Authors: Jennifer Hernandez and Matt Fujita

Overview: In this lesson, students identify insect (and plant) specimens using the online resource BioKeys. They record the data that they collect in their notebooks.

Lesson Concepts:

  • Proper identification is important in quantifying biodiversity.

  • Identification uses characteristics and features that are shared and unique among groups.

  • Skill: Students learn to use keys in a graphical and an intuitive manner to identify specimens.

  • Skill: Students gain computer experience. Importantly, students learn about this resource, freely available to them, for future use.

Grade Span: 7–12


  • 10-12 computers with Internet connections and access to BioKeys (

  • 20 insect specimens, labeled 1-20: they do not all have to be unique. However, you may want to organize them so that when students are finished identifying specimens, they can choose another, different specimen that is not too similar to the one they have done previously.

  • notebook paper, or a handout that guides them to record appropriate data

  • pencil for recording their data

  • styrofoam pieces for students to stick insect specimens into while they are looking at them

  • projector hooked up to a computer for a demo (optional, but recommended)

Advance Preparation: Get the specimens ready. It is best to mix the specimens so that students pick a variety of specimens to identify.

Time: One class period (40-50 minutes)

Grouping: Students work in groups of 3-4

Teacher Background:
The teacher should be familiar with the BioKeys website. As of February 24, 2007, the BioKeys website is well developed for insects and woody plants. However, as the website develops further, the teacher can extend the lesson to include other taxonomic groups (i.e., vertebrates). You will need to explain what a "key" is in terms of identifying specimens.


  1. Get the students into their groups. If the computers are in the classroom, do not let the students get into their groups until after the demo. Pass out handouts. (5 minutes)
  2. Introduce BioKeys by demonstrating how you would identify an insect specimen using specimen #1. Do this with the whole class. Once identified, fill out the necessary information on the notebook paper or handout (all students should do this). (5 minutes)
  3. Review proper handling of specimens (pick up the specimen by the pin with two fingers an place it in a styrofoam block, then handle it only by picking up the block). Give each group of students a specimen. Ten or so specimens should be left over. (5 minutes)
  4. Have students start identifying their specimens using BioKeys. Make sure they record the data. Once they have finished identifying their specimens, they may return the specimen for another. They should be able to identify at least 4 specimens. (15 minutes).
  5. Collect the specimens and the handouts/notes. (5 minutes)
  6. Discussion: Ask the students to think about why it is important to correctly identify a specimen? To breakdown the question, ask students which information is more valuable, that a habitat has ten different kinds of bugs, or that there are 3 kinds of beetles, 2 kinds of bees, 3 kinds of spiders, and 2 kinds of butterflies? To extend the discussion, students can discuss the ecological role of different organisms or what types of organisms they found easiest to identify. (5 minutes)

Alternatives: For more advanced classes, or for challenges, provide some woody plants, especially different kinds of conifers. These may be a little more difficult to key out. Once BioKeys becomes better developed, you can include other taxonomic groups.