Ecosystem in a Box

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During this activity, students use abiotic and biotic materials collected from the ecosystem to construct a model that contains each of the necessary components to support the life of an organism in that ecosystem.  Often done at the harbor, students work in small groups or as a team to create miniature habitat for a crab in a plastic container.  This is followed up by a discussion about what they chose, why they chose it, and how all of the materials are connected.  


Students will be able to:

  • Develop and use a model to explore ecosystem components.
  • Define and categorize abiotic and biotic factors in an ecosystem.
  • Explain connections between abiotic and biotic factors in an ecosystem and describe how abiotic and biotic factors depend on each other.                       
  • Explain that all living things need light, air, and water to survive.  
  • Identify  and explain that healthy ecosystems are made up of abiotic and biotic components that interact to support life. 

Age Group: 4-6th grade

Venue: Harbor (or other ecosystem)

Materials: Plastic tub, various abiotic and biotic materials collected from the ecosystem

Time: 60-90 minutes

Set-up: establish boundaries for students to explore and gather materials in. 


  • Throughout the lesson, individual discussions should elucidate whether students are understanding abiotic, biotic, LAW, and component interactions. To make sure you hear from every student, start the activity by stating that "We're working as a team of scientists to build a useful model so we need to hear ideas from everyone." This way, students will know from the beginning that they will be expected to contribute to the discussion. 
  • Perspective stories: Have students write a story from the perspective of a shore crab who has just discovered that one of the essential components of its ecosystem is either missing or has changed. How is that change going to affect the other parts of the crab's ecosystem? How is it going to affect the crab's ability to survive? 
  • Ecosystem illustration: Have students draw an ecosystem and label the parts "biotic" or "abiotic." Illustrate and annotate the connections between the different components. You could do this for the harbor or have them apply the ideas to another IslandWood ecosystem. It may even be fun to let the students invent their own ecosystem (on Earth) with imaginary organisms that are connected and interact in creative ways to sustain life in the ecosystem. 
  • Ecosystem web: Each student has a role as one component of the harbor ecosystem (e.g. shore crab, rockweed, sunlight, salt water). The students use yarn or bandanas to illustrate the connections between the different components. Students describe how they are related to another component and then discuss who (what) would be affected by changes in certain components. 
  • Group mind map: Students work together to build a mind map of the components and demonstrate their connections. Students could use color-coding or shapes to indicate "abiotic" or "biotic" components.


The Lesson Plan

Hook Activities


  1. Ask students if they would like to work together to build an ecosystem in a box.
    • When we are finished, our ecosystem must be suitable for a shore crab to live in.  Our "ecosystem in a box" will be a model. What is a model? Why do scientists use models?
    • Have you ever used a model before? What was it for? How did you use it? 
  2. Divide students into two groups.
    • One group will be responsible for collecting abiotic objects from the beach that they think a shore crab requires in its ecosystem, and the other group will be collecting biotic objects.
    • Review harbor stewardship before sending students off to collect and remind them that we will be returning every object we collected to the same location where we found it.
  3. Allow students 7-10 minutes to collect abiotic and biotic materials for the crab ecosystem in a box. 
  4. Gather the students and have them place the items they collected in the plastic tub.
  5. Have each group share what they collected and why they think it is a necessary component of a crab's ecosystem. During the discussion, encourage students to ask questions of each other and challenge ideas (respectfully) if they do not agree on an object's inclusion in the ecosystem. Also, this would be a great time to confirm students' understanding of biotic and abiotic (ex: "Hmm, are we sure that an empty mussel shell is biotic? Can someone explain?"). 
  6. Once the group has come to the consensus that their ecosystem is in fact suitable for a shore crab, you can add a living shore crab to the box.
    • If you are not convinced that the ecosystem is ready (ie: lacking cold salty water, shelter, food), do NOT add a crab. Ask students questions to help them discover which essential ecosystem components may be missing.
    • Reinforce LAW by discussing whether our model includes light, air, and water and whether those are necessary for a crab to survive.  *Keep in mind the physiological requirements of the shore crab. If it is hot out, make sure you don't leave the crab in the box for very long, or just use a crab molt as a model instead. Always return the crab safely to its home.*
  7. Celebratethe successful construction of the ecosystem in a box.
  8. Debrief (questions below)
  9. Return all objects to the location they were collected from.

Debrief Questions

  • discuss how the different components of the ecosystem may interact with each other. For example: "How does the light affect the algae?" or "How might a change in water temperature affect the biotic components of our ecosystem?"
  • We used a model to represent a shore crab's ecosystem. How did our model help us to better understand ecosystems? Models are great tools, but they are often simplified and have limitations. What do you think may have been simplified in our model? What are some of the limitations of our model? 
  • Our "ecosystem in a box" is enclosed by the sides of the tub. Is that representative of a real-world ecosystem? Is the harbor ecosystem closed-off from the other nearby ecosystems? Think about our journey today from the main campus of IslandWood all the way down to the harbor. What were the transitions like between the different ecosystems? How could changes or actions in IslandWood's forest ecosystem affect the harbor ecosystem where the crab lives? 
  • Are humans part of the ecosystem? HOW?
  • Would a city count as an ecosystem? What abiotic and biotic things can you find in the city where you live? How do the different components of your city ecosystem help you survive? What are some ways that you could have a positive impact on the city ecosystem in which you live? 

Possible Extension: 

  • Repeat the activity in a different ecosystem (ex: forest ecosystem for a banana slug) and compare the necessary abiotic and biotic factors in each ecosystem and how they interact with each other.

Relevant Journal Pages:

  • Ecosystem Comparison Chart, pg. 7
  • Blakely Harbor Scavenger Hunt, pg. 40

Safety Considerations:

  • Set clear boundaries for where students can explore and collect from so that you can see them at all times. Remind students to not pick up any glass or other sharp objects from the beach.