Abiotic & Biotic Factors in the Yellowstone Ecosystem

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SWBAT identify how the abiotic and biotic factors interact in the Yellowstone National Park ecosystem.

Big Idea

In this lesson, students will now apply their understanding of abiotic and biotic factors to a larger and naturally occurring ecosystem, Yellowstone National Park.

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 reviewing the interactions between abiotic and biotic factors within student ecosystem models. Then, students will explore the abiotic and biotic factors within the larger and naturally occurring Yellowstone National Park ecosystem. At the end of the lesson, students will begin analyzing possible interactions between the biotic and abiotic factors within Yellowstone. 

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.  

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 1: Asking Questions and Defining Problems 

Students will discuss possible answers to the question, "How do biotic and abiotic factors interact in the Yellowstone National Park ecosystem?" Students will also use their prior knowledge of interactions within their ecosystem models (created during the lesson, Constructing Ecosystem Models) to explain this larger, naturally occurring ecosystem. 

Crosscutting Concepts

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

Crosscutting Concept 1: Patterns

I am hoping that students will begin to see patterns between their more understandable and more concrete ecosystem models and real-world ecosystems. Just like the plants in student aquariums provide energy for the goldfish, producers, such as wheatgrass, provide Yellowstone animals, such as the bison, with energy as well. 

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.RI.5.1: Quote accurately from a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text. Students will be encouraged to find exact details from the text that support our research question, "How do biotic and abiotic factors interact in the Yellowstone National Park ecosystem?"

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!  


30 minutes


Yesterday, students examined their model ecosystems (Class Ecocolumns) by researching the interactions between the biotic and abiotic factors with these ecosystem models. We started by discussing the biotic and abiotic factors using the following poster: Biotic & Abiotic Poster. Then, as a class, we discussed the Abiotic Factors (such as rocks and water) and their interactions within the ecosystem models. After yesterday's lesson, I added a few diagrams (Biotic Factors Diagrams) to inspire student interest. 

To begin today's lesson, I invite students to the front carpet with their research notes on the biotic factors from yesterday: Student Notes on Biotic Factors. Using student suggestions, I complete the Biotic side of the poster (Biotic Poster). To encourage active engagement, I ask students to add to their notes during this time.  

Lesson Introduction & Goal 

I introduce today's learning goal: I can identify how the abiotic and biotic factors interact in the Yellowstone National Park ecosystem. I explain: Yesterday, we studied how the biotic and abiotic factors are interacting in our ecocolumn models. Today, you'll begin examining a much larger, naturally occurring ecosystem, Yellowstone National Park!

Teacher Note: Almost all of my students have visited Yellowstone National Park as it is only an hour and a half away from our hometown, Bozeman, MT. This allows them to engage with this particular ecosystem using personal experiences!


Inspired by the Yellowstone ecosystem food web at this link, I create a Yellowstone Ecosystem poster for organizing new learning. We will return to this poster throughout this unit, when discussing consumers, producers, and decomposers as well as food chains and webs. 

Today, this poster will provide a space for taking background notes on Yellowstone National Park and for identifying biotic and abiotic factors within this ecosystem. 


Before we begin adding any information to the Yellowstone Ecosystem Poster, I show the following video clip, stopping throughout the clip to take notes and discuss key points: Yellowstone Notes. During this time, the class is involved in a rich discussion about their own experiences at Yellowstone National Park, which helps this lesson come to life! 

Student Posters

I also provide students with their own copies of the Yellowstone Poster: Student Copy. My heart sings as I hear one student say, "I love this!" I also enlarge the study copy on 11 x 17 paper so students have extra room for note taking: Student Yellowstone Poster


20 minutes

Getting Ready

At this time, I ask each student to get out their science journals and to get a laptop computer from the class cart so that each student can access an online resource for further research.  

To support students as they explore the biotic and abiotic factors of Yellowstone, I email the following text to students. All of my students have Google email accounts so sharing links to resources is quick and easy! 

I explain: Today, you will be working in groups of two. Students know that this means they will be working with their elbow partners. I'd like for you and your partner to make a list of the biotic and abiotic factors in Yellowstone National Park using this online resource. 

I then model how to make a two-column chart on a new page in our science journals to keep track of the biotic and abiotic factors in Yellowstone. Students create their own two-column charts at this time as well. Here's what a completed chart will look like: Biotic & Abiotic T-Chart

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 ____?

Student Conferences

During this conference, Students Taking Notes on Yellowstone, one student says that precipitation is the same thing as water. I push his thinking a bit by pointing out that the form of water changes everything... whether it is available drink water or precipitation. 

Reflect & Apply

30 minutes

Sharing Findings

Now that students have built meaning and understanding by exploring the biotic and abiotic factors of Yellowstone, it is important to provide students with the opportunity to share their findings. For this reason, I invite the class to help make a list of biotic and abiotic factors altogether. I record this list in my science journal that's projected on the whiteboard: Teacher Journal Notes. I love how some students read beyond the first few paragraphs and are able to identify fire as an abiotic factor in ecosystems! 

Yellowstone Poster

This is the perfect time to circle back around to the Yellowstone poster to label both biotic and abiotic factors: Yellowstone Poster After. Students love guessing the names of animals (such as the cutthroat trout and pronghorn (antelope). One by one, I label the large poster while students label their own posters: Student Yellowstone Poster

Final Discussion

To wrap up today's lesson, I ask students to write the following question in their journals: How do biotic and abiotic factors interact in the Yellowstone National Park ecosystem? (Student Notes on Yellowstone) Altogether, we discuss and take note of possible interactions (Teacher Journal Notes), including: 

  • The red tailed hawk might eat the trout.
  • The wheatgrass is food for many mammals.
  • The sunlight makes trees grow.