Project - Ecosystem Plan

At the end of the unit, students can now apply their understanding of ecosystems, food webs, resource management, native vs. nonnative species, and human environmental impact to a real world situation. Individuals involved in habitat restoration routinely research and select plants and animals to include in a redesigned ecosystem. In this final project, students will create posters with a minimum of 8 native plants and 5 native animals that should be included in the redesign of the habitat they surveyed previously. They will look at how these organisms will interact and discuss how to sustain the ecosystem into the future. If it is possible to do a long term habitat restoration near your school, this is an excellent exercise to get the students personally invested in the restoration work because they played a role in selecting the species they will reintroduce.
Ecosystem plan poster: Poster created by 7th graders describing proposed changes to the ecosystem at Glen Echo Creek.Ecosystem plan poster: Poster created by 7th graders describing proposed changes to the ecosystem at Glen Echo Creek.
Can research plant and animal species using field guides.
Can identify and describe organism-environment interactions and organism-organism interactions in an ecosystem.
Can conceptualize an ecosystem working together as a whole rather than as individual plants and animals living independently in an environment.
Can recognize the benefits of biodiversity.
Can see our role as environmental stewards with a mission to sustain and nurture our local ecosystem.
Can apply classroom knowledge to real world data.

Food web
Invasive species
Native species
Non-native species

Attachment Size
proj_ecosystem_plan.doc 51 KB
ecosystem_plan_handout.doc 30.5 KB

Ecosystem Plan - Logistics

3-4 hours

Groups of 2-3 students    


  1. Field guides
  2. Lists of local native plants and animals. For the lists I used for my students who were restoring a creek-side area in California, see the Sources area for several great resources.
  3. Copy of the Ecosystem Plan Assignment Sheet for each group or for each student
  4. One piece of posterboard or flip chart paper for each group
  5. 20 index cards for each group
  6. Construction paper
  7. Markers
  8. Glue sticks
  9. Scissors


Ecosystem Plan - Background

Teacher Background
In this activity, students will put together all they know about food webs, habitats, ecosystems, and the interactions between organisms and their environment to try to design a diverse, balanced, and sustainable ecosystem. One of the most important things for students to recognize from this activity is the idea that an ecosystem works together as a unified whole rather than as individual plants and animals living independently in an environment. The plants depend on the available growing conditions of the topography, soil quality, water availability, temperature and sunlight. In turn, the animals depend on the availability of plants for food and shelter. And the whole ecosystem depends on us to set it up in a balanced way so that it can sustain itself in the long run.

Another key lesson is that of biodiversity contributing to greater ecosystem health and sustainability. In general, the more diverse an ecological community, the more likely it is to flourish in the long run. If multiple organisms fill each niche, then when trouble hits one organism, the role can still be filled by another. An interesting analogy can be made to diversity in human communities. You may want to consider opening the discussion of biodiversity with the question, “Why do we as teachers try to encourage diversity in the classroom? Why does diversity help make better communities?”  Allow this to lead you into the idea of why biodiversity might lead to more sustainable ecosystems.

Finally, it is essential that you and the students have a very clear picture of the area that you will be designing the ecosystem for. The environmental conditions such as the landscape, sunlight, water, rainfall, soil quality, and general size of the space will greatly affect the types of plants and animals that can survive in that place. In addition, if the area is used or accessed by humans, that will greatly affect the types of plants and animals that can survive. Every plant and animal the students choose must be able to live in these conditions. Therefore, the more intimate the students’ knowledge of the environmental conditions, the easier it will be for them to keep those conditions in mind when choosing their species.

Student Prerequisites
A solid foundation in food webs, what ecosystems are, resource management, native vs. non-native species, and experience observing environmental conditions such as soil quality and water availability. Ideally, students would also have visited and explored the area they are designing their ecosystem for so they have first hand experience with the environmental conditions they are asking their plants and animals to survive in.

Ecosystem Plan - Getting Ready

Getting Ready

  1. Collect lists of local native plants and animals. Set these lists and the field guides in an area that students can access to conduct their research.
  2. Make copies of the Ecosystem Plan Assignment Sheet for each group or for each student
  3. Set poster making materials out in a place that is accessible to the students

Ecosystem Plan - Lesson Plan

Lesson Plan

  1. Open the lesson by reviewing the space the ecosystem will be designed for either through pictures, drawings, or an in-person visit. Consider all the non-living parts of the ecosystem and encourage students to brainstorm the characteristics of the environment that they can remember. How big is it? Is it sunny or shady? Is it warm or cool? How much rainfall does it get? Is it close to any other water resources? What is the soil like? Is it hilly or flat?
  2. Tell them that they will be designing an ecosystem to fill this space. Their job is to choose a minimum of 8 plants and 5 animals that could survive in this environment and who would, together, support one another in a food web. In my classes, when I told them that the best designs would be given to our restoration partner and that we would actually be planting many of the plants they chose, the students became totally excited.
  3. Ask the students what they would need to consider in choosing their plants and animals. For instance, should you choose all carnivores? Should you choose all trees? This is an ideal time to bring up the concepts of interdependence and biodiversity. Emphasize that the animals and plants will be dependent on each other and their environment so choose carefully so that all the organisms have everything they need to survive. Also, emphasize how greater diversity generally makes an ecosystem more healthy and more sustainable.
  4. Once students have a good sense of the assignment and the keys to success, pass out the assignment sheets. Read through the sheets together, highlighting the things they are responsible for doing – making index cards for each species, creating a poster, writing a description of the ecosystem, drawing a map and creating a food web.
  5. Divide them into groups, show them where resource materials are, show them where the poster making materials are, and have them get to work. As students work on this project it is critical to continually remind students of the big picture. Is your ecosystem diverse, balanced and sustainable? How do all your organisms fit together in a food web? Does each species have everything it needs to survive in your area? I found that my students became totally engrossed in the individual plants and animals and forgot to consider whether they had the necessary adaptations to survive in the environment – an endangered salamander living near the area where people walk their dogs or a coyote in an urban park setting. Encourage students to choose the most robust and adaptable species rather than the cutest and cuddliest species.
  6. When the posters are complete, set aside a day for students to present their designs. Some questions you may want to ask include:
  • What are the relationships between the living and non-living parts of your ecosystem?
  • How did your group maximize the diversity in the space you were given?
  • What challenges arose and how did you overcome the problems?
  • What guided you to choose one organism over another?
  • How will the presence of humans and their pets affect the ecosystem?
  • If your plan is implemented, how hard will it be for our class and future classes to maintain the ecosystem once it is established?

Ecosystem Plan - Sources and Standards

The idea for this project was adapted from the “Ecosystem Facelift” activity in Project WILD K-12 Curriculum and Activity Guide.

You will need to help give the students a head start by identifying some of the native plants and animals local to your area and the site they are designing their ecosystem for. I used the following resources:
Erica Campos put together a wonderful Creek Care Guide with the names of many local native plants found in riparian corridors.
The Piedmont Avenue Neighborhood Improvement League recently restored an area of the creek we were working on just a mile upstream of our adopted site. They created this listing of native plants that were selected for their project.
Another local creek organization, Friends of Sausal Creek, created this wonderful group of fact sheets about the plant and animal life near their creek. Of particular interest are the Tables of Biological Resources of the Upper Sausal Creek Watershed which lists many of the animals that can be found in and around their creek and the Gardener’s Guide to the Sausal Creek Watershed by Martha E. Lowe which contains detailed information about the many native plants that grow in our area.

In order to find lists of natives in your local area, try contacting nearby environmental organizations, creek groups, neighborhood groups, and local parks. The staff and volunteers at all these organizations are likely to be excited about your work and most will be enthusiastic about helping you gather information.

Grade 6
Ecology (Life Sciences)
5. Organisms in ecosystems exchange energy and nutrients among themselves and with the environment.

Grade 6
6. b. Students know different natural energy and material resources, including air, soil, rocks, minerals, petroleum, fresh water, wildlife, and forests, and know how to classify them as renewable or nonrenewable.

Grade 6
Investigation and Experimentation
7. f. Read a topographic map and a geologic map for evidence provided on the maps and construct and interpret a simple scale map.

Grade 7
Investigation and Experimentation
7. d. Construct scale models, maps, and appropriately labeled diagrams to communicate scientific knowledge (e.g., motion of Earth’s plates and cell structure).