Defining an Ecosystem

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SWBAT define an ecosystem.

Big Idea

Students will identify and distinguish between a habitat, population, community, that make up an ecosystem.

Lesson Overview

5e Lesson Plan Model

Many of my science lessons are based upon and taught using the 5E lesson plan model: Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate, and Evaluate. This lesson plan model allows me to incorporate a variety of learning opportunities and strategies for students.  With multiple learning experiences, students can gain new ideas, demonstrate thinking, draw conclusions, develop critical thinking skills, and interact with peers through discussions and hands-on activities.  With each stage in this lesson model, I select strategies that will serve students best for the concepts and content being delivered to them.  These strategies were selected for this lesson to facilitate peer discussions, participation in a group activity, reflective learning practices, and accountability for learning.

Unit Focus  

The Ecosystems and Interactions unit focuses on students recognizing the interrelationship between organisms and their ecosystems.  It engages students in understanding that organisms have observable characteristics that are fully inherited and can be affected by the climate and/or environment. Students distinguish structures that define classes of animals and plants, and develop an understanding that all organisms go through predictable life cycles. They learn that organisms depend upon one another for growth and development and discover that plants use the sun's energy to produce food for themselves. They observe how the sun's energy is transferred within a food chain from producers to consumers to decomposers. 

Lesson Synopsis

In this lesson, Defining an Ecosystem, students examine several images of different ecosystems to identify factors that define it. After exploring these images, students conduct research to further define an ecosystem. They apply what they learn through their research by writing a Gist paragraph summarizing their understanding.  At the end of the lesson, students complete an exit ticket. This is collected as a formative assessment on their understanding of an ecosystem.

Next Generation Science Standards  

This lesson will address and support future lessons on the following NGSS Standard(s): 

2-LS4-1. Make observations of plants and animals to compare the diversity of life in different habitats.

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

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.  

Why Do I Teach this Lesson and Address This Standard?

I teach the Defining an Ecosystem lesson because many of my students have very limited background in science since the elementary school's within my district do not formally teach science prior to my students entering the 5th grade (the middle school); therefore, they have not been exposed to earlier grade level NGSS standards or other previous state standards pertaining to animals, plants, and ecosystems.  I find it important to expose my students to parts of these earlier standards in order for them to truly develop a thorough understanding of how matter moves among organisms and developing models to describe how animals' food was once energy from the sun in future lessons. based investigations and apply their evidence to explain outcomes and phenomenons. Furthermore, providing my students the opportunity to practice this type of discourse will help to facilitate their scientific thinking for future investigations in any lesson.

Scientific & Engineering Practices

Students are engaged in the following scientific and engineering practices

4.) Analyzing and Interpreting Data: Students analyze several images to determine parts of an ecosystem and the relationships within ecosystems.

8.) Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information: Students obtain information about ecosystems by observing several images of them and conduct internet based research to later construct a summary that shows their understanding of it.

Crosscutting Concepts

The Defining and Ecosystem lesson will correlate to other interdisciplinary areas.  These Crosscutting Concepts include:

4.) Systems and Systems Models:  Students identify parts that make up an ecosystem and learn that these parts interact with one another in order for an ecosystem thrive.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

Disciplinary Core Ideas within this lesson include:

LS2.A Interdependent Relationships in Ecosystems


Importance of Modeling to Develop Student

Responsibility, Accountability, and Independence 

Depending upon the time of year, this lesson is taught, teachers should consider modeling how groups should work together; establish group norms for activities, class discussions, and partner talks.  In addition, it is important to model think aloud strategies.  This sets up students to be more expressive and develop thinking skills during an activity.  The first half of the year, I model what group work and/or talks “look like and sound like.”  I intervene the moment students are off task with reminders and redirecting.  By the second and last half of the year, I am able to ask students, “Who can give of three reminders for group activities to be successful?” Who can tell us two reminders for partner talks?”  Students take responsibility for becoming successful learners.  Again before teaching this lesson, consider the time of year, it may be necessary to do a lot of front loading to get students to eventually become more independent and transition through the lessons in a timely manner.

I have model proper use of chromebooks early in the year. At this point in the lesson, students are familiar with expectations when using them.  They understand the responsibility and accountability factors that allow them to use the chromebooks independently.


10 minutes

To begin, I engage students in the I Think, We Think strategy to activate their prior knowledge. I hand out the I Think, We think graphic organizer with the term Ecosystem at the top.  (I also write this term on the board).  I ask students to write their own ideas about this word under the column I think.  I want them to have a chance to write their initial ideas about what they already know about ecosystems.

Then I ask students to turn to their elbow partner and share their thinking with one another. Once they do, I have them work together to create a statement under the column We Think.  This strategy is an opportunity for students to collaborate and modify their thinking about the term ecosystem.  Their collaborative discussion allows them to compare their thinking with their partners' way of thinking.

I call on students to share their thinking and partners' thinking about an ecosystem. I create a class web of ideas so students can visually see similarities and differences between their thinking and their peers thinking about ecosystems.

I tell the students they will fill in the last box, I now think, after they do some research on ecosystems.


20 minutes

Preparing to Investigate Ecosystems

After sharing our I think, We think Responses, I ask a student to read the standards board aloud to the class: "Today, we will conduct research to define an ecosystem and examine six different images of ecosystems." I add on saying, "our goal is to determine the factors that create ecosystems.  This will help us understand how and why organisms interact they way they do in different environments."  

Then I bring students attention to the 6 different stations displaying images of ecosystems. I tell them they are examining each image to observe features that could be used to define an ecosystem. I hand out a features of an ecosystem graphic organizer and tell them they are recording these features on it according to the image they are observing.  I selected these images because each one is an ecosystem and I want students to think about the many different factors that make up an ecosystem.

Guided Inquiry

I begin by pointing out each ecosystem image they will be examining: the pond, dessert, spiders web in the woods, mountains, grassland, and puddle. I explain that groups are to make observations and discuss with their group what they notice in each ecosystem. After observing and discussions, each student writes down the features they believe define an ecosystem on the recording sheet.   I review station expectations with the class: everyone is an active participant by contributing to the discussion, helping others see features they may miss, and everyone is on task. 

Once all stations are reviewed, I direct each group to a station and tell them to begin. I give them about three minutes at each station and use a timer to keep everyone on task. Students observe, discuss, and record the features on their recording sheet recorded on the data table that applies to that station. They continue exploring each image until all images have been examined.  I circulate the room and check in with groups at different stations. I listen to the features they use to define an ecosystem.

At the end of our investigation, I direct students to return to their I think, We Think paper. I guide to the last box on it that says, I now think and ask them to record additional thoughts on defining an ecosystem.  



25 minutes

Connecting Prior Knowledge to New Information

To further develop their understanding of an ecosystem, I show students a quick video: What is an Ecosystem? I show them this video to connect the features of an ecosystem they examined in images and then to give them a snapshot of concepts they are looking for in their research today.  It presents them the basic information they need know to get them started.

Researching Facts about Ecosystems

My students use chromebooks today to find out more details to define an ecosystem based on these guiding questions I post on the front board:

  • What makes up an ecosystem?
  • Are ecosystems certain sizes?
  • How do organisms relate to an ecosystem?
  • What is a population in an ecosystem?
  • What is a community of an ecosystem?
  • What are nonliving parts in an ecosystem?
  • How do parts of an ecosystem work together?


These questions are meant to guide students through their research and focus their attention on key details relevant to the assignment.   (I found research was a difficult task for my students. While these questions helped them, they struggles with writing details in their own words.  It is an area I need to continue doing mini-lessons.)

I have preselected websites: What is an ecosystem, Levels of OrganizationKids Corner, An Ecological System, Ecosystems for them to use and provide them with a note taking graphic organizer called: TOP TEN Facts- Defining an Ecosystem.  I selected this graphic organizer because I want my students to carefully consider the facts they read and really determine the main ideas that define an ecosystem. After reading through each website, they are recording the best ten facts they think define an ecosystem.  

These websites I use are student friendly sites that provide information about ecosystems.  By reading through and taking notes on the information these websites provide, students learn that ecosystems are made up of living and non-living things. They discover that the living parts of an ecosystem have roles and live in habitats; and ecosystems consist of a populations: a group organisms one species that lives in an area at one time; and that these populations make up the community (all the populations in in an area at one time), and find out that community members rely on one another for shelter, food, and reproduction.  In addition, they read about the nonliving features of an ecosystem: soil, water, air, sun, and temperature and learn that the living and nonliving features work together in an ecosystem.

I present the terms biotic and abiotic by writing them on the board.  I review the prefix bio- and share that it means life.  I ask students, "knowing the meaning of that prefix, think about these terms.  Which one do you think means living? nonliving?"  Students are quick to determine that biotic means living and abiotic means nonliving. I tell them we will continue using these terms throughout the unit as we learn more about these parts of ecosystems.

Using Research to Define an Ecosystem

Once they have completed this research, they use their ten facts to summarize and define an ecosystem. They do this by synthesizing the information using the getting the gist graphic orgnizer. Their task with this template is to summarize their learning into a paragraph that is no longer than 20 words.  I selected this format for students to use because I often find students try to write every single detail they read about rather than the main ideas.  By using this in conjunction with the top ten facts graphic organizer, students work on developing a paragraph that defines an ecosystem.

I call on a few students to share their ecosystem statement with the class.  After a few share aloud, I define the term on our important to know board as:

ecosystem: all the living and nonliving things in an area.

After summarizing their research into a Getting the Gist paragraph, I collect them to use as a formative assessment. I want to see how students synthesized their research into a 20 word summary.

Exit Ticket

5 minutes

After researching, summarizing, and defining an ecosystem, I ask students to fill out the exit ticket.  I use this exit ticket as a formative assessment to identify areas of an ecosystem students are struggling with understanding and / or misconceptions.  I tell the students to place the exit ticket in the bucket on the way out to their next class.