What is an Ecosystem?

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SWBAT explain the meaning of an ecosystem.

Big Idea

In this lesson, students will research several sources to answer the question, "What is an ecosystem?" At the end of today's lesson, students will compile their research in a class idea web.

Lesson Overview

Inquiry Based Instructional Model

To intertwine scientific knowledge and practices and to empower students to learn through exploration, it is essential for scientific inquiry to be embedded in science education. While there are many types of inquiry-based models, one model that I've grown to appreciate and use is called the FERA Learning Cycle, developed by the National Science Resources Center (NSRC):

1. Focus

2. Explore

3. Reflect

4. Apply

A framework for implementation can be found here

I absolutely love how the Center for Inquiry Science at the Institute for Systems Biology explains that this is "not a locked-step method" but "rather a cyclical process," meaning that some lessons may start off at the focus phase while others may begin at the explore phase. 

Finally, an amazing article found at Edudemic.com, How Inquiry-Based Learning Works with STEM,very clearly outlines how inquiry based learning "paves the way for effective learning in science" and supports College and Career Readiness, particularly in the area of STEM career choices. 

Unit Explanation

In this unit, students will first develop an understanding of the biotic and abiotic factors within ecosystems, the characteristics and classification of living organisms, and how plants and animals obtain and use energy to fulfill their needs. 

Then, students will delve deeper into the NGSS standards by examining the interdependent relationships within an ecosystem by studying movement of matter between producers, consumers, and decomposers by creating models of food chains and food webs. 

At the end of this unit, students will study ways that individual communities can use science ideas to protect the Earth's resources and environment.  

Summary of Lesson

Today, I will open the lesson by posing the question, "What are ecosystems?" I will then show students examples and non-examples of ecosystems and students will develop a definition for ecosystems that they will later revise after they have completed research. Students will then explore the meaning of ecosystems by conducting research with their teams. At the end of the lesson, students will reflect and apply their new understanding of ecosystems by participating in a class discussion and constructing a class idea web.

Next Generation Science Standards  

This lesson will support student understanding of the following NGSS Standard(s):

5-PS3-1.    Use models to describe that energy in animals’ food (used for body repair, growth, motion, and to maintain body warmth) was once energy from the sun.  

5-LS1-1.    Support an argument that plants get the materials they need for growth chiefly from air and water.  

5-LS2-1.    Develop a model to describe the movement of matter among plants, animals, decomposers, and the environment.  

Scientific & Engineering Practices

For this lesson, students are engaged in the following Science & Engineering Practice(s):

Science & Engineering Practice 1, Asking Questions and Defining Problems:

The goal is for students to ask and answer the question, "What are ecosystems?" 

Science & Engineering Practice 8, Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information

Students read & comprehend texts, obtain ideas, and describe how their understanding of ecosystems is supported by text evidence.

Crosscutting Concepts

To relate ideas across disciplinary content, during this lesson I focus on Crosscutting Concept 4: Systems and System Models.  In particular, students will be studying how an ecosystem is a system of biotic and abiotic parts working together. 

Disciplinary Core Ideas

In addition, this lesson also aligns with the following Disciplinary Core Ideas:

PS3.D:  Energy in Chemical Processes and Everyday Life

The energy released [from] food was once energy from the sun that was captured by plants in the chemical process that forms plant matter (from air and water). (5-PS3-1)

LS1.C:  Organization for Matter and Energy Flow in Organisms

Food provides animals with the materials they need for body repair and growth and the energy they need to maintain body warmth and for motion. (secondary to 5-PS3-1)

Plants acquire their material for growth chiefly from air and water. (5-LS1-1)

LS2.A:  Interdependent Relationships in Ecosystems

The food of almost any kind of animal can be traced back to plants. Organisms are related in food webs in which some animals eat plants for food and other animals eat the animals that eat plants. Some organisms, such as fungi and bacteria, break down dead organisms (both plants or plants parts and animals) and therefore operate as “decomposers.” Decomposition eventually restores (recycles) some materials back to the soil. Organisms can survive only in environments in which their particular needs are met. A healthy ecosystem is one in which multiple species of different types are each able to meet their needs in a relatively stable web of life. Newly introduced species can damage the balance of an ecosystem. (5-LS2-1)

ELA Integration

To add depth to student understanding, when I can, I'll often integrate ELA standards with science lessons. Today, students will work on meeting CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.5.1: Quote accurately from a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text. In this lesson, students will be using multiple resources (both print and digital) to locate explicit information in order to answer a question. 

Choosing Science Teams

With science, it is often difficult to find a balance between providing students with as many hands-on experiences as possible, having plenty of science materials, and offering students a collaborative setting to solve problems. Any time groups have four or more students, the opportunities for individual students to speak and take part in the exploration process decreases. With groups of two, I often struggle to find enough science materials to go around. So this year, I chose to place students in teams of three! Picking science teams is always easy as I already have students placed in desk groups based upon behavior, abilities, and communication skills. Each desk group has about six kids, so I simply divide this larger group in half. 

Gathering Supplies & Assigning Roles

To encourage a smooth running classroom, I ask students to decide who is a 1, 2, or 3 in their groups of three students (without talking). In no time, each student has a number in the air. I'll then ask the "threes" to get certain supplies, "ones" to grab their computers, and "twos" to hand out papers (or whatever is needed for the lesson). This management strategy has proven to be effective when cleaning up and returning supplies as well!  


20 minutes

Lesson Introduction & Goal 

I introduce today's learning goal: I can explain the meaning of an ecosystem. 

Powerpoint Presentation 

I want to inspire interest in today's lesson and capitalize on student curiosity, so I create a Powerpoint Presentation: What is an ecosystem?. On the first slide, I pose an authentic question: What is a ecosystem? 

Without providing the definition of an ecosystem, I show students examples and non-examples of ecosystems on the following slides. (The slides with a bear, rock, and moon are non-examples.) Knowing that an ecosystem includes all of the populations of living organisms and nonliving physical factors in a given area, I include pictures of deer and plants, a puddle in a driveway, and an aquarium as examples of ecosystems. In-between each example, I provide a picture of a bear (living organism without any nonliving factors), a picture of a rock (nonliving factor without any living organisms), and a picture of the moon (no living organisms). 

After showing students each picture, I ask students to turn and talk about ecosystems with their science team. During this time, I love listening to students and asking probing questions, such as, Does an ecosystem have to have sunlight? I also take a mental note of common misconceptions. 

Student Conversations

During this discussion, Students Discussing Ecosystems, the students decide that ecosystems need to have more than one animal for food chains. I ask: What does an ecosystem have to have? They explain that animals need to have a food source. One student uses her understanding of the relationship between plankton and fish to explain why the sun is important. I think she means that phytoplankton are able to use photosynthesis to generate energy from the sun. It's great to hear that these students are already talking about the interdependent relationships between animals. 

Here, Students Discussing Ecosystems 2, a student begins by explaining that an ecosystem is a habitat. Another student explains that an ecosystem is made of up multiple habitats. A habitat is a place where a particular species lives. On the other hand, an ecosystem can include one or more habitats. This teams goes on to explain that an ecosystem has to support life, has to have food, and has to have oxygen. 

Ecosystem Defnitions 

I pass out a marker, a half sheet of colored paper, and a piece of tape to each group (Colored Paper, Markers, & Tape) and explain: Before you begin investigating ecosystems today, I would like each team to develop a definition for ecosystems. Tomorrow, I will hand these definitions back to your team so that you can revise your thinking based upon your research. To provide students with some guidance, I write the following writing prompt on the board and encourage students to leave room between their lines for revisions: An ecosystem is... 

As a side note, I think that it is important for students to analyze how their understanding of a concept changes over time. This is why I want students to go back and revise these definitions tomorrow! 

Once students are finished, they tape their definitions to the board: Team Definitions of an Ecosystem. I go through each team's definition and read it aloud. Here are a few examples:

I can't wait to watch how research transforms student understanding of this concept! 


30 minutes

Sharing Sources

Using Google Drive, I share the following presentation, Ecosystem Sources, with students so they can efficiently access some quality resources on ecosystems. 

While I value providing students with practice determining the quality of internet resources, this process can take a lot of time and I want to make sure students are successful at reaching the science learning goal today! I know that each of these resources will provide students with the information needed to answer the question, "What is an ecosystem?"

Video Resources

The first resource is a video. Often times, my visual and auditory learners benefit greatly from watching a video to begin with. Not only does a video inspire students to begin the research process, but it also helps scaffold the information in upcoming texts as students will have the background knowledge needed to make sense of the complex texts. 

Graphic Organizer

To set students up for success, I provide a graphic organizer for students to take notes and I model how to begin each sentence, "An ecosystem is..." I'm hoping this will help direct students to find explicit answers to the question, "What is an ecosystem?" 

In addition, I copy the graphic organizer on both sides of the paper to provide an extension for students who finish completing one page ahead of others. This way, other students have time to complete one page during this time as well. 

Monitoring Student Understanding

Once students begin working, I conference with every group. My goal is to support students by asking guiding questions (listed below). I also want to encourage students to engage in Science & Engineering Practice 7: Engaging in Argument from Evidence

  1. What is an ecosystem?
  2. What have you noticed? 
  3. Why do you suppose ____? 
  4. What have you found so far? 
  5. Has your thinking changed? 
  6. What evidence do you have? 
  7. What does this mean?
  8. What conclusion can you draw about ecosystems?

Student Conferences

During student conferences, I also focus on encouraging students to elaborate or develop more precise language. In this conference, Attending to Precision, the student explains ecosystems as living organisms instead of stating that ecosystems have living organisms. I love how willing she is make changes. A growth mindset is such an important part of the learning process. 

Here, Adding On, I encourage a student to reach out to one of her teammates to add on to one of her notes. I am hoping that this inspires this student to capture the whole idea in her notes for full understanding. 

Student Work

Here are examples of student work during this time. I'm proud to see students finding information on their own.

Reflect & Apply

10 minutes

Sharing Findings

Now that students have built meaning and understanding by researching and exploring, it is important to provide students with the opportunity to share their findings. For this reason, I invite students to join me on the front carpet with their research notes. 


I call students' attention to the What are Ecosystems Poster and ask students to share what they have learned about ecosystems. As each student shares, I add their thinking to the idea web: What are Ecosystems Poster (After). This process is so important for all students. When students hear others share similar facts to those that they've recorded, it reinforces the concept of an ecosystem.

This poster will be added to our science wall so that students can easily reference it throughout this unit.


Tomorrow, students will also use their research to revise their ecosystem definitions.