Experiment with Ecosystems

The Concord Consortium, Inc.
Type Category
Instructional Materials
Interactive Simulation
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.



Students use an ecosystem simulator to test their hypotheses about producer/consumer and predator/prey relationships. The simulation includes grass, rabbits, hawks and foxes interacting together in one ecosystem. Students can change any one of the individual components and watch the effect that the change has on the total ecosystem. Data is generated by the computer simulation in the form of a line graph that shows population change over time.

Intended Audience

Educator and learner
Educational Level
  • Grade 5
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
This simulation builds towards student proficiency of 5-LS2-1. It explicitly focuses on LS2.A: Organisms can survive only in environments in which their particular needs are met. A healthy ecosystem is one in which multiple species of different types are each able to meet their needs in a relatively stable web of life. Newly introduced species can upset the balance of an ecosystem. This activity could be extended by relating the simulation ecosystem and its plants and animals to local ecosystems. In order to more fully teach this standard, the student would need to understand that the energy originally comes from the sun for the plants to live, and the role that decomposers play in the ecosystem.

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 simulation allows the students to test cause and effect relationships within an ecosystem by changing the number of plants or animals at each level. Students are asked to make a prediction about what will happen, and then to explain what happened in the simulation.

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

Comments about Including the Science and Engineering Practice
This simulation allows the students to think about the ecosystem and change any of the parts of the system to see what might happen. A line graph accompanies this portion of the activity, and shows how the different populations change over time simultaneously. When students reach page 9 of the activity, have students record their questions before running the simulations. Depending on your group of students, you may wish to have students share their questions with the entire class before they begin investigating.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

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

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
This simulation does a good job of allowing the students to explore producers and first and second level consumers in the ecosystem. Plan for enough time for students to share their findings from the simulation and make connections to what proportions of producers/consumers are needed for a stable ecosystem. The role of the sun to provide the energy to the plants, as well as decomposers to return the energy back to the soil, should be discussed to more fully address the Core Idea.

Crosscutting Concepts

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

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
Since the student can change any of the pieces and watch the whole ecosystem change, this activity is a good way to show how one small part of a system can affect the whole system. For instance, if the grass is removed from the simulated ecosystem, everything in the ecosystem will die out. To further support this concept, you will want to bring in multiple ecosystem examples with different producers/consumers.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: The crosscutting concept is included in this activity, but other examples of ecosystems should be introduced to fully explore this concept. This simulation does not explain that the sun provides the energy for plants, or the role that decomposers play in the ecosystem.

  • Instructional Supports: This simulation has an extensive teacher's guide, which can be found on the page to download the simulation. Although students are engaged in relevant phenomena and sense making, this simulation does not contain suggestions for differentiating for struggling or accelerated students, connecting the ecosystem to the local community, or offer extension activities. English language learners may have trouble following the written directions on each page, but should be able to run the simulations because the animals are represented with pictures. Since this is a computer based application, users with disabilities will be able to utilize visual and auditory accessibility features. This simulation is part of the Evolution Readiness Project, and you can find the other activities mentioned in the activity at https://concord.org/projects/evolution-readiness#about.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: The teacher's guide suggests possible answers for student questions, but does not provide students with tools to self-assess. If the teacher has the students sign in and save their work, the teacher will be able to read individual student explanations of the simulation. Otherwise the teacher will have to use class discussion to monitor student progress. The simulation includes a Lab Notebook feature which allows the student to take snapshots of their screen at any point during the simulation.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: Students are able to investigate their questions using the online simulation. The Lab Notebook feature allows the students to capture an image while playing the simulation. This simulation does take a while to download, so it should be done well in advance of the time that the instructor wishes to use it with their class.