Data Nuggets: Tree-killing beetles

Liz Schultheis and Melissa Kjelvik Creator
Type Category
Instructional Materials
Data , Graph , Informative Text , Lesson/Lesson Plan
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.



“Tree-killing beetles” is one lesson from the Data Nuggets website. Data Nuggets are lessons that originated from a partnership of teachers and scientists to address both the needs of scientists to share their research broadly and improve their communication skills and the needs of teachers for authentic resources that help students engage in the practice of science. Data Nuggets give students practice interpreting quantitative information and making claims based on evidence. In this activity, students use and/or construct graphs to facilitate data interpretation, and are challenged to construct explanations based on evidence.

“Tree-killing beetles” begins with the phenomenon of lodgepole pine forest devastation by mountain pine beetle outbreaks. One scientist, Tony Vorster, observed a potential correlation between tree size and beetle infestation. The driving question is, “How does the average tree size in a forest influence its susceptibility to mountain pine beetles?” The lesson involves discovering the scientist’s (Tony Vorster’s) hypothesis, graphing and/or data analysis, making a claim, and providing evidence and reasoning to support the claim. The lesson includes a teacher guide (available by email request:, student activity sheets at three different proficiency levels, background information, a grading rubric, and additional support and information, including a scientific paper associated with this study, is also included as a resource.

Intended Audience

Educational Level
  • Middle School
Access Restrictions

Free access with user action - The right to view and/or download material without financial barriers but users are required to register or experience some other low-barrier to use.

Performance Expectations

MS-LS2-2 Construct an explanation that predicts patterns of interactions among organisms across multiple ecosystems.

Clarification Statement: Emphasis is on predicting consistent patterns of interactions in different ecosystems in terms of the relationships among and between organisms and abiotic components of ecosystems. Examples of types of interactions could include competitive, predatory, and mutually beneficial.

Assessment Boundary: none

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this performance expectation, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
The amount of data is enough for middle schoolers to support a claim with evidence without being overwhelmed. If students need more of a challenge, the teacher could present additional data from the original source. This activity is a good starting point for the performance expectation, but the teacher will need to engage students in the practice and disciplinary core ideas several times before the students meet the expectation. This resource addresses parasitism as the interaction in this forest ecosystem and uses patterns to help explain interactions of the relationship between different organisms. The complex relationships, even beyond parasitism, between lodgepole pines, mountain pine beetles, and the blue-stain fungi provides an extension activity for students to explore.

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
This resource provides information and data from a scientific study on the interactions between mountain pine beetles, blue stain fungi, and North American lodgepole pine trees. The information is graphed by the students and analyzed. Students are given prompts that lead them to develop a claim and to support their claim with evidence and reasoning. Students use an authentic data table, identify the independent and dependent variables, graph the data, and analyze their results. Some students may need some scaffolding (e.g. graphic organizers, sentence starters) if writing a Claims-Evidence-Reasoning (CER) response is new to them. Resources at NSTA could be used to scaffold CER at As with any of the science and engineering practices, students will need multiple opportunities to engage in them before mastering the performance expectation.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
The scientific (driving) question for the lesson is how the average tree size in a forest influences its susceptibility to mountain pine beetles. Students look at the correlation of lodgepole diameter, number of trees killed, and percentage of the forest with the lodgepole pines. This lesson does not fully address a multitude of interactions in this and other ecosystems so the teacher should add readings or other case studies that compare other interactions, such as mutualism and predation. An article that could be utilized to show how scientists use biological control, natural enemies, to manage Mountain Bark Beetles populations is found at The resources listed in the Teacher’s Guide provide a scientific paper by the authors of this activity. A teacher could add additional scientific readings of interactions in other ecosystems and then have students participate in a Socratic Seminar.

Crosscutting Concepts

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this crosscutting concept, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
Students could use the data and the graphs to develop a cause and effect relationship between lodgepole diameter, number of trees killed, and percentage of the forest with the lodgepole pines. The graphs also allow the students to identify the independent and dependent variables within the experiment helping them understand the causal relationships involved. Although this resource provides a data set, the patterns of cause and effect are not highlighted in the activity. However, alternative hypotheses are mentioned in the teacher guide (p3). This is a great opportunity for students to think about how "more than one mechanism may be operating in this system at a time". They can even discuss whether these variables are correlation or causation and identify what additional evidence is needed to support a cause and effect relationship. The teacher can make suggestions to elicit student explanations when they are evaluating the graphs, and engage the students in describing the relationships that are evident. The teacher can have students research on their own, or the teacher could provide other resources to examine a variety of ecosystem interactions and discuss the variety of interactions. Use of chart paper or whiteboards could allow students to diagram the pattern and do a Gallery Walk to share their thinking.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: This Data Nugget lesson uses the three dimensions to explain the phenomena of tree death during beetle infestation. It is structured to elicit direct observable evidence of students’ three-dimensional learning as they make sense of an authentic phenomenon and real data. The students use patterns to identify cause and effect relationships as they explore the mountain pine beetles, blue stain fungi, and the lodgepole pine interactions. Argumentation, through a Claim-Evidence-Reasoning approach, helps to develop an understanding of these interdependent relationships. This lesson could be strengthened by providing additional ecosystem interactions to elicit student questions and prior knowledge. Suggestions are provided in the “Tips” sections of this review.

  • Instructional Supports: This Data Nugget lesson offers teachers instructional supports. A teacher guide, printable student activity sheets (provided at three different proficiency levels) and a grading rubric are provided. The Teacher Guide includes both teacher notes, checks for understanding, meta moments, and answer keys. The final questions within the Data Nugget lesson provide opportunities for extended activities. The website provides additional instructional support for differentiated instruction ( and extension ( Another suggestion is to introduce a clip about forest devastation caused by Mountain Bark Beetles to promote students' questions and interest in this topic prior to reading the “Research Background”. In addition, teachers may want to include videos of other examples of forest devastation such as:

  • Monitoring Student Progress: This Data Nugget lesson elicits evidence of students’ three-dimensional learning. Printable student worksheets are provided at three different proficiency levels; these student worksheets at different levels make the lesson accessible and unbiased by providing a variety of representations of the data for all academic levels. Teachers have additional suggested ways to check students’ understanding within the Teacher Guide. A comprehensive scoring rubric is also provided.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: This is not an interactive, technology-based resource.