Intro to Ecology

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Students will assess the dependence of all organisms on one another and investigate the relationships among organisms, populations, communities, ecosystems, and biomes.

Big Idea

Our house is a very, very, very big house.


5 minutes

Warm-Up: What evidence do you have that living organisms require non-living things? 

This is an open-ended question intended to activate prior knowledge and identify any misconceptions students have about living versus non-living things. Look for students to mention the required relationships that exist in photosynthesis and cell respiration between living and nonliving things.   Expect some differing opinions and allow students to engage in academic discourse for 3-4 minutes before closing the discussion.   Encourage them to make specific reference to facts as they share.  Explain that you will revisit this question within the lesson that will follow.

Introduce New Material

15 minutes

Begin the lesson by watching the “Circle of Life” song clip from “Lion King.  I find that students love this song because of its universal appeal and I really like using it to “hook” students into the ecology discussion that will follow.  Students will engage at the start of the lesson, if merely for the entertainment value of the song clip. Surprisingly, even at the high school level, students will sing along as the clips plays.

After the song ends, tell students that today’s lesson is an Introduction to Ecology.  Explain that the Lion King is an accurate reflection of ecological concepts that we will discuss in today’s lesson.  Ask students to remember the images that they saw in the clip for the questions that will be asked of them during the lesson.

As part of the explicit instruction process, present the new vocabulary terms: ecology, biosphere, ecosystem, biotic, abiotic.  Instruct students to add these terms to their Vocabulary Map as has been the practice since the first lesson, Characteristics of Life.   The vocabulary map allows students to write scientific terms, along with the phonetic spellings, definitions, and word stems or roots that make up the term.  Remind students that this growing list of Latin or Greek root words, prefixes and suffixes is a great resource for them that they should refer to periodically to build their academic literacy.

Beginning with the term ecology, teach the ecological levels (hierarchy) of the environment and allow students to identify images from the song clip that exemplify different parts of the ecological hierarchy.   Take the time to break the terms that have word parts into their particular word stems or morphemes.  For example, ecology has two word parts: eco- and -logy.  Teach students the meaning of both root words.  Hopefully, students will be able to recall that logy means “study of” as it is a part of the term, biology that was introduced on the first day of class.

After breaking the term ecology into its word parts, allow students to attempt to “dissect” the term, biotic factor  in order to figure out what it means.  Remind students that “bio” means life/living.  Look for students to make the connection and identify that biotic factors are living factors in an environment.

Ask students to identify biotic factors they saw in the “Circle of Life” song clip.  Allow several students to share.  Their responses should include things like the grass, Simba, the giraffe, etc…I find that more students than typical will engage in this discussion because they relate to the song clip and they are easily able to make the connection to the content.  This is a win-win for student and teacher because students are able to experience the immediate gratification that comes from being able to demonstrate understanding what is being taught and the teacher gains by having the interest of a larger portion of students in the classroom.

Follow the same process to help student figure out what the term, abiotic means.  Instruct students to look at their word list to identify the meaning of “a”.  At the beginning of the year, I provide students a list of Greek and Latin root words and common prefixes and suffixes.  This is another tool that helps students build scientific literacy. Once I distribute the list, I require that students keep the list I give them in their notebooks.  To make sure that this occurs, I do conduct periodic checks of notebooks for the presence of the word stem list.   Use the internet to locate a list and format that you feel will work best for your student population

Give students a moment to reference the list to correctly identify that “a” is a prefix that means “not or non”.  Look for students to make the connection that abiotic means, “non-living”.  Once they make this connection, ask students to name some of the abiotic factors that they saw in the “Circle of Life” song clip.

As you progress through the different ecological hierarchy levels, relate each level back to the “Circle of Life” song clip and ask students to describe what they saw in the clip that represents that level of the environment.  Build checks for understanding into the content throughout the lesson by asking questions like:

  • How is a habitat different from a niche?
  • What is an example of a niche for decomposers?
  • What is the lowest level of organization that most ecologists study? Which is the most complex?
  • What name is given to several organisms of the same species interacting together?

Guided Practice

10 minutes

Distribute 8 ½ x 11 paper, scissors, colored pencils and markers for the activity.  Provide verbal and written instructions to explain how to complete the foldable.  I make it a point to project instructions on an LCD projector as I explain the instructions verbally as a way to meet my different learner needs.

Because I have found that there will always be some students who are completely at a loss for how to complete the steps of a paper fold activity, I will stand at the front of the class with my back to the class, holding the paper high overhead so that students will be able to see what I am doing and follow along as I instruct and make the necessary paper folds.

Be prepared to walk students through the steps with slow movements and several checks for understanding as they fold the paper.  Otherwise, you will likely repeatedly hear, “I messed up. Can I get another piece of paper?”  If you have students with specific challenges that make it difficult for them to either follow the directions or use their hands to fold the paper, prepare a few completed paper-folds in advance to distribute, as needed. Take a moment to walk around the room to spot check students’ actions before moving into independent practice.

Independent Practice

25 minutes

Using the 6 levels of the ecological hierarchy, students will create a foldable with pictures/symbols and sentences that conveys an understanding of each of the 6 levels.  Explain how the 6 sections should be labeled and what should be included in each section to complete the task.  Project written instructions as you speak to meet the different learner needs.

If you know that your students struggle with creative assignments, create a simple example to help them envision what they are being asked to do.  Share the rubric that will used to grade the task.

Tell students that they can choose to use either a scientific concept or a non-scientific concept for the student work.   Encourage students to use a theme of their own choosing to create levels of the environment.

Release them to work independently to complete the foldable activity. Distribute copies of the grading rubric so that they will be able to refer to it as they complete the task.


5 minutes

Ask students to explain whether the song, “The Circle of Life” it is an appropriate description of the environment.  Also, discuss whether the relationship between biotic and abiotic factors is a circle.  Listen to their comments to assess how well students are able to articulate correct conceptual understanding of the content that was taught.

This closing activity is conducted whole group to allow students to hear thoughts from their peers.