefits associated with the research before the individuals choose to participate. This ethic extends to potential risks to communities and property. In short, prior knowledge and consent are required for research involving human subjects or potential damage to property.
  • Science cannot answer all questions and technology cannot solve all human problems or meet all human needs. Students should understand the difference between scientific and other questions. They should appreciate what science and technology can reasonably contribute to society and what they cannot do. For example, new technologies often will decrease some risks and increase others.

Read the entire National Science Education Standards online for free or register to download the free PDF. The content standards are found in Chapter 6.

Citations: Veltman, K. H., (n.d.). Leonardo da Vinci: Studies of the Human Body and Principles of Anatomy. Conclusion. Retrieved January 4, 2008, from da Vinci Studies of the Human Nody and Prinicples of Anatomy.html#7

Author and Copyright

Mary LeFever is a resource specialist for the Middle School Portal 2: Math & Science Pathways project and a doctoral candidate in science education at Ohio State University. She has taught middle school and high school science and is an adjunct instructor of biology and natural sciences at Columbus State Community College.

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Copyright March 2008 - The Ohio State University. Page last updated January 9, 2011. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0424671 and since September 1, 2009 Grant No. 0840824. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.