At first glance, the difference between living and nonliving things seems pretty clear, but digging deeper, it gets complicated. Scientists love to classify things, so they developed the six properties of life to define what living means.
The Six Properties of Life
- Living things are made up of cells.
- Living things respond to stimuli.
- Living things turn food into energy.
- Living things reproduce.
- Living things grow and develop.
- Living things maintain homeostasis.
You may see other lists of properties of life with slightly different components. There isn’t one official list. People describe the properties of life in ways that make sense to them, so there will be differences.
What is alive?
Learning about what is alive will not be surprising to students. Even without knowing the properties of life, students can tell you that trees and fish are living. However, learning about what is not alive gets interesting.
Right now, the world is still struggling with COVID, a virus. A great way to introduce your unit on the properties of life would be to ask your students if they think viruses are alive. Have them share their reasons for thinking viruses are living or not.
Viruses are not alive because they do not meet enough of the requirements for life. They are not made of cells, they do not grow, they do not turn food into energy, they do not respond to stimuli, and they do not maintain homeostasis.
Introducing the Properties of Life
When teaching any new topic, you will help your students learn more by connecting it to what they already know. Our brains don’t create new neural networks to store new information. Instead, they add new information to existing neural networks. By activating your students’ existing neural networks, you will make it easier for them to add information about the properties of life to them.
An interactive way to introduce the properties of life is to have students complete a sorting activity to show what is living and what is not living. You can print out pictures of animals, plants, rocks, water, clouds, light, etc… Then, either have the students work in small groups to sort the pictures into living and nonliving groups. While this activity may seem too easy for middle school students, the point is to activate their existing neural networks to prime them to learn the new material. Plus, it is a fun activity your students will enjoy, and we all learn more when we are having fun.
After the sorting activity, you will want to introduce the words biotic and abiotic to your students. You can even replace the labels on their table to reflect the new vocabulary.
Next, ask your students to use the tables to describe what makes something alive. This is going to be a difficult task for them, but let them struggle a bit. Students can write sentences or make a list of characteristics to describe how they know something is alive.
Reading Passages and Videos
Now that students’ neural networks are firing, it is time to teach them the six properties of life. You can explain that scientists have tried to do the same thing they did when they described what makes something alive, and they came up with a list of six properties that all living things share.
I recommend having students read about the six properties of life with my digital reading passage set. It goes into detail about everything students need to know, and it includes activities to help them consolidate what they learn.
You can also use videos to teach students about the properties of life. I like using videos to build up my students’ background knowledge because they are more engaging than reading, they can show concepts that are difficult to describe, and every student has equal access to understanding the material. The ideal classroom uses a mix of resources to teach students about scientific concepts. You never know what will click for your students.
Flashcards and Quizzes
Once you have taught your students about the properties of life, they will need to practice to move the information into their long-term memories. The easiest way to move information into the long-term memory is to use flashcards. Flashcards force students to remember information over and over again. This repetition will build strong connections within the neural network, and it will be easier for students to remember the information when they need it.
Another way to help students remember is to give them quizzes. A low-stress quiz will also force students to remember what they learned. I got your back on this. My digital reading passage has flashcards and two quizzes. One quiz is printable, and the other is a Google Forms quiz with immediate feedback.
Connecting the Properties of Life to Other Topics
Our brains only try to remember what they think is interesting or is important. You can show your students’ brains that learning about the properties of life is important by connecting it to other science topics. Introduce ecosystems and show the ways biotic and abiotic factors work together. Teach them about our search for extraterrestrial life and explain what scientists look for when they search space for other life forms. There are so many connections to the properties of life in science!
Are You Teaching Another Science Topic?
I am working on creating more science units so that every science teacher can get exactly what he or she needs for her students. You can also read about how I use brain science to teach other science topics on my blog. Click the pictures below to learn more.