Nature by Numbers

Duration 1.5h

Why are there no mice in the arctic, what is the surface area of a human and could we capture enough energy by photosynthesis to meet our own body’s energy needs? Not all questions fit neatly into the curriculum, and thinking scientifically often means joining up ideas across disciplines in creative ways. In this workshop, students take an entertaining and illuminating journey through energy, adaptation and evolution, to discover how applying key principles in physics and mathematics can help explain what we observe in biology.





Key Words

Working scientifically. Mathematics. Physics. Biology. Energy. Heat transfer. Adaptation. Evolution. Surface area to volume ratio.

Learning objectives

  • Apply scientific concepts and mathematics to explain real, observed phenomena.
  • Recognise how integrating learning from across disciplines is often the key to answering scientific questions.
  • Understand that the ratio of body mass to surface area is important in determining the rate at which animals lose body heat.
  • That this can be used to understand how animals are adapted to their habitats – and why they are absent from others.
  • Recognise that plants convert light energy into chemical energy that they use as their ‘food’.
  • Consider whether humans could be similarly ‘self-sufficient’ if they were green and photosynthetic like a plant.
  • Use simple mathematical equations to calculate how much energy humans could transfer in this way.
  • Explore the relationship between energy transfer, surface area and adaptation.
  • Understand that the structure of plants is related to their function and that a very large surface area indeed is needed to produce sufficient ‘food’ to keep them alive.


Students will:

  • Work in small teams to complete a set of activities and reveal answers to interesting questions about adaptation, revealing how – in biology – form is related to function.
  • Remove the ‘skins’ from a life-sized tiger, human, dog, rabbit and mouse and measure their surface area on graph-paper flooring.
  • Calculate the heat lost and heat gained for each animal and draw conclusions about the relationship between them.
  • Be supported throughout with carefully structured and paced activities that explore new ways of looking at scientific enquiry.
  • Demonstrate that in very cold places small animals lose heat faster than they can generate it, and so cannot survive there.
  • Consider whether green-skinned humans might be able to be self-sufficient like plants.
  • Calculate how much energy we could produce this way, and how much extra surface area we might need.
  • Dress up in green costumes and add any extra surface area required.
  • Reveal that the surface area needed for us to make our own food would be enormous and that we would end up looking like a tree!

Curriculum Links

Working scientifically

  • Use scientific theories and explanations to develop hypotheses.
  • Make and record observations and measurements.
  • Present observations and data using appropriate methods, including tables and graphs.
  • Apply the cycle of collecting, presenting and analysing data.
  • Apply mathematical concepts and calculate results.
  • Use and derive simple equations and carry out appropriate calculations.
  • Interpret observations and data, including identifying patterns and trends, making inferences and drawing conclusions.
  • Present reasoned explanations including relating data to hypothesis.


  • The adaptations of leaves for photosynthesis.
  • Differences between species.
  • Some species are less well adapted to compete successfully and reproduce, which in turn may lead to extinction.

Potential Hazards

There are no potential hazards associated with this workshop.

Planning your visit

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