July 5th, 2010
Being Human
Lesson Overview

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Grade Levels: 5-8

Time Allotment: Two 45-minute class periods

Overview: In this lesson, students view and discuss video segments from the PBS program The Human Spark, as they learn about what distinguishes human beings from other species. In the Introductory Activity, students list similarities and differences between human beings and other species.  In Learning Activity 1, students explore how human thought differs from that of chimpanzees and other species. In Learning Activity 2, students explore a variety of traits/abilities (including language & symbols, social life and the ability to walk upright) and learn how they have evolved in humans over millions of years and how these traits/abilities distinguish humans from other animals. In the Culminating Activity, students compose essays about what makes humans unique.

Subject Matter: Science; Psychology

Learning Objectives:

Students will be able to:

  • Compare and contrast human traits/abilities with those of other species.
  • Describe how human thinking differs from that of other species.
  • Explain one specific human trait/ability and describe how it has evolved over time.
  • Discuss at least four ways in which humans differ from other species.


National Science Education Standards

Grades 5-8:
Content Standard C: Life Science
As a result of their activities in grades 5-8, all students should develop understanding of:

  • Regulation and Behavior
    • All organisms must be able to obtain and use resources, grow, reproduce, and maintain stable internal conditions while living in a constantly changing external environment.
    • Regulation of an organism’s internal environment involves sensing the internal environment and changing physiological activities to keep conditions within the range required to survive.
    • Behavior is one kind of response an organism can make to an internal or environmental stimulus. A behavioral response requires coordination and communication at many levels, including cells, organ systems, and whole organisms. Behavioral response is a set of actions determined in part by heredity and in part from experience.
    • An organism’s behavior evolves through adaptation to its environment. How a species moves, obtains food, reproduces, and responds to danger are based in the species’ evolutionary history.
  • 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.
    • Biological evolution accounts for the diversity of species developed through gradual processes over many generations. Species acquire many of their unique characteristics through biological adaptation, which involves the selection of naturally occurring variations in populations. Biological adaptations include changes in structures, behaviors, or physiology that enhance survival and reproductive success in a particular environment.
    • Extinction of a species occurs when the environment changes and the adaptive characteristics of a species are insufficient to allow its survival. Fossils indicate that many organisms that lived long ago are extinct. Extinction of species is common; most of the species that have lived on the earth no longer exist.

National Standards for Psychology Curricula

Standard Area IVC: Thinking and Language

  • CONTENT STANDARD IVC-1: Basic elements comprising thought
    Students are able to (performance standards):

    • IVC-1.1 Define thinking as a mental process involved in the manipulation and understanding of information. Students may indicate this by (performance indicators): a. Identifying mental images and verbal symbols as elements that comprise thinking.
  • CONTENT STANDARD IVC-4: Theories and developmental stages of language acquisition
    Students are able to (performance standards):

    • IVC-4.3 Speculate on whether animals acquire and use language. Students may indicate this by (performance indicators): b.  Relating conclusions drawn from early attempts to teach language to primates; c.  Discussing contemporary views on whether animals can acquire language.

Media Resources

The Human Spark, selected segments

  • Beyond the Present
    A look at humans’ unique ability to reflect upon events that have happened in the past and think about things that could possibly happen in the future.

An overview of how insight and imagination distinguish humans from others.

Additional segments which students can use in their research for Learning Activity 2:

A brief look at the cooperative and social nature of humans.

A look at the difference between human language and other species’ communication systems.

  • The Art Spark
    An exploration of early cave art and what it tells us about our ancestors.


What does it mean to be human?

This Smithsonian Institution website explores what it means to be human and provides a variety of information, photographs and web interactives. The site features a “human characteristics” section, which can be used in Learning Activity 2. This section focuses on human characteristics which have evolved over the past 6 million years: http://humanorigins.si.edu/human-characteristics.


For the class:

  • Computers with internet access
  • Computer, projection screen and speakers (for class viewing of online/downloaded video segments)

Before the Lesson

Prior to teaching this lesson, you will need to:

Preview all of the video segments and websites used in the lesson.

Download the video clips used in the lesson to your classroom computer(s) or prepare to watch them using your classroom’s Internet connection.

Bookmark all websites which you plan to use in the lesson on each computer in your classroom. Using a social bookmarking tool such as delicious or diigo (or an online bookmarking utility such as portaportal) will allow you to save the links in one location.

Proceed to Lesson Activities.

Inside This Lesson

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