Science Unit: Introducing Ecology

Right now, my sixth grade students are working through a unit on ecology.  Our first topic is “Interactions in Ecosystems,” and we are looking at everything from the biotic/abiotic factors that are impacting each other to the various types of ecological relationships between organisms in ecosystems.

My school goes by standards set through the Catholic Diocese.  Some of the standards that this first topic addresses are:

S63.22 Define environment.S63.23 Explain characteristics of his/her environment.S63.1 Describe characteristics of living and non-living things.S63.2 Classify familiar objects as living or non-living.S63.3 State basic needs of living things.

S63.29 Construct food chains/food webs illustrating energy flow in an ecosystem.

S63.30 Define and correctly use the terms: producers, consumers, decomposers.

S63.31 Describe ways in which populations of plants and animals in a community interact with one another and their environment.

S63.24 Give examples of changes in environments.

Additionally, I have been trying to incorporate into my curriculum the Next Generation Science Standards.  The activities in this mini-unit begin to address NGSS MS-LS2  Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics.  According to NGSS, “Students who demonstrate understanding can analyze and interpret data to provide evidence for the effects of resource availability on organisms and populations of organisms in an ecosystem. MS-LS2-1”  Similarly, this unit’s focus on interactions in an ecosystem, such as competitive, predatory, and mutually beneficial, aligns with MS-LS2-2, “Students who demonstrate understanding can construct an explanation that predicts patterns of interactions among organisms across multiple ecosystems.” Finally, the MS-LS2-3 standard that addresses the flow of energy in ecosystems is considered in this unit.

I begin each class period with a “Warm Up” or “Bellringer.”  Sometimes my Warm Ups review information from the last class, while at other times they preview the information to come.  I also use these questions to assess prior knowledge.  The first Warm Up for this unit asked: What do you need to survive?

Huh, I don’t see a cell phone anywhere on there.

Water, shelter, air, and food – those are our basic needs.  We tied these needs to the idea of a habitat, or where an organism lives.  A habitat must provide these basic needs if we are to live there.

Branching off from this, we started discussing different types of habitats, and then took a closer look at  a few. Each group received a picture, like the ones below, and were asked to make a list of all aspects of the represented environment that interact in the image.



After students shared some of the things they listed, I asked them to sort their lists into living and nonliving things.  We then discussed the terms “biotic” and “abiotic” by first discussing the words “symmetrical” and “asymmetrical.”  Students easily put together that “a” in front of the word indicates it is NOT something, and with that knowledge, they were able to make the connection between biotic and abiotic. 

I followed up this discussion with a similar activity, in which students listed the biotic and abiotic elements of a fish tank.  For this activity, I gave them a drawing, although we also have a tropical aquarium in our classroom that they could use as a resource.  After identifying biotic and abiotic factors, students made predictions about the consequences of various actions.

For example:

  • If the water suddenly dried up, I predict…
  • If the temperature increased, I predict…
  • Without soil, I predict…
  • Without sunlight, I predict…

After this introduction to ecosystems and the elements within them, we moved on to the concept of populations and completed a hands-on population sampling activity to estimate population sizes.  Students enjoyed this very much, and it was a great way to tie in math as well. You can download the papers for the activity at my TeachersPayTeachers store – just click on the image below! Also, you can download the entire plan, for FREE, right here: Mini Unit: Community Interactions!

population sampling science learning activity

Population Sampling Activity



Unit Assessment: The Story of A Rock

This past week, my sixth grade students wrapped up their unit on earth science.  Over the last few weeks, we have covered topics like the layers of the earth, plate tectonics, rocks, minerals, the rock cycle, weathering, and erosion.  To sum it all up, I asked students to create a story about a rock, tying together these different topics.

A few students emphasized the story part (missing the science), while a few got the science down pat but missed the mark on the storyline. One group, however, did an EXCELLENT job with not just their story and science but also their animation! These students used an iPad app to animate their Story of A Rock.



PS – For more information about the Story of A Rock assessment, check out the listings at my Etsy and TeachersPayTeachers stores.  You can buy the instructions and rubric for only $1.50!

Simulating An Oil Spill Clean Up

My students are continuing their year-long study of energy by investigating its ties to Earth Science, particularly in the form of fossil fuels.  My goal in this unit is to demonstrate the effects of using fossil fuels on the environment.  While certainly a big impact of fossil fuel use is climate change, my focus in this unit is the environmental impacts of extraction.  (I plan to get into climate change in the next unit, as we examine climate and weather and their impacts on ecological systems.)

In my last post, my students investigated the effects of surface mining on “Earth Cookies.” I wanted to find a similarly hands-on activity to investigate oil extraction, particularly off-shore oil drilling.  I came across an idea online to simulate an oil spill clean up using vegetable oil, food coloring, and student creativity.  From this basic framework, I created a set of instructions and student printables for this activity.  You can find it at my website:

oil spill clean up student activity hands-on learning

$5.00 PDF

First, my students learned about oil by exploring the EIA Energy Kid website.  We also watched a short video on the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska 1989, and read about the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill.  Finally, students created a chart to list the different tools and strategies that are used in the real world to clean up oil spills.

The list they created included:

– booms  (that contain or corral oil slicks)

– skimmers (that scoop oil from the surface)

– sinking agents (that bind to oil and make it sink to the bottom)

– sorbents (that absorb oil)

– biological agents (fertilizers that speed up plant growth and therefore biodegradation)

– dispersants (that break petroleum into small droplets)

Working from this list, students created their own devices that fulfilled these different purposes.  I provided students with a number of supplies, from cotton balls and string to corks and craft sticks.  They then worked in small groups to develop booms and skimmers, and to identify what materials they would use for sorbents and sinking agents.

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This took about two 45 minute class periods, and they came up with some really creative ideas.  You can see some of their designs below:

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After this engineering activity, students created an oil spill to test their strategy.  One student acted as the group’s recorder, documenting the evaluation of each device and the group’s observations.

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This activity was definitely a success.  I was able to incorporate engineering activities into the unit, and students were able to see the challenges of removing oil from the environment.  While climate change has been a hot topic in terms of fossil fuel use, it’s important to remember these energy sources can affect our environment in other ways as well. Finally, this activity will help my students during the upcoming unit assessment, which will ask students to represent various stakeholders in a discussion over a town’s energy decisions.  Stay tuned to hear more about that activity!