Yellowstone National Park Food Web

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SWBAT build and describe a food chain web.

Big Idea

In this lesson, students construct and explain complex food web models using organisms in the Yellowstone National Park ecosystem.

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, How Inquiry-Based Learning Works with STEMvery 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 showing students a video on food webs. Students will then explore how to organize Yellowstone National Park ecosystem organisms into a food web. At the end of the lesson, students will reflect and apply their new understanding of food webs by writing an explanation.

Next Generation Science Standards  

This lesson will support 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:

Science & Engineering Practice 2:

Students use a food web model to describe who energy and matter flow between organisms. Teams also discuss the cause and effect relationships involved when one organism card is removed from the food web. 

Crosscutting Concepts

To relate ideas across disciplinary content, during this lesson I focus on the following Crosscutting Concept

Crosscutting Concept 4

Students examine the components (organisms) and interactions of components within a food web system. 

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)

LS2.B:  Cycles of Matter and Energy Transfer in Ecosystems

Matter cycles between the air and soil and among plants, animals, and microbes as these organisms live and die. Organisms obtain gases, and water, from the environment, and release waste matter (gas, liquid, or solid) back into the environment. (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.W.5.2: Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas and information clearly. In this lesson, students will write an explanatory paragraph on food webs.

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!  


10 minutes

Teacher Note: During yesterday's lesson, Yellowstone National Park Food Chains, students created Yellowstone National Park "organism cards" with pictures on one side, Pictures on Cards, and facts on the other, Facts on Cards. Today, students use the same cards to create a food web. Here's a Yellowstone National Park resource that was my inspiration for this lesson. 

Lesson Introduction & Goal 

I introduce today's learning goal: I can build and describe a food chain web. I explain: Yesterday, you worked with your science teams to construct food chains. Referring to the Food Chain Vocabulary Poster, I continue: A food chain represents a single pathway by which energy and matter flow through an ecosystem.

I introduce a the meaning of a food web, Food Web Vocabulary Poster: A food web represents multiple pathways by which energy and matter flow through an ecosystem. 


I want to inspire interest in today's lesson and capitalize on student curiosity, so I show the following video on food chains. 


Following the video, I ask students to turn and talk: How are food chains and food webs similar?(both represent pathways by which energy and matter flow through the ecosystem) How are they different? (a food web model is made up of many singular pathways or food chains)

I spend as little time as possible introducing today's lesson as I know that constructing food webs will take quite a bit of time! 


40 minutes

Getting Ready

Yesterday, you worked together with your teams to create food chains. Today, you'll be using the same food chains to create food webs! 

To get students ready, I pass out the following materials to each team:

  • 17" x 22" paper 
  • Each team's Yellowstone National Park organisms cards from yesterday
  • Tape & tape dispenser
  • 3 black sharpies (fine and medium point works best)


Later on, I realize students need an even larger workspace than expected for creating their food webs. At this point, I show students how to attach a 17" x 11" paper to the 17" x 22" paper to create a workspace of about 17" by 30" (with overlapping). Next time, I think I'll use bulletin board paper!

To set students up for success, I ask the class to discuss which cards will come at the start of the food web (the sun and then the producers). I also show students how to tape the organism cards along one edge so the cards can easily be flipped over for viewing the facts or pictures. I point out that students might want to wait until all cards are placed to begin taping cards down and to begin drawing arrows to indicate the flow of energy and matter. 

In addition, we discuss the layout options of the food web. I purposefully provide as little direction as possible to allow teams of students to work together to make choices. Some students want the sun to be at the top or bottom of their paper while other students decide to put the sun in the middle. Either way, all teams of students run in to little problems along the way (running out of space, determining the placement of cards, and drawing arrows in the correct directions). I love watching them work together as a team to develop solutions! 

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 patterns have you noticed? 
  2. Why do you suppose ____? 
  3. What have you found so far? 
  4. Has your thinking changed? 
  5. What evidence do you have? 
  6. How did you decide _____?
  7. What conclusion can you draw about ____?
  8. Which directions should your arrows face? 
  9. How does energy and matter flow through this food chain? 

Student Conferences

During these two conferences, Students Organizing Cards and Problem Solving with Space on Paper, I ask students to explain how they are organizing their organisms cards and why. Throughout most conferences, I encourage students to use scientific terms (such as producers, primary consumers, food source, energy, and matter) as they explain their models.

When conferencing with these two teams, Drawing Arrows and Arrows & Energy, students work together to decide the how arrows should be drawn on the paper. To help guide and direct students I simply ask, Which direction will the energy and matter flow? Which organism obtains energy and matter? 

As students finish laying out their cards, Students Constructing a Food Web, I encourage students to explain their food webs as a whole. Here, the students place the decomposers at the top of the food chain. We discuss how the top predators, such as the eagle and wolf, are the organisms that are at the top of the food chain and how decomposers help recycle nutrients back into the environment. 

Teacher Note: Some students struggle with drawing arrows to the scavengers as scavengers could eat any of the consumers after they've died. To ensure that this activity doesn't become too overwhelming, I ask the class to focus on the living organisms eaten! 

Student Work

Here are a few examples of team food webs:


At the beginning of this lesson, I wondered how well students would be able to apply their understanding of Yellowstone National Park food chains to construct a complex food web. Looking back, I am really impressed with the above food web posters and the rich conversations between students! 

Reflect & Apply

20 minutes

Sharing Findings

Now that students have built meaning and understanding by observing, questioning, and exploring, it is important to provide students with the opportunity to share their findings. For this reason, I invite students to write a paragraph on food webs. 

Food Web Explanations

I model how to write the following prompt at the top of a lined sheet of paper (Teacher Model): Constructing a food web model has helped me realize... 

Prior to this lesson, I printed Elaboration Prompts on green paper for each team. At this time, I pass these Elaboration Prompts out to encourage a deeper level of thinking. 

Student Work

Here are several examples of student work during this time: 


I love seeing the following statements in the student examples above: 

  • "I learned that the beaver eats 4 kinds of plants, the quaking aspen, lodgepole pine, gray willow, and pond lily." This shows that this student is beginning to grasp the idea that food webs represent the multiple pathways by which energy and matter flow through an ecosystem instead of single pathways, like food chains.
  • "Constructing a food web also helped me realize that in a food chain or web more matter and energy travels through each organism that I realized." I think that this student is referring to the complex system of arrows in a food web. I love how this model helped him see the various ways in which energy and matter flow in ecosystems!
  • "I can't even begin to imagine the food web involving all of the ecosystems (Wow that's a lot of animals involved." I really like how this student began thinking about how food webs can be applied on a larger scale.