Calculating Biodiversity in the Real World

Melissa Schen, Leslie Berger
Type Category
Instructional Materials
Student Guide , 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.



In this lesson plan, students use Simpson’s biodiversity index to answer the research question: “How do two wooded areas of different ages compare in species biodiversity?” Simpson’s biodiversity index measures not only how many different species there are within a community, but also the relative species’ abundance. In other words, this index measures not only the number of representative species, but also whether or not the number of organisms within the community is evenly distributed among the different populations. The authors describe how their students learned to identify native plants and explored wooded areas near their school. However, suggestions are made about using other organisms as well as how to do this lesson if students cannot venture outside. The authors offer ways to assess student learning and how to solve issues surrounding challenging weather. They do, however, advocate for students to go outside for the benefits of learning, using authentic scientific practices, and understanding their native ecology through personal experience. The authors provide guidance about safety precautions that may be needed for exploring wooded or wild-growth areas to protect students from injury, insect bites, and plants such as poison ivy .

Intended Audience

Educational Level
  • High School
Access Restrictions

Available by subscription - The right to view and/or download material, often for a set period of time, by way of a financial agreement between rights holders and authorized users.

Performance Expectations

HS-LS2-2 Use mathematical representations to support and revise explanations based on evidence about factors affecting biodiversity and populations in ecosystems of different scales.

Clarification Statement: Examples of mathematical representations include finding the average, determining trends, and using graphical comparisons of multiple sets of data.

Assessment Boundary: Assessment is limited to provided data.

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

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
This lesson plan does a very good job of introducing students to one way of comparing biodiversity between two communities that may be different in size. The data gathering and analysis supports their comparison. However, in order to address the full breadth of the PE, students could consider how to use their quantitative results to support and/or revise explanations about abiotic/biotic factors affecting biodiversity in the two communities they are comparing. One way to do this is to have students explore the two different areas prior to collecting data. During these initial visits, students could make qualitative observations and offer ideas about their impressions of the two areas. Does one species dominate? Do they think that an area is biodiverse? Why or why not? How would they compare one area to another? In the lesson plan as written, teachers survey the area beforehand to collect plant specimens for the students to identify in the classroom prior to collecting data. If students participate in surveying the area and collecting specimens, they will learn more about the local ecology and can also participate in identifying which species to count. After participating in this initial survey, they can collect their data and see if it supports their explanations of why the two areas may differ from one another, consider abiotic/biotic factors within the two different communities that may be affecting populations, and also see if they need to revise their explanation. As they do so, they can offer evidence about factors that may be influencing their findings.

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 authors explain how to use Simpson’s biodiversity index to compare two communities. In the example provided, the two areas differed in their ecological history and in their total number of individuals; one area had been cleared about 60 years ago and the other had never been cleared. However, the plot size (10 m x 10 m) was identical for the two areas. The same method can be used for comparing differently sized communities within differently sized areas. Students use mathematical representations by marking out the study plots, creating a population data table, calculating Simpson’s biodiversity index, and comparing and interpreting the two results. The practice may be enhanced by changing the research question from a comparison of how two areas may be different or the same to creating an explanation based on initial observation of these areas and then seeing if their data support their explanation or if they need to revise it.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

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

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
This lesson does not address carrying capacity and would need to be redesigned to do so. The strength of this lesson lies in students learning a tool (Simpson’s biodiversity index) to be able to compare communities of different scales. That said, the lesson can include more of the concepts within the core idea by considering the factors of predation, competition, and disease as students compare biodiversity between two different communities.

Crosscutting Concepts

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

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
The crosscutting concept is at the core of this lesson and gives it strength and value. In searching for lessons that allow students to compare communities of different sizes, examples of doing so are few. In this particular lesson, the students are asked to compare two identically sized plots of land. However, the lesson can easily be adapted to work with two areas of different scale. The power of the lesson lies in the use of the Simpson's biodiversity index which allows a comparison of two populations of completely different sizes.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: As mentioned previously, this lesson does not strongly support the full PE or the full core idea. However, it does an excellent job of providing students with a mathematical representation that allows comparison of different communities of different sizes. By building on the tips provided above, the lesson can be improved to address the PE more thoroughly.

  • Instructional Supports: The lesson makes many suggestions to teachers about how to prepare for the lesson, address challenges, collect and analyze data, provide safety precautions, and how to assess students on their learning. The lesson also "engages students in an authentic and meaningful scenario" which would be enhanced by the students exploring the areas prior to doing the actual counting of organisms.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: The lesson suggests ways to support student learning by preparing students to identify organisms prior to collecting data, representing data in ways that are more visual, and by suggesting a way to assess students after completing the lesson. The idea of using a spreadsheet for the collection of data and for the analysis of data will help facilitators to monitor students' understanding throughout the lesson. Although a pre-test and post-test comparison is also mentioned, it is not clear from the article how this was done. Student learning could be monitored by asking students to answer some questions prior to the lesson about factors affecting relative species abundance within the two communities they will be studying. After completing the lesson, students could review their initial responses and see if their understanding has changed. Peer review of students’ explanations is another way to reveal understanding.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: N/A