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Lesson Plan #: AELP-ECL0200
Submitted by: Erika N. Cusick and Peggy Pearce
Email: erbear@bigsky.net
School/University/Affiliation: University of Montana, Missoula, MT 59801
Endorsed by: Lisa Blank
             University of Montana, Missoula, MT 59801

Date: November 27, 2000

Grade Level: 6


  • Science/Ecology

Duration: 1 hour

Description: Students will become familiar with the terms ecosystem, biotic, and abiotic. They will understand what an ecosystem is and the role of abiotic and biotic factors. Students will create an ecosystem using designated materials.

Goals: Students will gain an understanding of what an ecosystem is and the role that humans play in ecosystems.


  • Students will be able to define the term ecosystem as a working unit made up of organisms interacting with each other and with nonliving factors. More specifically for this lesson, an ecosystem will be a 2-liter bottle filled with sand, gravel, an Elodea plant, water, fish, fish food, and sunlight.
  • Students will be able to discuss ecosystems in their surroundings.
  • Students will be able to create their own ecosystem, with given materials, in a bottle.
  • Materials:

    • 2-liter bottle
    • sand
    • aquatic plants (Elodea)
    • gravel
    • scissors
    • ruler
    • water
    • fish (1 small goldfish or guppy per student)
    • fish food
    • paper
    • writing utensils
    • for the station activity: aquarium, plant with worm, bottle of nail polish, and a moldy sandwich


  • ecosystem – an ecological community together with its environment, functioning as a unit
  • biotic- the living parts of an ecosystem
  • abiotic- the nonliving parts of an ecosystem
  • Procedure:
    Scientific Explanation:  
    What is an ecosystem? The biosphere is the part of the Earth that contains all the living things on the planet. Each ecosystem that we study is a part of the biosphere. A system is a group of things that interact with one another. The organisms that make up the living part of an ecosystem are called biotic factors. An organism depends on other biotic factors for food, shelter, protection, and reproduction. Nonliving things that we find in an ecosystem are called abiotic factors. Abiotic factors have an effect on the type and number of organisms living in an ecosystem. Some abiotic factors include soil, water, temperature, and sunlight.

    Focus Phase:
    Have students observe a working aquarium. Have students get into groups of two to think-pair-share about abiotic and biotic elements in the demonstrated ecosystem. Discuss the various elements that may be found in an ecosystem. Brainstorm elements and have students decide if the elements are abiotic or biotic.

    Challenge Phase:
    Have four stations (aquarium, plant with worm, bottle of nail polish, moldy sandwich) set up for students to visit in small groups. As a group, students will decide whether or not each station is an ecosystem. Also have students determine what parts of the system are abiotic or biotic. Have students make predictions about whether or not the station fits the definition of an ecosystem. Have students make further predictions about what each station might need to fit the definition of an ecosystem. One person in the group will record the group’s ideas and answers. This information will be shared with the class at a later time.

    Concept Introduction:
    As a class, share the results of the challenge phase. Which stations did students identify as ecosystems? Students should have determined that the aquarium and the plant with worm are ecosystems. The moldy sandwich is part of an ecosystem. The bottle of nail polish is not an ecosystem. Have students share their ideas about what needs to be added to make non-ecosystem stations an ecosystem. For the bottle of nail polish to become an ecosystem, it needs a source of energy, food, water, and a population of animals which could maintain life in extreme conditions. The sandwich is part of an ecosystem, but to be an ecosystem of its own, it would require another source of food that could maintain its growth. As a class, brainstorm factors necessary for an ecosystem and list them on the board.

    Inform students that they are going to be creating an ecosystem in a 2-liter bottle. They will be given a 2-liter bottle, aquatic sand, gravel, an Elodea plant, water, and eventually, one fish to add to their ecosystem. Students must first draw an ecosystem and have it approved before they can get their materials and begin construction. 

    Concept Application:  
    After all students have had their plans approved, they may begin building their ecosystem. They will be given all the materials that they will need, except for the fish. Students will have some leniency in the construction of the ecosystem, but because they will be given a live fish to add to their ecosystem, the ecosystem must be safe for the fish. Once students have completed the construction of their ecosystem, students will explain how the fish will be able to survive in this ecosystem, and what they, as students, must provide to ensure the success of the ecosystem (i.e. food, sunlight, oxygen, clean water). Assessment: Students will be assessed on their ability to construct an ecosystem that is a safe and successful environment for a live fish. In their journals, students will be asked to describe the elements that make up their ecosystem. They should also explain the role that they will play in their ecosystem.