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Lesson Plans: Organisms in the Environment

Organisms in the Environment Lesson Plans

Who lives in the Phoenix urban ecosystem? What affects their patterns of distribution? The forms, functions and adaptations of organisms are strongly influenced by living in a desert. They also can be affected by living in a city near human activities. The following activities will help you and your students survey what types of plants and animals are living in our neighborhoods and school yards and create maps to illustrate their distribution. These lessons will allow you to explore how organisms interact with this desert, urban environment.

Vegetation Surveys and Map Making. The foundation of all ecosystems is the community of plants that make up the base of energy flow through the system as well as providing habitat, shade, building materials for nests, and many other interactions. The first step in characterizing an ecosystem is often an assessment of the biodiversity and population makeup of the plant community present.  It would be impossible to count and identify every plant in an ecosystem, so various sampling techniques are used to help ecologists determine the kind of plants which make up the ecosystem and their relative population abundances.


Plant Diversity

Time: 45 – 50 minutes
This method is for sampling perennial plants on a large scale and in the desert.  It uses a circular plot with radius of 5.6 m (so the area of each circle is 100m2).  These plant survey data can be used to address questions such as: Which plant is the most common? Which plots had the most plants? Is there a link between environmental factors and the number or kind of plants?
Students will:
  • be able to identify patterns in plant distribution and diversity in an ecosystem.
  • be encouraged to develop ideas about why these patterns exist.
  • either learn to use a vegetation key or make their own vegetation key to identify plants
Plant Diversity PDF



Desert Ecosystem Field Trip

Time:  2 hours, Grade Level:  7-12
The sampling technique used here is called a transect line study.  In this technique a straight line of known length is run in a given direction through the area to be studied.  Every plant that overhangs the line or is within one meter of the line is mapped and identified.  This activity is a more comprehensive ecosystem survey since data are also collected on abiotic factors such as temperature, humidity, solar radiation, soil texture and minerals, as well as evidence of animal activity in the study area.
As plant ecologists, students will try to answer three basic questions:
  • What plants are present in the ecosystem?
  • How many of each type of plant are present and how do the various species of plants interact with each other and their environment?
  • How are the various plants adapted to survive in the ecosystem?
Desert Ecosystem Field Trip PDF



Grid Frame Mapping

Time:  45-50 minute, Grade Level:  6-12
Ecologists and archeologists use a grid frame when mapping a small area of study. This allows them to look at more details that sometimes get lost when studying a large area. The grid frames used with this lesson are one square meter divided into one-decimeter squared sections, which makes calculations easy. The grids are quick and easy to make and can be a valuable learning tool.
The student will
  • be able to map and describe a small area of the schoolyard.
  • begin to ask further questions about habitats.
Grid Frame Mapping PDF



Baseline and Offset Mapping

Time:  45-50 minute, Grade Level:  6-12
Baseline & offset mapping is one technique you can use to quickly create a map of a relatively large area and may include living and non living aspects of the environment. Maps created this way can be very precise depending on the amount of time allocated to this activity.
  • Students will be able to create a map of a large area.
Baseline and Offset Mapping PDF



Plant Collection and Identification

As part of an outdoor vegetation survey, students may collect specimens to identify using resources back in the classroom. The specimens can be organized and preserved in an herbarium as a reference for other students, teachers or parents at your school. The herbarium can help generate scientific questions.



Creating a School Herbarium

Perhaps you would like to compare the leaf shapes or flower structures of a few plants from different natural sites. Maybe you would like to compare the height or leaf size of garden plants you grow from one season to the next. The best way to observe a plant specimen closely and preserve it for others is to press and dry it. Of course each person can not  keep large collections of organisms because that would deplete the wild populations in nature, but collecting a few samples to answer specific questions can help you learn about plants and their environments.
  • Students will develop a working knowledge of common plants and an awareness of plant diversity.
Creating a School Herbarium PDF



Plant Evapotranspiration

These lessons explore the movement of water through plants and the types of adaptations plants exhibit to conserve water. Students observe evapotranspiration in real and paper leaves and contemplate landscaping choices in an urban desert environment.



Desert Plant Adaptations

Time:  50-60 minute, Grade Level:  3-8
Water makes up most of every living creature. Every cell in an organism needs water for important processes, such as turning food into usable energy.  In deserts, precipitation is low and the temperature is often hot, so evaporation is also high. Water can be scarce in the desert. How do desert organisms maintain a healthy water balance in their cells? Desert plants have several types of adaptations that help them conserve water.
Students will be able to:
  • identify three types of desert plant adaptations.
  • explain evapotranspiration in plants.
  • understand how leaf shape and waxy leaf coating can affect evapotranspiration.
  • relate water use by plants to desert urban landscaping choices.
Desert Plant Adaptations PDF Plant Adaptations and Evapotransipration slides PDF



Water Use in Plants

Time: 50-60 minutes, Grade Level: 3-8
Plants move water from their roots to their leaves and this water evaporates from the leaf through small pores called stomata. This water transport through the plant due to evaporation from leaves is called evapotranspiration. Students can observe evapotranspiration by collecting water vapor in plastic bags, which re-condenses into liquid water as it cools.
Students will be able to:
  • understand the pathway water takes through a plant as a result of evapotranspiration.
  • identify three different types of water conservation adaptations in plants.
  • understand that precipitation is low in deserts.
  • identify Phoenix as an urban desert ecosystem with extra water input from human activities.
  • recognize that types of plants and plant growth rate are different in rural desert vs. urban areas.
Water Use in Plants PDF Plant Adaptations and Evapotransipration slides PDF



Plant-Insect Interactions

As community ecologists, you and your students can study the interactions among organisms living in an area. Is the relationship between organisms positive, negative or neutral? Relationships among animals and plants include eating and they help make up food webs. Organisms can also affect each other by providing habitat or competing for resources. One easy and interesting relationship to investigate is between palo verde trees and bruchid beetles. These two species are just the foundation for a larger community students can explore by observing beetles and seed pods and conducting the Ecology Explorers bruchid protocol.



Pod Investigation Lesson

Time:  2-3 50 minute classes, Grade Level:  3-10
Palo verde trees are native to the desert and are now common in urban desert landscaping. Bruchid beetles lay eggs on the pods, and the larvae feed on the seeds. Urban palo verde trees are watered and fertilized, often isolated from other palo verde trees, and mixed together with other non-native tree species. All these variables can influence the bruchid beetles. Through this study, students can compare how beetle populations in urban and/or desert settings respond to these variations and participate in a long term ecological research project.
Students will be able to:
  • make observations and ask questions about palo verde seedpods and bruchid beetles.
  • conduct the Ecology Explorers Bruchid Beetles and Seedpods protocol.
  • use appropriate graphs to analyze their data.
Pod Investigation Lesson PDF 



Animal Behavior and Distribution

Human activities in urban environments can affect how animals behave and where they are found. What animals do and where they are found affects other parts of the ecosystem too.



Bird’s Eye View of Habitat Fragmentation

Time:  60 minutes, Grades: 6-12
Different species of birds use different parts of a habitat. In urban Phoenix, some native desert birds can only be found in the desert outside the city, while others have moved into our city center.  As the city expands, the desert retreats.  This activity explores the effects of specific patterns of urbanization on various bird species.
Students will:
  • recognize that different species respond differently to perturbations in their environment
  • use teamwork to solve the problem of conserving biodiversity in a human-managed ecosystem
Bird’s Eye View of Habitat Fragmentation PDF



An Introduction to Bird Behavior

Time:  40 – 50 minutes. Grade Level:  5-12
Bird watching is a fascinating hobby.  However, it requires a little bit of patience and time.  Once you begin to notice the way birds behave, you’ll find yourself amazed at how, and why, they do what they do.  Studying bird behavior can help you find out more about the way birds relate to one another and live within their environment. This activity will introduce students to a variety of common bird behaviors and allow them practice observation skills.
Students will:
  • have a better understanding about the behavior of birds.
  • learn about observing and recording in the scientific process.
  • create a scientific report of their findings.
An Introduction to Bird Behavior PDF



Where Are the Birds? Birds in an Urban Schoolyard

Time: minimum 50 minutes for one survey at two sites. Grade level: 5 – 12
Bird researchers have found over 50 bird species in the Phoenix metropolitan area. Some of these bird species are native to the Sonoran desert while others are not. Vegetation planted by people, artificial irrigation, and buildings provide a variety of different habitats and microclimates within the urban environment. These habitat changes could alter the biodiversity and abundance of birds in the city. Ecologists use Point Counts as one method for surveying birds. In this lesson, students test their questions about abundance and diversity in different areas by counting all the birds located within a circle with a radius of 20 meters for 10 minutes.  The lesson includes this protocol also found on our website.
Students will be able to:
  • identify and count local birds.
  • follow a scientific protocol.
  • characterize habitat structure.
  • enter their data into a spreadsheet/database.
  • analyze and graph the data.
  • formulate questions relating patterns in bird diversity and abundance in the urban environment.
  • design simple studies to answer their questions.
  • determine what factors affect the distribution and abundance of urban bird species.
Where Are the Birds? Birds in an Urban Schoolyard PDF



The Web of Inquiry: urban spider behavior as a tool to teach the scientific method

Time:  50 minute lessons, 4 lesson unit. Grade Level:  6 – 12
Behavioral ecologists explore how and why animals behave the way they do. These scientists study how natural selection shapes behavior. They ask the question: what helps animals survive and reproduce in their environment? This is important in urban environments where human activities and the structures they build can cause natural selection to favor certain traits of individual animals. This unit guides students to generate their own questions about arthropod behavior and leads them step-wise through the hypothetico-deductive method to test their predictions in a class controlled experiment.
Students will be able to:
  • document their objective observations of animal behavior.
  • discuss their study organisms’ natural history, adaptations and behavioral repertoire.
  • ask questions and derive hypotheses/predictions that lead to scientific investigation.
  • design an experiment and collect relevant data to test their hypothesis/answer their question.
  • present their work in a scientific poster.
The Web of Inquiry: urban spider behavior as a tool to teach the scientific method PDF



15 Minute Graphs

Each of these short lessons introduces students to a different ecological research concept and allows them to interpret real data in graphical from. Conceptual background related to animals, plants, fungi and microbes is provided, followed by results collected by professional scientists. Students analyze graphs and respond to questions to determine patterns.
Plant Functional Groups PDF
Plant Distribution PDF
Mycology PDF
Soil Microbes PDF
Arthropod Functional Groups PDF
Seasonal Birds  PDF
Feeding Birds PDF
Bird Distribution PDF