Exploring the Movement of Matter in Ecosystems (Day 1)

38 teachers like this lesson
Print Lesson


SWBAT describe the movement of matter among plants, animals, and decomposers.

Big Idea

In this lesson, students learn about the types of matter that move amongst producers, consumers, and decomposers. To summarize today's lesson, students will construct a paragraph, explaining how matter flows through the food chain.

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 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 discussing the components of a food chain. Students will then explore the types of matter that flow through an ecosystem. At the end of the lesson, students will reflect and apply their new understanding of the movement of matter by writing a summary.

Next Generation Science Standards  

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

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

5-ESS3-1.  Obtain and combine information about ways individual communities use science ideas to protect the Earth’s resources and environment.

Scientific & Engineering Practices

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

Science & Engineering Practice 6: Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions 

Using observations and evidence, students construct an explanation to describe how matter moves amongst plants, animals, and decomposers. 

Crosscutting Concepts

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

Crosscutting Concept 5: Energy and Matter

Students describe how matter flows and cycles through an ecosystem using the food chain as a model. Students also beginning learning about the conservation of matter and how the matter on Earth remains constant. 

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)

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

Teacher Note: When constructing lessons to help students meet 5-LS2-1 (Develop a model to describe the movement of matter among plants, animals, decomposers, and the environment), I decide to provide students with the opportunity to develop food chain and food web models using the plants, animals, and decomposers in a nearby ecosystem, Yellowstone National Park. 

Students also explore what "matter" is and how matter moves about in a food chain model. Due to time constraints and age appropriateness, I choose to provide students with a general overview of matter instead of deeply studying the ongoing cycles of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, food nutrients, mineral nutrients, vitamins, and chemical contaminants. 

Lesson Introduction & Goal 

I introduce today's learning goal: I can describe the movement of matter among plants, animals, and decomposers. 

So far, you have studied and investigated decomposers, producers, and consumers. You have also taken a close look at how the energy in animals' food was once energy from the sun. You all know that plants use the sun's energy to make food and that animals are then able to eat plants or other animals to obtain energy and that the sun's energy is passed on each time an organism is consumed in the food chain. Then there's decomposers! Decomposers are responsible for recycling nutrients back into the environment when they eat waste, dead plants, and dead animals.

Today, we are going to define what a food chain actually is and we are going to take a look at what else moves between organisms in the food chain. Do you think the sun's energy is the only thing that moves between organisms... or do you think something else also flows through the food chain? Turn and talk with a partner! What else flows between organisms in an ecosystem besides the sun's energy? (I am hoping students will discuss different types of matter, including gases and nutrients.) 

I walk around the classroom and listen to conversations. Some students mention the fact that plants need carbon dioxide and animals need oxygen. I hear another student bring up the nutrients in the soil.Some other students are a bit stumped on this question! 

I invite students to come up to the front carpet with their science journals and pencils. Today, I ask students to take notes throughout this discussion. I explain the importance of taking notes in middle school, high school, and college - not only for the sake of studying, but also as a tool for learning. Students learn more throughout the process of determining which facts are most important and how to organize the facts on paper. (I'll often model the note-taking process, especially as a way to support struggling learners, however, today, I want to support students with taking responsibility for the organization of their individual notes.)


To start off, I provide students with a clear definition of "food chain" by introducing and discussing the Food Chain Vocabulary Poster. I call attention to the fact that a food chain is a single pathway and by which energy and matter flow through an ecosystem.  

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


During the video, I pause several times to discuss key terms. Students excitedly ask, "Can you wait so I can write that down?" I love their eagerness to learn! After students take notes on each of the following "key ideas," I ask them to turn and teach a partner what they've learned. 

  • All organisms need matter and energy. This is why the food chain is so important! The food chain models how organisms get the matter and energy they need! 
  • There are primary consumers (plant eaters), secondary consumers (eat primary consumers), tertiary consumers (eat secondary consumers), and the top predator (the consumer at the top of the food chain). Although these terms don't necessary help students understand the movement of matter, they do help students develop a deeper understanding of the food chain model. 
  • The 10% Rule refers to the fact that only 10% of the sun's energy is passed on each time an organism is eaten in the food chain. This is a perfect opportunity to discuss how the sun's energy runs out further rand further down the food chain. Some energy is lost to heat and waste along the way. This means that the sun's energy is used up in the food chain and cannot be recycled. However, matter is not used up. Instead, matter is passed along within the body of the organism and can be recycled back into the environment by decomposers! I will continually review this concept many times over the next few lessons to aid student understanding. 


Now that students have a stronger understanding of the food chain model, I want to move onto the meaning of matter and how matter flows through a food chain! 


30 minutes

Teacher Note: Many of the resources (text and videos) that I found on the movement of matter in an ecosystem are entirely too complex for the 5th grade level! On top of that, most of them focus on a single type of matter (such as the cycling of carbon or mineral nutrients). As I mentioned before, I want to provide students with an overview of matter and how it moves through a food chain. For this reason, I decide to build upon students' prior knowledge by adding information to the Roles in Ecosystems Poster. During this exploration process, I explain the types of matter that move between the organisms in the food chain.

To ensure a high level of student engagement, students continue to take notes and, after each new concept is introduced, I ask students to "turn and teach" their partners what they've learned. Also, to support my visual learners, I write out each of the key concepts on blue cards before today's lesson. Here's how the poster will look at the end of today's lesson: Poster with Blue Cards.


What is matter? Some students recall from a our Gravity Unit that matter is "stuff" and that everything around us is made of "stuff." I add onto this by explaining the What is Matter? card: Matter is anything that has mass and takes up space. Matter is made up of atoms and atoms make up molecules. I sketch a Water Molecule on the white board so that students can visualize this complex idea. 

Here are some examples: a book has matter, you are made up of matter, a pencil has matter... because all of these things have mass and take up space. Turn and teach: What is matter and what are some examples of matter around us? 

Other examples of matter that can be passed on in the food chain include nutrients, water, chemicals, and air. We take the time to discuss how air takes up space and has mass by relating this concept with a blown up balloon. This is also an important time to talk about the fact that energy is not matter because energy doesn't take up space and does not have mass. Turn and teach examples and non-examples of matter. 

Non-Recyclable Energy vs. Recyclable Matter

Next, we review how The Sun's Energy is not Recycled and is eventually used up due to the 10% rule in the video. However, Matter is Recycled in an environment, thanks to decomposers! For example, when the rabbit on the poster dies, there are many nutrients still in the rabbit's body. Decomposers break down the remains of the rabbit, returning the nutrients to the environment. Then, plants are able to absorb the nutrients: Plants Aborb Nutrients.

This is where the Law of Conservation comes in. The matter on Earth is never lost or gained. It is used over and over and over. So the number of oxygen molecules on Earth today is the same as the number of oxygen molecules on Earth millions of years ago. This blows my students' minds so I don't spend too much time on it! Turn and teach how the movement of energy is different from the movement of matter in the food chain. 

Types of Nutrients

Next, I explain three types of nutrients that flow through food chains: Food NutrientsMineral Nutrients, and Non-Mineral Nutrients. We then focus on the six most essential nutrients for proper growth in all animals: 6 Essential Nutrients. Tomorrow, we will discuss each of these more in-depth! Turn and teach: What are some examples of nutrients that are recycled in the food chain model? 

Chemical Contaminants

Finally, we discuss how some matter that is moved from one organism to the next is not always helpful to the environment. For example, Chemical Contaminants, such as pesticices (used by some farmers to kill fungus, bacteria, and insects), can be passed on through food chains. Turn and talk about your concerns with the movement of chemical contaminants through our ecosystems and how this might affect your life. 

Teacher Note: I include chemical contaminants as an example of matter today to support NGSS Standard 5-ESS3-1 (Obtain and combine information about ways individual communities use science ideas to protect the Earth’s resources and environment).

Student Notes

At the end of this exploration, I'm not looking for students to recall every little fact. Instead, I want students to walk away with the understanding that matter, such as food nutrients and water, flows through and is recycled in the food chain model! Here are a few examples of notes during this time. 

Reflect & Apply

30 minutes

Summarizing Findings

Now that students have built meaning and understanding by observing, questioning, and exploring, it is important to provide students with the opportunity to document their findings. For this reason, I invite students to get out their computers to begin typing a summary. Today, students will begin this summary. Tomorrow, students will complete their summaries! 

To get students started, I share a Google Document with them. Students copy this document, making it their own editable version. I provided the following topic sentence for students: Matter flows through plants, animals, and decomposers in an ecosystem.

I ask students to use the Roles in Ecosystems Poster and their video notes to provide specific examples of how matter flows through the food chain. I also review the importance of the topic sentence in a paragraph: Remember, the topic sentence tells what the whole paragraph is about. You'll want to make sure that your paragraph is focused and remains on topic. 

Student Work

Here are examples of student paragraphs from today: 


Tomorrow, students will also work on their paragraphs after studying the six essential nutrients for proper growth even further.