Temple Grandin

What You Need


  • Classroom copies of the book, Temple Grandin: How the Girl Who Loved Cows Embraced Autism and Changed the World,  by Sy Montgomery.
  • 8.5 x 11 inch sheets of white paper
  • Colored pencils
  • Markers
  • Collage materials such as old magazines, fabric, glue sticks, and scissors
  • Grocery bags, 1 per student
Temple Grandin


To learn how closely observing animals, processes, and events can lead scientists to act ethically based on identifying patterns, measuring evidence, and gathering data.


This lesson is based on the book Temple Grandin: How the Girl Who Loved Cows Embraced Autism and Changed the World, by Sy Montgomery. The book is one of the winners of the 2013 SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books. SB&F, Science Books & Films, is a project of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The class will read it as a group, taking turns reading. Or the class could be helped by guest readers, if needed, from upper-school buddies, visiting parents, or you. They will then revisit the story individually or in small groups through access to multiple copies of the book, which will help them expand their notes in the student sheet, and integrate those into written essays.

The book traces the life of Temple Grandin, the famous female animal behavior scientist who always knew she was "different": she had autism. The book probes autism, animal welfare, and adolescent identity issues perhaps more than it robustly interrogates science—and that's a strength, because in the person of Temple Grandin, the book highlights three human traits students will find engaging that help define the nature of science: incredible powers of observation and visual perception; indefatigable commitment to problem solving based on evidence; and a drive to organize information and draw conclusions to implement change. In Temple's case, that organizational scheme is visual: She thinks in pictures. The book pays special attention to the hot-button adolescent issue of  "being different vs. fitting in."

Over 13 chapters supported by excellent illustrations, it paints a vivid picture of the struggles Temple Grandin endured growing up with autism, and how ultimately, she used the strengths of her disability to become a successful and happy college professor in Colorado. Her designs for slaughterhouses have been adopted by major meat producers. Through the steady belief in her abilities from her mother, several teachers, many friends, and every cow she ever met—that's her favorite animal—Temple excelled as a scientist, professor, and friend of animals to make the production of meat a more humane business. Her story is a case study illustrating how the nature of science can make important contributions to ethical decisions by identifying the likely consequences of particular actions, such as relieving the suffering of animals to promote their ethical treatment by changing the slaughterhouse design based on scientific evidence of animals' perceptual abilities, behavior traits, and environment conditions known to calm them. But by itself, science cannot be used to establish that an action is moral or immoral. It must be applied within a context, such as Temple's experience seeing animals suffer at a slaughterhouse.

In the book, Temple says one of the ways she endured bullying and teasing was through the pleasure and confidence she got from working with her hands—creating art work, designing systems, doing carpentry, or tending animals. This lesson emphasizes the value of handwork as a conduit for learning. Students will grasp Temple Grandin's key traits of close observation of details, designing things, and creating with her hands in class as they listen to the book being read aloud, take notes, and design and draw on the cowboy-shirt templates. 

There may be many misperceptions to address before launching the lesson, including:

  1. The nature of science. Students this age may erroneously view science as answer-oriented (vs. question oriented); or as a set of  "tricks"  for getting correct answers quickly, simliar to mnemonic devices in spelling; or as a body of facts to be memorized. To correct these misperceptions, emphasize that science is a method of thought that is always growing as new evidence demands old ideas be changed. The scientific method of inquiry and interpretation is used to understand phenomena by gathering evidence through observation and experiment, evaluating the results, and drawing conclusions that can be tested by many, many people over and over.
  2. The nature of autism. This can be a controversial subject, with many people erroneously linking the appearance of autism to the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccination due to incorrect reports in the 1990s suggesting this. In 2010, the original scientific report that first linked the MMR vaccine to autism in 1998 was retracted from the scientific literature because its claims were found to be fraudulent. The investigator is prevented from practicing medicine in Great Britain, his native country.
  3. This lesson can easily get sidetracked by the ethics of eating meat vs. vegetariansim, as this topic is very developmentally appealing. Be prepared for it and go there if it engages your class in this lesson topic on the nature of science, learning about autism, and about Temple Grandin as a successful female scientist who has autism.
Ideas in this lesson are also related to concepts found in the Common Core State Standards:
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.6-8.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of science and technical texts.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.6-8.2 Determine the central ideas or conclusions of a text; provide an accurate summary of the text distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.6-8.4 Determine the meaning of symbols, key terms, and other domain-specific words and phrases as they are used in a specific scientific or technical context relevant togrades 6–8 texts and topics.
Read More

Planning Ahead

To orient yourself to Temple Grandin and her work, consult Temple Grandin. Pay special attention to the bold-faced questions to find quick, direct summaries on her thoughts about a given topic. This gives you the gist of her clear, direct style of thinking and speaking.

To get a sense of her trademark cowboy shirts, see the short video interview Temple Grandin and Her Cowboy Shirts.

There are five handouts: 1. A student sheet to help guide students through the videos; 2. A student sheet for notetaking and essay writing; 3. A teacher sheet to guide chapter discussions; 4. A teacher sheet to help evaluate essays; 5. A student sheet of a cowboy shirt template to print and hand out for designing a shirt and taking notes on the back.


To introduce the class to both Temple Grandin's personal presence, mannerisms and mindset, have them use their Meet Temple Grandin student esheet to guide their viewing of the short video, Temple Grandin and Her Cowboy Shirts.

Students should follow that video with a more in depth look at Temple's professional style and traits—and to see her science in action—by watching  the first 5 minutes, 15 seconds (5:15) of a 10-minute video, produced by the Glass Walls Project of the American Meat Institute called Video Tour of Beef Plant Featuring Temple Grandin. It looks at the humane killing of cattle for meat. Have students use the esheet to guide their viewing.

Sensitivity Alert: Note that the entire 10-minute video does show the animal being killed (no blood or squeals, but life is lost) and then processed humanely, in a way Temple designed, approves of, and is proud of. Decide if this is right for the personal history of your students (recent death in the family?), emotional maturity level in general, and the learning mood you are trying to create in the classroom.

Last, students should watch Sy Montgomery Talks About Temple Grandin. It is a 5-minute interview with the book's author, Sy Montgomery, to lean what the author considers to be the important messages of the book. 

Once students have watched these videos, hold a class discussion to go over these questions:

  • Talking about her cowboy shirts with the interviewer, Temple Grandin said she wasn't going to wear a gown to the Emmy's or Golden Globe awards she won for her work with animals. Why not? What was her answer, and what did she mean by it?
    (TG said: "No, I'm just going to go as me." She also mentioned a farmer's tan. There are a lot of answers as to what it means to be "me" for TG, but they center on the way she sees herself as having only one identity: a working animal-behavior professional, not a fashion star. Can a person have more than one role/identity in life? Say more.)
  • Name some mannerisms you see in the way Temple Grandin talks to people.
    (Hint, does she make eye contact for long times, or does she glance away often? Why, do you suppose? What about her speech? How would you describe it? Slow/fast? Chatty/informative? Does she use her voice with lots of expression, almost musically? Or is there very little variation in tone?)
  • In the meat-packing plant video, where she is wearing a hard hat, could you see any of these same traits as you did in the cowboy shirt video?
    (Yes, she seems completely unconcerned with her appearance, she is using her hands sort of wildly, and seems unware they might be distracting. She is clearly happy to tell you what she knows, and speaks rapidly. But her eye contact is better here. She looks at the camera a lot, and seems comfortable. Question: For an autistic person, might it be easier to look at a camera than a person?)
  • As the animals walked through the meat-packing facility, what did you notice was different about some of the structures in the video, such as the walls?
    (They were labeled to show her design innovations. Her systems move cattle in Small Groups to avoid panic and keep them walking forward with High Solid Walls so they aren't startled or distracted by other images. TG is a visual learner, so she presents her material visually, too. The wall labels make the points that TG knows from her animal behavior research on how cattle perceive their environment. The labels name the sensory elements that are important to design into a meat-packing plant to keep animals calm, and enable them to experience a humane death.)
  • Why is it important to keep animals calm if you are going to kill them anyway?
    (Research shows the animals suffer an instant, painless death from a stun to the brain at modern meat-packing plants like the one in this video. Keeping them calm prevents suffering. In the book, listen and look for TG's thoughts on why it matters to be kind to animals that, some people would argue, you deal the unkindest deed—death—to anyway. She does not see a moral conflict here. In fact, she sees her work as strongly moral in helping make a kinder, gentler death.)
  • Recalling the interview with Sy Montgomery, explain how a book about a pink dolphin can be like a book about Temple Grandin.
    (Both are about about different minds—minds that think differently from the majority of people in power in society.)
  • What was the first telephone experience between the author, Sy Montgomery, and Temple Grandin that indicated to Sy that they would get along?
    (Temple heard the frog and toad call CD playing in the background and liked it.)
  • Use three words to describe what it was like to be in the squeeze machine for Sy Montgomery.
    (Sy described it as like a waffle maker, she thought it was cool to be in it, and she felt safe.)
  • What does Sy Montgomery consider one of the big messages of the book? 
    ("Those with autism are different, but not less. And we need those differences to understand this world.")

Now engage students in a class exercise. Do a Google Image search for Temple Grandin and Her Cowboy Shirts. This search should bring up results of many pictures of Temple Grandin wearing many of her cowboy shirts. (Please be aware that some other images may also be included in the search results, such as Claire Danes.) Display this page on the screen so students can "see" as Temple might, and visually introduce students to two concepts: 

  1. Who Temple Grandin is. Her trademark style of dress shows she identifies with the American West and its cowboy culture, which is strongly linked to working with animals, horses and cattle in particular.
  2. How Temple Grandin sees. To practice "deep seeing" and enhanced sensory abilities many people with autism have, and animals have, students should look at all the shirts closely. They should try to identify key patterns and "elements" of cowboy shirt design. Then take it to the next scientific step and ask students to quantify, or count, the numbers of key "traits" of design they see, such as tie color, pocket curves, pocket flaps, yoke with animal motif, yoke with flower motif, yoke with geometrical motif, and contrasting colors of collar vs. yoke, contrasting colors of pocket outline vs. shirt body.

Say to students:

Counting small details to identify or measure is an investigative tool biologists often use. In the book, Temple suggests counting moos and bellowing sounds the cattle make as a measure of their discomfort: Quiet cattle are happy cattle. In the the study of fish—called ichthyology—scientists sometimes count scales of a particular species to identify it, a method called meristics. Meristics can be applied to any countable trait. So in our case, let's do a quick meristic analysis of Temple Grandin's cowboy shirt "traits" of design. Keep a tally or make a graph if you like, but let's say them out loud as we look—really look and observe deeply—at this cowboy shirt collage to introduce ourselves to Temple and her world; to her way of seeing and to categorizing, organizing, and analyzing what she sees to find patterns. Identifying observed patterns is an essential part of the nature of science.

Read More


The class will experience this book two ways: First, as a read-aloud, listening and discussing as a group. Second, through individual research time with the book and computer access to research materials so they can complete the Temple Grandin student sheet essays that require a synthetic integration of the big ideas in the book. Emphasize the deliberate use of two methods of accessing information: ears as a group vs. eyes individually. Ask them to reflect on a personal learning style: Do they like listening and talking as a group better or prefer working alone, writing? How might Temple Grandin respond?

There are five steps to this lesson: I. Prep; II. Read Aloud; III. Discuss; IV. Style Show and Personal Reflection; and V. Essay Writing.

Step I: Prep

1. Print out the Temple Grandin student sheet and hand one to each student. Explain this is for notes during discussion, which they will reference when assigned essays as material to expand and interconnect.

2.Print out the Temple Grandin Cowboy Shirt template and hand one to each student. On the front, they will use their design minds to make their own cowboy shirt design, with markers or collage materials. On the back, they will listen for one or two key ideas—Temple Truths—and write them down. For example, the prologue could be a Temple Truth. Though it is attributed to Plato, if it rings true to a student, it is a Temple Truth: "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle."

Step II. Read Aloud

1. Begin the read aloud, one to two chapters/day in which students actively listen to the story while they also design with markers or collage their own cowboy shirt on the front of the template you handed out, jotting notes and truths on the back. The reader role may be filled by the teacher, upper-school buddies, visiting parents or grandparents, or students in the class.

2. Project the Google page with the Temple Grandin and Her Cowboy Shirts results for all to see as you read so students may be inspired by it, drawn more deeply into it as they come to understand Temple Grandin.

Step III. Discussion

1. At the end of each chapter, use the Temple Grandin teacher sheet to access discussion questions for each chapter. Students have three roles in the discussion: active participant; taking notes on the discussion that will help them build an inventory of ideas to use when they are assigned integrative essays to write; and thinking about design and repeating patterns on their cowboy shirts.

Step IV. Style Show and Personal Reflection

At the end of the discussion, invite students up to talk about design and how they approached their cowboy shirt. Then allow individual reading or small group work so students have time to elaborate on their notes on the student sheet by referencing the book or researching on the computer.

Step V. Essay Writing

Here students bring ideas together by using their notes to integrate themes from their reading, reflection, and discussion. You may access the Temple Grandin Answer Key for ideas about the essays.

(OPTIONAL: Sharing and Peer Teaching)

At the end of the book in one to two weeks, the class can make a sampler called "The Shirts and Sayings of Temple Grandin," composed of their cowboy shirt templates showing a design on one side and a Temple Truth saying on the back. They can hang them clotheline-style in the cafeteria to have a public display or spark schoolwide discussion. 

To take it a step further, they can hold a 3D style show of cowboy shirt design, and invite other grades to view it so the students have another opportunity for peer teaching. A 3D style show entails transferring one favorite design from the cowboy shirt template to a paper grocery bag that has been cut to fit a student as if it were a vest: snipped vertically up one side, a hole for the head cut in the bottom, and two arm holes cut in the side. Now it's a sleeveless cowboy shirt "base." Students can transfer their sampler designs with markers or collage to this large version. When they wear it, it's 3D. And when other kids watch them, it's a style—and idea—show. 


To test for understanding of how the big ideas of autism, visual thinking, and animal welfare are linked to the nature of science, form a summarizing circle called here the Wheel of Knowledge. Divide the class in half. One group forms a circle with their backs to the center of the circle, facing outward. The second group forms a circle facing their friends' fronts, wiith their backs facing away from the center. You should stand in the center and give prompts (see the 10 prompts below). Each student pair must discuss responses to the prompts among themselves for one minute (or for a length you decide). After each discussion, the wheel turns "one student" to the right on both wheels (so they move in opposite direcitons) and new partners and pairings occur. You listen for content and, at the end of a 10-minute review cycle, ask students to sit down in the circle while you review the strong points you heard in disucssions and correct misunderstandings and errors. To strengthen understanding, you may assign individual or paired reading/reviews from the book copies, and then repeat the Wheel of Knowledge.


  1. Describe scenes from Temple Grandin's first five years of childhood, answering questions like: What did her parents think of her? How did she act? How old was she when she learned to talk? What games did she play?
  2. What does it mean to "think visually"? Or to think in pictures? Give an example from your own life. For example, Temple Grandin sees a specific church if people mention that word. Do you? What does it look like? How does that affect the way you understand and learn?
  3. Who are Temple's best friends? How would she describe friendship?
  4. What do you think suits her to science so well?
  5. What is autism? How is it caused? Name two traits of autistic people, and discuss how varied the condition may be. In what ways does TG think differently?
  6. In what way are autistic people disabled? In what way are they super-abled?
  7. What were Temple's experiences in school like? Why did she switch schools? If you were to design a school for Temple, with the same care she designed a system for animals, what would it be like?
  8. Name some of the things TG built or designed. Why do you think she chose those projects? Why do they comfort her?
  9. How did TG's fascination with the squeeze machine help her succeed in college? What did it lead her to study, and what kind of friendships did it help her make?
  10. What kinds of evidence convinced big meat-packing companies that her designs were good for animals and good for business? What is scientific about TG's work with animals?


Extend the learning about the nature of science and science as a profession by guiding students through the Science NetLinks lesson: Jean Craighead George: Unsentimental Naturalist.

Next, focus on these quesitons to compare and contrast Jean Craighead George's life in science with that of Temple Grandin's. Besides the book, a good summary site for TG is Temple Grandin on her struggles and 'yak yaks' from NBC News.

  • When and where was she born?
  • How old is she now?
  • How did her family fuel her interest in science and the natural world?
  • What did she study in college?
  • What subjects was she good at in school that help her in her work now? Give examples. 
  • Name two personality traits of each woman that suits them to the work they do.
  • What did Temple Grandin struggle with? What challenges did Jean Craighead George face?
  • Do you consider either woman disabled? Why or why not?

There are many paths to original, innovative ideas. Temple Grandin's condition of autism has helped her focus her highly visual imagination to improve the lives of food animals. The author, Sy Montgomery, also has a "different mind"—if you consider living with a 750-pound hog for a pet "different."

Have your students work with partners to role play the characters of researcher and author—both with "different minds"—and then perform a one-minute skit, pretending they are on a Web cast of a researcher and author who have written a highly unusual book together. Students should develop: 1. a topic, 2. a method of research, 3. a way to convey clearly with their body their different mind and abilities, 4. a way to describe with words their unusual abilities, skills, location, or conditions it takes to do their research, and  5. a report on the results of their research/work. If time permits, students may change roles as author and researcher, using all that they have learned about Temple Grandin and Sy Montgomery as the starting point from which to create highly original characters with different minds.

Funder Info
Science NetLinks is proud to have Subaru as a funder of this project.

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Lesson Details

Grades Themes Type Project 2061 Benchmarks National Science Standards