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Designs in Nature: Investigate the Branching Structure of Trees


Grade Range
Group Size
Active Time
1 hour 40 minutes
Total Time
1 hour 40 minutes
Area of Science
Plant Biology
Key Concepts
Structure and function in nature, branching, tree
Svenja Lohner, PhD, Science Buddies
 Three examples of branching structures in nature. The left picture shows a tree without leaves. The middle picture shows a stem of parsley. The right picture shows a leaf with prominent veins.


Nature is full of objects with many different shapes. Some of these shapes display obvious regularities or distinct patterns, such as stripes, waves, symmetry, or spirals. Each of these natural patterns has evolved over a very long time and serves a specific function that usually helps a plant, animal, or other organism to survive. In this lesson plan, students explore the branching pattern of trees, plants, and leaves. They will make drawings and a leaf rubbing to compare different branching patterns and do an experiment to investigate why this structure could be useful for a tree or other organisms.

Learning Objectives

NGSS Alignment

This lesson helps students prepare for these Next Generation Science Standards Performance Expectations:
This lesson focuses on these aspects of NGSS Three Dimensional Learning:

Science & Engineering Practices Disciplinary Core Ideas Crosscutting Concepts
Science & Engineering Practices Developing and Using Models. Develop a simple model based on evidence to represent a proposed object or tool.

Analyzing and Interpreting Data. Use and share pictures, drawings, and/or writings of observations.

Use observations (firsthand or from media) to describe patterns and/or relationships in the natural and designed world(s) in order to answer scientific questions and solve problems.
Disciplinary Core Ideas LS2.A: Interdependent Relationships in Ecosystems. Plants depend on water and light to grow.
Crosscutting Concepts Structure and Function. The shape and stability of structures of natural and designed objects are related to their function(s).

Patterns. Patterns in the natural and human designed world can be observed, used to describe phenomena, and used as evidence.


Materials needed for the the 'Design in Nature: Investigate the Branching Structure of Trees' lesson plan.

Materials for educator:

Materials for each group of 2 students:

Background Information for Teachers

This section contains a quick review for teachers of the science and concepts covered in this lesson.

Nature creates fascinating shapes and patterns. Spirals, stripes, dots, symmetry, waves; these are all forms and regularities that we can observe in nature (Figure 1). Animals and plants have evolved to have these forms and patterns as they serve a special function that usually increases their chances of survival. Stripe or dot patterns, for example, can help camouflage animals or plants so they are not easily spotted by predators.

 Various pictures that illustrate different patterns in nature: a spiderweb, a ladybug, a leaf, a Romanesco, an ammonit, a sea star, a snake, and a zebra.
Figure 1. Shapes and patterns that can be found in nature include symmetry, spirals, fractals, dots, stripes, meandering, waves, and many more.

One very interesting pattern is the branching pattern that can be found in several living organisms in nature. The branching structure of trees, for example, include its trunk, branches, twigs, and leaves. The fascinating part about this branching pattern is that it repeats itself at different scales. The trunk of a tree splits into branches, each of these branches then splits into new branches, and each of these new branches splits again into newer branches, etc. At each split, you could cut off a branch, hold it up, and see a smaller version of the original tree. Similar branching patterns can be observed in a tree's leaves and roots, as shown in Figure 2.

 Three examples of branching structures within a tree. The left picture shows the branches of a tree without leaves. The middle picture shows a leaf with prominent veins. The right picture shows the branching root structure of a tree above ground.
Figure 2. Trees show characteristic branching patterns in their branches, leaves, and roots.

Why have all of these different patterns evolved in nature? The branching structure in trees is crucial for their survival. To be able to grow, trees need resources such as water, carbon dioxide (CO2)— the gas we breathe out—and sunlight. The leaves of a tree are doing photosynthesis, which is a process that converts light, CO2, and water into energy used to fuel all its growth. In the search for sunlight and water, a tree stretches out over a larger surface, both above ground and underground. This is why it creates branches that grow outward from its trunk, to allow the tree to access more resources, which increases its chances of survival. Branching is a common strategy in nature to capture more resources. It can also be found in the leaves of a tree. The veins that run through the leaf and create its branching pattern provide structural support for the leaf and transport water, minerals, and energy through the leaf and the rest of the plant. This means a branching structure is not only advantageous for accessing resources, but also for distributing resources to many different places. The roots of a tree, on the other hand, have to absorb water and nutrients from the soil, which the tree needs to grow. Again, branching of the roots allows the tree to spread out in different directions and access more water and nutrients from its surroundings.

Branching as a way to obtain more resources from the environment is not limited to trees. You can observe this phenomenon in other plants, fungi, animals, and even within in our body (Figure 3).

 Three examples of branching structures in the human body. The left images shows a schematic diagram of a human body with veins and arteries branching out into the legs, arms, and head. The upper right image shows a network of nerve cells. The lower image on the right shows a close up of branching blood vessels.
Figure 3. Branching also occurs in the vascular system and nervous system within a human body.

Many designs that can be found in nature can also be useful in the human world. Biomimetics is a specific discipline in which engineers, researchers, and other scientists develop designs and technologies inspired by nature to solve complex human problems. The branching structures of trees or leaves, for example, has been copied from nature to build infrastructure networks, such as highways, pipelines, or support arches in architecture.

In this lesson plan, students will explore the branching structures in a tree, a plant, and within a leaf. They will make a drawing and leaf rubbing of the different branching patterns and investigate how branching helps the tree to solve its problem of accessing enough resources to survive.

Prep Work (10 minutes)

Engage (20 minutes)

Explore (60 minutes)

Reflect (20 minutes)

Make Career Connections

Lesson Plan Variations

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