Building a Biosphere

Stanford NGSS Assessment Project
Type Category
Assessment Materials
Assessment Item , Lesson/Lesson Plan , Model
This resource, vetted by NSTA curators, is provided to teachers along with suggested modifications to make it more in line with the vision of the NGSS. While not considered to be "fully aligned," the resources and expert recommendations provide teachers with concrete examples and expert guidance using the EQuIP rubric to adapted existing resources. Read more here.


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This instructionally-embedded assessment (performance assessment embedded into a set of lessons lasting 3-5 days) helps students make sense of the complex interactions in that occur in an ecosystem. For decades, scientists and engineers have been investigating how to develop an enclosed system that will be able to sustain life. In this series of lessons, students watch videos to introduce them to the design challenge, developing a biosphere that would allow people to live on Mars. The lessons include guiding questions to help students develop their own solutions to the problem and describe the science involved.

Intended Audience

Educator and learner
Educational Level
  • Upper Elementary
  • Grade 5
  • Grade 4
  • Grade 3
Access Restrictions

Free access - The right to view and/or download material without financial, registration, or excessive advertising barriers.

Performance Expectations

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

Clarification Statement: Emphasis is on the idea that matter that is not food (air, water, decomposed materials in soil) is changed by plants into matter that is food. Examples of systems could include organisms, ecosystems, and the Earth.

Assessment Boundary: Assessment does not include molecular explanations.

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this performance expectation.

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
Students are asked to work in groups to develop a model of a sustainable biosphere and then use the model to explain movement of matter in the system. It may be helpful to observe other types of ecosystems (a fish tank, the schoolyard, a video of a tropical rainforest) and consider what components students would put into a model of that ecosystem. Students could write their observations and make model food chains or webs in their science notebooks. Note: The link in the introduction is broken. The video can be found with a search, but it focuses on human extinction, and may not be appropriate for elementary students. The link in Part A provides background information on the concept of a Mars ecosystem. ( This Newsela article could also be used for background information: In addition, the student instruction sheet states, “The Biosphere dome they designed...will provide the energy that the ecosystem needs.” This is inaccurate in that it would be more likely that the dome should allow sunlight to pass through, making the sun the source of energy. You may want to discuss with students other possible sources of energy (batteries, nuclear energy, fuels) and why they would be challenging to incorporate into a dome on Mars.

Science and Engineering Practices

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this science and engineering practice.

Comments about Including the Science and Engineering Practice
The models that students develop drive their conversations about relationships in ecosystems. To more fully address this practice, students should reflect on the meaning of interaction, and how the interactions in their domes would affect the system’s function. Students could then discuss what their models will represent and how a model of a biosphere is different from other models. For example, the model should show the flow of energy.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
In order for the biosphere to be sustainable, resources (air, water, and nutrients) must be reused. These concepts are brought out in the student explanations. To help students develop the necessary background knowledge, your class might investigate “Biome in a Bag” found here: prior to starting this assessment. Or see this related resource:

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
This assessment assumes some student background related to this disciplinary core idea. Students should have prior experiences exploring these relationships in natural ecosystems before attempting this assessment.

Crosscutting Concepts

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this crosscutting concept.

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
Prior to developing their models of biosphere systems, students should discuss the necessary components (air, water, nutrients, producers, consumers, decomposers, energy). Depending on the needs of your students, this could be done as a whole class, or in groups that give feedback to each other. It is important for students to consider each component of the biosphere system, and how the components interact.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: All three dimensions of NGSS are clearly defined in the lesson plans. Students use models (practice) to show how matter is transferred (disciplinary core idea) in a biosphere system (crosscutting concept). In addition to brainstorming what they know about Mars, students should ask questions and seek information from reliable sources.

  • Instructional Supports: Suggestions are given to ensure all students have background information on conditions on Mars, however students will need a lot of background information on ecosystems, food webs, and energy flow prior to developing their own model ecosystem. Designing a biosphere may be more useful as the culmination of a unit, rather than a stand-alone project. The structure of the lessons provides strong support for students. Working in groups and sharing ideas with the whole class, through conversations and a gallery walk, will support all learners. Sentence frames are provided for some writing prompts.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: This unit was designed to assess learning progress through the use of models and explanations. The class develops criteria for success guidelines, and may self-assess. The completed projects and worksheets provide a record of student learning.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: These lessons do not include a technologically interactive component.