Carbon TIME Ecosystems

Christa Haverly, Sarah Bodbyl, Christie Morrison Thomas, Kirsten Edwards, Hannah K. Miller, Charles W. (Andy) Anderson, Department of Teacher Education, Michigan State University
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.



   The Ecosystems unit is one of six unit in the Carbon TIME curriculum, which focus on carbon-transforming processes from the molecular scale to the global scale.  Ecosystems are larger systems where carbon-transforming processes –photosynthesis, biosynthesis, digestion, and cellular respiration – are constantly occurring. In combination, these processes create food chains, food webs, and organic matter pyramids—all components of the ecological carbon cycle, which cycles matter between inorganic carbon dioxide and organic materials, and energy flow through ecosystems.

    The goal of the Ecosystems unit is to introduce students to organic matter and chemical energy (in the context of combustion) using the tools for reasoning and environmental literacy practices that students will engage in during other units. Students must be able to identify organic matter from inorganic matter and understand how differences in the chemical composition of materials influence how materials and energy are transformed and moved between systems.  This unit will take approximately 3 weeks to complete in its entirety.

Intended Audience

Educational Level
  • Grade 6
  • Grade 7
  • Grade 8
  • 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-LS2-3 Develop a model to describe the cycling of matter and flow of energy among living and nonliving parts of an ecosystem.

Clarification Statement: Emphasis is on describing the conservation of matter and flow of energy into and out of various ecosystems, and on defining the boundaries of the system.

Assessment Boundary: Assessment does not include the use of chemical reactions to describe the processes.

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

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
Throughout the unit, students are gathering ideas about the cycling of matter and flow of energy around an ecosystem. In Activity 3.2 students themselves actually use a dice game to model the matter and use twist ties to represent energy that flows through carbon pools within an ecosystem. The game that is used explicitly shows students how the process occurs. The ideas that are generated in the first two lessons and the explanations that are developed in the latter lessons are necessary for student comprehension. Throughout the activities, students are developing their own mental model of the cycling of matter and the flow of energy through the ecosystem. Teachers should use the entire unit to develop student understanding of the concept. The teacher should also be sure to carefully prepare and read through the background materials so that they facilitate student engagement and learning instead of lecturing the ideas to the class.

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 activities include a class game where students move throughout the ecosystem model, visiting various ‘Carbon Pools’ that exist. The students represent matter and they transfer twist ties which represent the energy that flows and changes form through the system. Additionally, students use an online simulation to model an ecosystem. The teacher needs to allow the students time to develop their own models on paper to illustrate their understanding of the concept and to show what they may need help understanding. In activities 3.3 and 3.4, students are given support for developing their own models.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

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

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
The lessons and activities found in this resource specifically focus on the meadow ecosystem and the farm ecosystem. It would be advisable for the teacher to provide more resources about additional ecosystems such as aquatic or oceanic, so students can apply their understanding more diversely or in the event that meadows are not in the local area. The resource allows students consider the amount of biomass needed by herbivores and carnivores. This idea is carried over to consider the human diet and how it affects the energy needed to sustain our species. The students may need more background on this idea.

Crosscutting Concepts

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

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
The five activities of lesson 3 give students a good deal of practice considering the cycling of matter and the flow of energy through an ecosystem. It is advisable for the teacher to thoroughly read the background and activity procedures so they can facilitate learners as they complete the activities and consider the questions that are included. It is important that the teacher does not give information to the students in a lecture format, but instead allow the students to develop their understanding through experiences and group discussion. Learning Goals of the unit include: “Explain changes in size of carbon pools in terms of fluxes into and out of carbon pools” and “Describe energy as flowing through ecosystems, from sunlight to chemical energy to heat that is radiated into space” which work well to develop a conceptual understanding of energy and matter.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: This resource was written with the three dimensions of NGSS in mind. The centering phenomenon is study of the meadow and farm ecosystems. The resource gives opportunities to have students develop at least three Science and Engineering Practices as well as an understanding of the specific Performance Expectation and Crosscutting Concept. The resource also gives students several opportunities to gain an understanding of the matter that cycles and the energy that flows through an ecosystem. Use of the simulation helps students test ideas and visualize the impact that changes can make to the system.

  • Instructional Supports: The instructional supports that are provided for the teacher as well as for the learner are exemplary. The diagrams and readings will help the teacher understand the pedagogical needs as well as the conceptual background. The materials are dense with information and will require time to review prior to engaging students. The hands-on activities and the discussions within the lessons will be a benefit to students with literacy challenges or who are English Language Learners.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: Since there are multiple opportunities for assessing student knowledge through discussion, models, and writing, teachers will be able to monitor understanding very closely if they use the materials as they are intended.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: The links are all current and the interactive Meadow simulation fits the needs of having a source of data and observations that all students can participate in. Overall use of technology is small but the parts that use technology are well-done.