Surviving Winter in the Dust Bowl (Food Chains and Trophic Levels)

Sharon Schleigh Victor Sampson
Type Category
Instructional Materials
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.



This is one of 30 lessons from the NSTA Press book Scientific Argumentation in Biology. The lesson engages students in an argumentation cycle based on an engaging scenario in which their group is a farm family trying to survive a dust bowl winter with limited food and water resources. The family has a bull, a cow, and limited amounts of water and wheat. Students are presented with four options that include various combinations of eating or keeping the animals alive and eating the wheat. Within this scenario, the lesson provides data on nutritional requirements of cows and humans, along with nutritional contents of wheat, milk, and beef. Students then use this data to construct an argument for the best strategy to allow their family to survive. As they construct this argument, students build and apply knowledge of food chains, trophic levels, interdependence among organisms, and energy transfers within ecosystems. This lesson is intended for middle or high school students. Teachers are encouraged to refer to the preface, introduction, student assessment samples, and appendix provided in the full book for important background on the practice of argumentation and resources for classroom implementation.

Intended Audience

Educator and learner
Educational Level
  • Middle School
  • High School
Access Restrictions

Available for purchase - The right to view, keep, and/or download material upon payment of a one-time fee.

Performance Expectations

HS-LS2-4 Use mathematical representations to support claims for the cycling of matter and flow of energy among organisms in an ecosystem

Clarification Statement: Emphasis is on using a mathematical model of stored energy in biomass to describe the transfer of energy from one trophic level to another and that matter and energy are conserved as matter cycles and energy flows through ecosystems. Emphasis is on atoms and molecules such as carbon, oxygen, hydrogen and nitrogen being conserved as they move through an ecosystem.

Assessment Boundary: Assessment is limited to proportional reasoning to describe the cycling of matter and flow of energy.

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
This collection of lessons was published before the final NGSS, so specific Performance Expectations are not cited. However, the lessons are explicitly aligned to Disciplinary Core Ideas, Crosscutting Concepts, and practices from A Framework for K-12 Science Education. In this lesson, students are provided with quantitative data on nutritional requirements and nutritional properties of the various organisms and food sources in the scenario. Based on their analysis of this data, students support a specific claim about which survival strategy will be best for the family living on the farm. The scenario highlights a very simple food chain, i.e. wheat-cow-human. In order to fully address the Performance Expectation, the teacher will need to guide students in connecting this simple food chain to the complex food webs that exist in ecosystems. For example, teachers might extend this lesson to engage students in an exploration of the full prairie food web that might sustain the family in a non-drought year.

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 lesson resources provide students with tabulated data on nutritional requirements and nutritional properties of the organisms and food sources involved in the scenario. Students are asked to use these data to support their claim regarding the best survival strategy. Depending on students' mathematical background, the teacher may need to guide students in representing and interpreting the data provided. At some point in the lesson, most teachers would want to guide students toward representing energy flow in the form of the classical energy pyramid. The teacher will need to guide students in connecting the simple food chain presented in the scenario to a complex food web upon which an energy pyramid is based.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

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

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
This lesson focuses heavily on energy transfer and less on the cycling of matter. The teacher notes mention that students will likely have difficulty independently connecting this lesson to cycling of matter. Therefore, the teacher will need to support students in making this connection. The lesson does not include direct instruction on the concepts of the Disciplinary Core Idea. Rather, the argumentation cycle provides a context in which students can apply their understanding of these concepts. Students may gain these understandings through prior instruction, instruction embedded within the argumentation cycle, or self-directed research within the argumentation cycle. The teacher notes describe the alignment between the lesson and the Disciplinary Core Idea. The scenario provides an engaging context to which students can connect their learning about the more complex interrelationships and energy transfers that occur in ecosystems.

Crosscutting Concepts

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

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
The concept of energy transfer and conservation provides the foundation for this lesson. In order to justify their claim within the scenario, students need to apply their understanding that as energy is transferred from one trophic level to the next much of that energy is transferred to the environment and is not usable by organisms in the higher trophic level. For example, teachers might accomplish this by asking students to conduct a conceptual energy audit that traces energy inputs and outputs for the cow. This will reveal that much energy is released through waste products and heat.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: This and the other lessons in this book were designed explicitly to address the three dimensions of the Framework for K-12 Science Education. This lesson, in particular, integrates the practice of using mathematical and computational thinking with the crosscutting concept of matter and energy and disciplinary core ideas related to energy in ecosystems. In addition to these components of three-dimensional learning, the lesson offers a context in which to address other practices, crosscutting concepts and core ideas. These are listed in the Teacher Notes. These dimensions are woven together as students use new and existing knowledge to develop an explanation for which approach would be most effective within the given scenario. Teachers are advised to familiarize themselves with Sampson and Schleigh's argumentation framework, suggested teacher behaviors, and assessment approaches before implementing this lesson in the classroom. The lesson resources do not include instructional materials that directly present the core concepts targeted by the lesson. Rather, the teacher will need to provide such instruction prior to or embedded within the argumentation cycle.

  • Instructional Supports: This lesson builds on an authentic scenario and is driven by the guiding question of which strategy will best enable the family to survive. The lesson explicitly supports students in engaging in three-dimensional learning as they develop and explanation to answer the guiding question. Opportunities for differentiation are inherent in the argumentation cycle, but those rely on skillful implementation of this pedagogy. The preface, introduction, assessment chapter, and appendix of the full book provide critical instructional support information for teachers who wish to implement this lesson. Students and teachers will develop the needed skills over time and with the implementation of multiple argumentation cycles. While the context of the lesson is grade appropriate the lesson materials do not provide specific content. Therefore, teachers will need to ensure that information sources accessed by students are grade appropriate.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: Constant monitoring and feedback are built in to the Sampson and Schleigh's argumentation framework, but they rely on skillful teacher interactions with students. Supportive questioning is critical to student success in this and similar lessons. Teachers should monitor and provide feedback to students as they construct initial arguments, present and critique arguments, and draft final written arguments. Teachers can also model and guide students in providing constructive peer feedback. Teachers should also consider allowing students to revise and improve final written arguments based on teacher and peer feedback.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: This is not a technology-based lesson. Technology may be incorporated in supporting instruction.