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How do you teach ecology?

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Ruth Hutson Ruth Hutson 63625 Points

Fall is upon us where I live and my high school biology class is starting an unit in ecology.  We try to incorporate some field work so that students get the full experience.  I'm curious to know how other life science teachers teach ecology especially the NGSS standard HS-LS2 which is Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics.  Would any of you be inclined to share how they address this standard?  Do you use field work, data sets, computer simulations, or some other method of delivery? 


Pamela Dupre Pamela Dupre 92364 Points

I'm an elementary teacher so I can't respond with 100% surety. Have you done a search in the Explore All Resources tab? Also, check out:

for resources in your grade level.

Ruth Hutson Ruth Hutson 63625 Points

Hi Pamela, 

Thanks for responding.  I actually did check out both the Learning Center and NGSS@NSTA hub first before starting this thread.  I found a lot of computer simulations to aid in the teaching of this standard.  What field studies I did find were coastal in nature. I live in the Midwest and I was hoping that educators would have access to some data sets that might be able to share or they might have an unique field study that they have their students conduct before moving onto something in the classroom.  

Have a great day,



Ashley Dang Ashley 2718 Points


I have been teaching residential outdoor education around the country (admittedly, at the 4th-6th grade levels) and working on NPS and Fish and Wildlife field biology crews for several years. I have found that the natural resources divisions of my local public lands agencies can have some great data and pointers for student field work. Try reaching out to your local state parks and wildlife department or your local division of the Fish and Wildlife Service (they run wildlife refuges, and some have great education and outreach departments). Texas Parks and Wildlife once provided my teaching staff with great data on local fish populations, which we utilized in some of our lessons. Here are some surveys my classes and field crews have done around the midwest:

- migratory bird surveys (especially geese, cranes, and corvids) in agricultural fields: what times of year do birds congregate in agricultural fields? What crops are the farmers growing, and on how large an area? How large are the flocks? How much time do they spend in the fields?

- vegetation survey: what species of plants exist in the study area (usually along a transect line)? How does the area stack up in terms of different measures of vegetative biodiversity? how old/large are the plants? If possible, also take climate and topography data. This one takes some plant ID skills, or an incredibly detailed guidebook.

- macroinvertebrate wetland surveys: what types of macroinvertebrates (various nymphs, beetles, snails, etc) are present in different bodies of water? The population of macroinverts in a water body can tell us a lot about the quality or consistency of the water source. Where are these bodies of water in relation to human structures or settlements?

- fuel loading inventory: how thick are the litter and duff layers in the survey area? What about coarse fuel loading (stick-sized through large logs)? When was the last time the area burned (either in a wildfire or a prescribed one)? What impact would a fire have in this area, according to its fuel loading (impact on wildlife/plant community/soils, release of carbon, human settlements)?

- burn survey: after a wildfire or prescribed fire, look for evidence of burned dead animals and woody vegetation. Use char and scortch heights on woody vegetation, and the degree of burning of soil as indications of burn severity. How long does it take the area to recover, based on the severity of the burn? What species of plants and animals return to the area most quickly? Do any fail to return?

Hopefully this sparks some ideas for you! If you find a good field investigation to do with your high schoolers, I'd love to hear how it goes!

Newstein Chang Newstein Chang 3110 Points

Hi Ruth,

One activity that was inspired from an NSTA online resource (I have attached the book chapter) to be very effective and engaging on teaching the concept of the Interdependence of Life, and more specifically food webs, is using index cards, writing names of organisms in a select ecosytems, and connecting them by a ball of yarn to symbolize relationships, or interactions within a food web. The activity is furthered detailed and expanded in a 5E lesson plan on Ecology that I wrote for a science education course; here is an excerpt of it from the document I am attaching, that I hope will help! (The lesson plan activity uses a food web in a marine ecosystem. the standards I used for this lesson plan are: NGSS Content Standards: 3-LS4-3- Interdependent Relationships in Ecosystems- Students who demonstrate understanding can: Construct an argument with evidence that in a particular habitat some organisms can survive well, some survive less well, and some cannot survive at all.)


Ask the students if they live at home with their family. Call on a few students to list the members in their family who they live with. Then ask the participants who cooks for the family. Raise the following question: “What if suddenly that member in the family disappeared?” If students reply that their parents take them to restaurants to eat, ask “What if the restaurant suddenly ran out of food?” Then ask who in their family drives them around. Follow-up with: “Now what if that member was gone?” Close the discussion by telling them to imagine a safari, where hundreds of species of animals live, including lions, zebras, and giraffes. Then ask  “Now what would happen if all the lions in the safari jungle died off?” Receive a couple of guesses, and transition to the next activity.


Food Chain Activity: Choose 6 volunteers who would like to participate in the next activity. Give each volunteer one index card, and tell them that each will play one part in an ecosystem. Write the 5 parts on the board: sun, phytoplankton, zooplankton, herring, bass, and shark. Next to each term, describe each abiotic and biotic factor, and what organisms require what. By the end, the students should know that phytoplankton require the sun to produce energy, that zooplankton feed on phytoplankton, herring on zooplankton, bass on herring, and shark on bass. Provide the terms with images for visual reference. Make sure the volunteers write their assigned terms on their index cards. Then hole punch the index cards, creating two holes at the upper corners of the index cards. Take around 20 inches of some yarn and bring the string through each hole, tying the ends at the hole. The end product should be a necklace with a hanging index card. Now call the volunteers to the front of the classroom, and randomize their order, while wearing the index cards hanging from the neck. The volunteers are not allowed to move. Then begin asking the class questions regarding the relationships between the organisms and sun: “Which organism needs the sun?” The volunteer wearing “phytoplankton” should be identified. Now take the remaining ball of yarn, and tell the volunteer wearing “sun” to hold onto the end of the yarn (and not let go), while the ball passes through the necklace of “phytoplankton.” Then ask: “Which organism relies on phytoplankton for food?” Zooplankton should be identified. The ball now should be passed through the necklace of the student with “zooplankton.” When asked which organism eats zooplankton, the yarn will be passed through “herring.” The same process is done through bass (which eats the herring). For the final role, the ball of yarn will pass through “shark.” The yarn should then be tied on the necklace yarn of the “shark” volunteer. The end product of this activity should show a complex network of yarn interconnecting the sun and every animal together.


By the end of the food chain activity, the students should observe a complex network of yarn connecting all the volunteers together. Ask the “sun” volunteer to tug on the yarn that he or she is holding. The whole class should see all the index cards move as a result of the tug from just the “sun” volunteer. Ask the class what that might mean. The teacher should then explicate that all the animals are part of a food chain in which every organism relies on the sun, as well as on each other. The term food chain should be discussed as a diagram to explain how energy is transferred between living things in an environment (make a disclaimer though, that the sun is not part of the food chain because it is not a living thing, but it is needed by all the living things in the food chain). The teacher should go back to the online game “Fish Food” and tie that activity with the food chain activity. In both cases, the fish depended on other fish for food. Moreover, there are different levels to the chain


Insect Habitat Web (Book Chapter)

Ecology_Lesson_Plan.docx (0.06 Mb)

Jeffrey Holland Jeffrey Holland 30 Points

There are some really great ideas posted here already!  Ecology is such a broad topic that it can be difficult to pick a representative lesson or project.  I think the single topic that would cover the most of ecology would be something like generating box and arrow diagrams of energy flow through an ecosystem.  This allows you to cover the big picture, and also to drill down into different aspects such as food webs if you want to.  To align with some of the comparative ideas above, you could construct diagrams for different habitats and compare and contrast them, e.g., a marsh which accumulates organic sediment versus a small lake with inflows and outflows.

To examine biodiversity and incorporate some math concepts, you could survey several times or with several teams, to list all the species in a taxon such as beetles or birds.  If you plot the cumulative number of different species (abscissa or X) versus the number of samples (ordinate or Y), the curve will start to level off as the common species are already accounted for and only the less common species add to the total number.  Projecting outwards beyond the samples the curve will approach an asymptote, which will represent the number of species present.  In effect, you are estimating the number of species that you did not see!  You could do this for different habitats and talk about why they are different, or do this for different tropic groups (predators, prey, etc.) and talk about why they are different.

Aquatic invertebrates are great indicators of water quality, and this nicely illustrates the interactions between biotic and abiotic elements of an ecosystem.  My former graduate student created an activity for doing this that uses photographs of representative insects and their tolerance to pollution to estimate water quality from insects found in the water.  It is available at the Purdue Agriculture Extension Store. 

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