From Cells to Biosphere: Anchoring Biological Terms (Day 1 of 2)

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Students will be able to define and connect the levels of organization in biological systems from cells to the biosphere

Big Idea

Tap into your students' creative power and personal interests in science to create visual examples of basic biology vocabulary from cells to the biosphere!

Notes for the Teacher

This lesson is something I created and tried out for the first time this year.  What I found is that not only was it successful in that students were able to clearly and effectively communicate their understanding in a variety of formats using our science terminology in a meaningful way, but that the project format also gave me the opportunity to observe the way in which individual students approached their learning tasks. Please check out my short video below to give you a snapshot of my rationale for this lesson and you can hear more about student strategies in the lesson reflection video in the last section!

The Classroom Flow: Introducing the Project

10 minutes

1.  Pass out the Levels of Organization document to each student.  

2.   Ask students to put a star by the ORGANISM level.  Tell students that their first goal is to choose an organism they would like to learn more about.

3.  Write on the board a brief outline of student tasks for this project:

  • choose an organism
  • look up the definitions of each level of organization
  • find out what those levels look like for their particular organism
  • create a visual representation of the levels of organization for their organism


3.  Show an example visual representation to explain how each level of organization should relate to whatever organism they choose.  

  • Note:  This visual is one that I created for my chosen organism, the giant sequoia.  Students found my sample to be extremely helpful as they attempted to make meaning of the words and how they connected to one another and to their specific organism.  They would often come up to look at it as they were connecting the vocabulary they were reading about and a concrete visual of the words, specifically when it came to the difference between an ecosystem, community, and population.  Because I happened to pick something local, the ways I described those words in reference to my organism prompted other connections they had made through their family travels, nature shows, and other classes in elementary school.  I found that students would frequently come up to check on their understanding through viewing my project following from the top of the tree where the small scale words were located to the bottom of the tree where I represented the community and ecosystem aspect of my organism.  


4.  Ask students to move to their lab tables to work on choosing their organism and beginning the process of defining the terms of relating them to their specific choice of living thing. 

The Classroom Flow: Small Group Work

40 minutes

1.  Once they are at their lab tables, students can work individually or collaborate and discuss their options for the organisms they would like to investigate and their working definitions for each level of organization.

2. For resources, students can use their textbooks, other books in the classroom, and their personal devices (phones, tablets, laptops) while working together on this project.  

  • Note: Take a look at a student sample of this written work.  I believe it is a good example of a student who can demonstrate an understanding of how our concepts are nested and related, with two areas that we later worked on together to improve:  1) the idea of picking a specific type of shark vs. a generic shark and 2) specifically outlining abiotic features of the ecosystem of her shark. In her final visual project, all of these components were evident.  I found that by the end of this project most, if not all, of my students were able to explain in writing, in their visuals, and in conversation with me the connections between the terminology and the specific details relating to their organism. 


Now on to Day 2 of this two day lesson!