Lesson Plan

Students as Scientists: Salamander Research Preparation (North Carolina Middle School)

Black-bellied salamander sitting on a leaf
Black-bellied salamanders are one of 30 species of salamanders found in the park.

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Grade Level:
Sixth Grade-Eighth Grade
Biology: Animals, Conservation, Earth Science, Ecology, Environment
60 minutes
Group Size:
Up to 60
National/State Standards:
North Carolina Essential Standards  Grade 8 Science Clarifying objectives 8.L.1.1, 8.L.3.1, 8.L.3.2, 8.L.3.3, 8.L.4.1, 8.L.4.2


The Great Smoky Mountains are known as the “Salamander Capital of the World!” Salamanders are an especially abundant and diverse group in the park. Researchers use salamanders as a bio-indicator to help assess the health of our forests threatened by air pollution and impacts from a changing climate. This unit is broken into three parts. This unit involves a trip to the park and is accompanied by a preparation activity and a wrap-up activity.  This is the field preparation activity of the unit. 


1) use the scientific method while studying biodiversity
2) describe the steps in scientific inquiry
3) learn the identifying characteristics between different species of salamanders
4) understand the biodiversity of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
5) recognize the threats to aquatic and terrestrial salamanders


When students visit the Smokies on their field trip one group will be collecting data as part of a Salamander study. This lesson will introduce the scientific method and use the identifying anatomical characteristics to key different species of salamanders.

To be a scientist you don't necessarily have to have an advanced degree. All you need to have is the ability to observe the world around you and to ask good questions. Why do things happen? How do they happen? Scientists use a systematic method to find answers to their questions. The approach is known as the scientific method or scientific inquiry. The key components to this method are: making careful observations using your senses (sometimes that includes noticing what is not there as well as what is), asking a question that is clear and specific, gathering information from literature to develop a procedure for study and to discover what is already known about your question, forming a hypothesis (possible answers to the question), testing the hypothesis (surveys, experiments and field observations are techniques), interpreting the results (make sense of your data by creating graphs or charts), drawing conclusions (was the hypothesis correct, what can you learn from your results, what factors were not in your control...), and sharing your results.

Teachers coming on the accompanying field trip should download our complete field trip packet that includes this Salamander Research Preparation pre-site lesson, information and directions about the field trip and the Salamander Research Wrap-up post-site lesson.

Download the full Salamander Research Field Trip packet (includes Preparation and Wrap-up lessons).
Or download it in sections: Salamander Research Preparation lesson and Salamander Research Wrap-up lesson



Inventory and Monitoring worksheet
Salamander Information worksheets



Students can create a concept map for the subject of "salamanders" before starting the series of lessons. They can create a second concept map for comparison after the lessons. Did students show any gains in their organization of their knowledge; the use of concepts, content and terminology and connections; and knowledge shown between the relationships of concepts. Please see our concept map scoring rubric in the "Students as Scientists: Salamander Research" lesson 1 PDF for grading guidance.

Teachers can test students on their knowledge of the vocabulary.


Park Connections

Salamanders are an especially abundant and diverse group of animals within Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Most of the salamanders in the Smokies breathe through their skin which makes them sensitive to changes in the environment from threats like acid deposition. Since salamanders are cold-blooded, they may also be impacted by rapidly changing weather conditions in the park, especially in the winter and early spring. This lesson plan connects the student to these salamanders and readies them for their upcoming field trip to the park.


Lead a brainstorming discussion with your students. What are some questions that students have about salamanders in the Smokies? Would any of these questions make good research questions? Bring these questions with you on your field trip and ask the Park Ranger.

Additional Resources

View a video about Hellbenders, the largest salamander in the Smokies https://www.nps.gov/grsm/naturescience/amphibians.htm

"Reptiles and Amphibians of the Smokies" available at http://shop.smokiesinformation.org/category.cfm/gsma/books



All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory: also called the ATBI.  A research project in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to inventory every life form in the park.  It is estimated that we currently know only 18,000 of an estimated 100,000 species.

Baseline Information: information about how things are now, at this point in time, so we will know if there is a change the next time we look at it.

Biodiversity: the variety, distribution and abundance of life forms and ecological processes in an ecosystem; includes the ways in which different life forms interact.

Biological Inventory: a technique used by scientists to study the various life forms in a given area.  In the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, inventories are done in study plots.

Biological Monitoring: a technique used by scientists to check the condition of a particular species or ecosystem over time.

Canopy: the top layer of the forest, the treetops.

Density: the number of individuals of a given species within a certain area.

Dichotomous Key: an identification method that narrows down a species in question using a series of pairs of choices.

Ecosystem: a system formed by the interaction of groups of organisms with each other and their environment.

Hypothesis: a proposition based on assumptions that can be evaluated scientifically.

Vertebrate: an animal that has a backbone.

Taxonomy: the classification of plants and animals according to their natural relationships.