Exploring the “Systems” in Ecosystems

Type Category
Instructional Materials
Activity , Animation/Movie
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 a 4-5 day set of activities that uses a systems thinking approach to teach students about the various components of ecosystems as well as the different roles that organisms have within the ecosystem.

Intended Audience

Educator and learner
Educational Level
  • Grade 8
  • Grade 7
  • Grade 6
  • 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-LS2-4 Construct an argument supported by empirical evidence that changes to physical or biological components of an ecosystem affect populations.

Clarification Statement: Emphasis is on recognizing patterns in data and making warranted inferences about changes in populations, and on evaluating empirical evidence supporting arguments about changes to ecosystems.

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 overall sequence of these activities is good, but more teacher needs to make sure to allow the activities to be student-centered. Discussion questions need to be purposeful and have students focus on the objectives of the PE. This activity has students analyze and interpret data about ecosystems. The students use this data and information to determine what would happen if part of the system were to change. If the teacher wishes to cover the SEP, Engaging in argument from evidence, the students need to develop a relevant question to elicit the depth of response needed for a strong argument.

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
There are choices for students and quality resources provided. The teacher needs to be sure to leave it to the students to determine the data that should be analyzed in order to answer the questions. Students should also be asked to develop their own question(s) to answer so they are not just responding to pre-decided questions. With some classes, teachers may want to have the class of students word some questions that could be recorded on the board as possible extensions for students to pursue.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

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

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
In order to be sure that students develop an understanding of how disruptions to any component can lead to shifts in all populations, teachers should have students consider the ecosystem with one of its species removed. Teachers could choose a species for each of the ecosystems that are given in the resources and have the students analyze what that particular species eats and what eats that species. Students would develop an explanation of the changes that would occur if that species were to disappear.

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

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
Teachers can have student groups collaboratively develop diagrams of example food webs for their ecosystem using different arrows to represent food and energy being transferred. Groups could present ideas to whole class and these diagrams could assist with student discussions by providing a visual. Teacher should use this lesson in conjunction with lessons on the Carbon and Nitrogen cycles to have students trace the path of specific atoms to determine a pattern of recycling.

Crosscutting Concepts

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

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
Teachers could have the students consider both microscopic changes (ie acid rain or air quality) and macroscopic changes (changes in a population of consumers) in order to be sure students understand the effects of any change to the stability of the ecosystem. Students can develop their own questions to research regarding a particular variable and develop an explanation or diagram to show how the small change can be magnified within the ecosystem to produce a large overall effect.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: While the ideas presented and the resources provided are aligned to several ideas of NGSS, the overall lesson plan needs to be revised to give the students more ownership of the ideas. The teacher will need to finalize the alignment to the NGSS by including more opportunities for the students to develop specific questions to guide discussion to reach the expectation of the NGSS.

  • Instructional Supports: The Instructional supports are great interactives that allow the students to independently control variables and investigate organisms.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: By having student groups develop models and discuss ideas in small groups, more opportunity for formative assessment will be available.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: Interactives are easy to navigate and give multiple types of information.