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.
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.