Uncovering Wildlife

Holly Travis
Type Category
Instructional Materials
Article , Lesson/Lesson Plan , Activity
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 article in NSTA’s February 2016 issue of “The Science Teacher” describes how “cover boards” can be used to create microhabitats, models of ecosystems, that allow students to investigate  interactions under different and/or changing environmental conditions. A “cover board” is any piece of square or rectangular plywood, plexiglass, flooring tile, or other material that can be placed flat on the ground. Cover boards attract, but do not harm or trap, small- and medium-sized animals in forested, grassy, or wetland habitats. The author uses the 5E instructional model (Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate, Evaluate) to describe a suggested field research project. However, the actual design of the project is left open for students to decide. Safety precautions are provided that may be needed for exploring wooded or wild-growth areas to protect students from injury. Students engage in science and engineering practices such as asking questions, planning and carrying out investigations, analyzing and interpreting data, using mathematics and computational thinking, constructing explanations, and obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information. Teacher instructional information, suggested research questions, a student data sheet, and ways for students to display and communicate their findings with their peers are all provided. Internet links include four different biodiversity indexes.

Intended Audience

Educational Level
  • High School
Access Restrictions

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Performance Expectations

HS-LS4-5 Evaluate the evidence supporting claims that changes in environmental conditions may result in: (1) increases in the number of individuals of some species, (2) the emergence of new species over time, and (3) the extinction of other species.

Clarification Statement: Emphasis is on determining cause and effect relationships for how changes to the environment such as deforestation, fishing, application of fertilizers, drought, flood, and the rate of change of the environment affect distribution or disappearance of traits in species.

Assessment Boundary: none

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

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
One way to use this lesson is to leave cover boards in place over several years so that successive classes can compare data. Doing so will help to determine changes over time and better address this part of the performance expectation. The lesson cannot collect data on new species emerging over time, nor is it likely to determine the extinction of other species.

HS-LS2-6 Evaluate the claims, evidence, and reasoning that the complex interactions in ecosystems maintain relatively consistent numbers and types of organisms in stable conditions, but changing conditions may result in a new ecosystem.

Clarification Statement: Examples of changes in ecosystem conditions could include modest biological or physical changes, such as moderate hunting or a seasonal flood; and extreme changes, such as volcanic eruption or sea level rise.

Assessment Boundary: none

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

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
This lesson explains well how cover boards can be used in a variety of ways to help students build towards mastering the performance expectation. The areas under the cover boards may be considered as microhabitats of their own or as sample areas representing the ecosystem where the cover board is placed. Students may need guidance in selecting a research question that guides them along a trajectory towards deeper understanding. One way to do this is to suggest a generative question - one that may be answered in a variety of ways but addresses the intent of the performance expectation. For example, “Does changing [the selected variable] result in consistent numbers and types of organisms in this ecosystem or is it likely to result in a new ecosystem?” Or “Is biodiversity likely to be affected by [the selected variable] over time?” The “Engage” and “Explore” sections of the article provide ideas for variables that students may want to investigate as well as ideas of specific research questions.

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
In the “Explore” section of this lesson, students are asked to describe a research question and hypothesis based on information they gather about the ecosystem during the “Engage” part of the lesson. During the “Elaborate” and “Evaluate” parts of the lesson, students collect data and evaluate how well their results support their hypothesis. Although the lesson does not specifically call the research question and related hypothesis a “claim,” the author does speak of making a prediction and then seeing if the data they collect supports their prediction. Teachers can strengthen the alignment to the performance expectation by explicitly asking students to make a claim, support their claim with initial observations of the ecosystem, and then to see whether the data they collect supports their thinking. From their results, they can create an argument. Peer evaluations offer another way for students to practice supporting their claim with evidence as other students may challenge their conclusions. If data is collected by multiple classes over time, students can also evaluate the claims of previous classes and make an argument to support or refute these earlier claims. To support their claim, students may want to calculate the biodiversity index for each cover board where they obtained data. These calculations will help students to compare sites.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

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

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
Students may want to consider whether or not the cover board causes some organisms to leave or others to gather. Certain conditions under the cover board may cause some organisms to leave; this suggests that these conditions cannot be tolerated in their native habitat (e.g., increase in temperature or increase in humidity.) Teachers may want to challenge students to think more deeply about their findings to extrapolate them to the larger ecosystem. The challenge may be in the form of questions that cause students to consider the implications of their results. For example, questions such as “Why do you think this organism is not under the cover board?” Or “What do you think would happen [to a specific organism] if the conditions under the cover board became universal within this ecosystem?” Or “Do you think if the conditions under the cover board were the same all throughout this ecosystem that [a particular species] would go extinct?” Teachers may want to follow up questions such as these by asking students to share their reasoning. When students have to explain their reasoning, it helps them to deepen their understanding or to find out what they do not know.

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

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
Students are asked to address one variable, so they will not be able to examine complex interactions within the ecosystem (or microhabitat). However, they can compare differences with the populations of organisms under the cover boards to their observations of the local community structure, or to differences under different conditions that other students are studying. Teachers may want to encourage students to compare their biodiversity index calculations and consider how the different variables they tested affected the local populations. This comparison may help students to approach the concept of “complex interactions” within the performance expectation and disciplinary core idea. Another option the author suggests is to evaluate food chain complexity and trophic levels in different microhabitats.

Crosscutting Concepts

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

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
Students collect data on the numbers of species and organisms within each species and then use one of the biodiversity indexes to calculate biodiversity. Comparing and analyzing these results, as well as other observations of ecosystem function, will help to differentiate between cause and correlations, as well as to support or refute claims about specific causes and effects.

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

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
Teachers may want to encourage students to compare the results of their biodiversity index calculations to explain how different ecosystems (or microhabitats) are similar and how they are different under different conditions. What types of change did the organisms tolerate? Under what conditions did the students notice the greatest change in their biodiversity index calculations? Teachers will want to encourage students to explain their results and to suggest evidence, using the results of their calculations, to support their explanations.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: This lesson is generally well aligned to the three dimensions of the designated performance expectations , but it does not present an explicit phenomenon. One way for a teacher to address this would be to set up a cover board in advance of the lesson. The teacher could present this phenomenon when the student went out for the first time to make observations of the ecosystem. Student questions and predictions could then anchor back to their initial experience with the teacher's cover board. The lesson does provide students with the opportunity to use the science practice of engaging in argument from evidence by collecting data of the number of species and the number of organisms within each species in order to calculate biodiversity using one of four different resources. Using this data and their calculations, students can evaluate their claims with empirical evidence and provide reasoning for their conclusions. The content of the lesson is centered on exploring the interactions within an ecosystem that may or may not cause changes in populations over time. Depending on how organisms respond to changing conditions, students can consider the impact of the variables they study on long-term changes to populations within that ecosystem. These changes may lead to expansion or decline of the species they study. The crosscutting concepts of stability and change and cause and effect are woven throughout the lesson.

  • Instructional Supports: “Uncovering Wildlife” provides students with an authentic and meaningful study of a local ecosystem. The lesson provides teachers with tips on how to engage students in the lesson, suggested research questions, a student data sheet, and ways for students to display and communicate their findings with their peers. Internet links include four different biodiversity indexes (see comment below under “Quality of Technological Interactivity”) and a suggested book on safety. Although some extension activities are briefly suggested, ways to differentiate learning are not offered.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: The lesson suggests that students work in groups. Because the lesson is structured so that students design their own investigation, there are no specific formative assessment questions or rubrics provided. There is a student handout and data sheet, but neither of these reveal student thinking or reasoning. At the end of the lesson, students do share their findings and conclusions. The author suggests ways to do this and whatever mode is chosen may be a way for teachers to evaluate student learning. Teachers will need to monitor student progress and prompt students to explain their thinking throughout the lesson to assess student understanding.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: There are no technologically interactive components in the actual lesson. However, there are a number of suggested Internet resources provided. The first one is a biodiversity calculator (http://bit.ly/1MKn9Si) that does not have very clear instructions; to use the calculator, just enter one number in the provided box - the number of species (or kinds of organisms) the students observed under their cover board. After this number is entered, the next screen will provide a place to enter the data. From this point, the directions are clear.