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Every Bit Counts: Energy Flow in Ecosystems

Learning objectives:
Students will be able to:
• Link the elements of the cup activity with the elements of a food web.
• Combine their content knowledge with their observational skills in order to gain
a complete understanding of energy flow in an ecosystem.
• Use basic data collection techniques to support their initial observations.
• Explain what “energy lost” means in a trophic system.

Assessment criteria:
Students will create initial food webs the day before the activity. They will then be asked
to revise these initial webs after completing the activity with the information they have gained
about energy flow. The class will then exchange webs and each student will write a narrative of
the energy flow in their fellow student’s web. The before and after webs, along with the peer
narrative will then be added to the student’s unit portfolios for final review at the end of the unit.

• AAAS Benchmarks:
o The Flow of Matter in Ecosystems
 The chemical elements that make up the molecules of living things pass
through food webs and are combined and recombined in different ways.
At each link in a food web, some energy is stored in newly made
structures but much is dissipated into the environment. Continual input
of energy from sunlight keeps the process going.5E/H3
• NSES Standards
o Content Standard C
 Matter, energy, and organization in living systems
• The energy for life primarily derives from the sun. Plants capture
energy by absorbing light and using it to form strong (covalent)
chemical bonds between the atoms of carbon-containing (organic)
molecules. These molecules can be used to assemble larger
molecules with biological activity (including proteins, DNA, sugars
and fats). In addition, the energy stored in bonds between the
atoms (chemical energy) can be used as sources of energy for life
• All matter tends toward more disorganized states. Living systems
require a continuous input of energy to maintain their chemical
and physical organizations. With death, and the cessation of
energy input, living systems rapidly disintegrate.
• As matter and energy flows through different levels of
organization of living systems--cells, organs, organisms,
communities--and between living systems and the physical
environment, chemical elements are recombined in different ways.
Each recombination results in storage and dissipation of energy
into the environment as heat. Matter and energy are conserved in
each change.

Relationship to the driving question:

This lesson will help solidify the concepts of energy transfer and interdependence in
ecosystems. The lesson will establish these concepts in a concrete way before the unit begins to
explore more extreme and unfamiliar ecosystems with less intuitive forms of energy transfer.

Prior Knowledge/Prior Conceptions:

Students should already be familiar with the individual components of an ecosystem and
the associated vocabulary (predator, prey, consumer, producer, decomposer…). Misconception
to address: Some animals exist simply as food for another.

Instructional strategies:
This lesson utilizes interactive modeling, data collection, and student driven inquiry to
explore the topic.

Instructional resources used:

Cup and water activity was modified from

Materials and set-up needed:

• The following list is considered one set, one set will accommodate approximately 10
o Large tub (5 Gallon)
o 20 oz. cups (paper or Styrofoam)
 One per student, hole-punched on the bottom in the ratio below:
• 1/3 with one hole, 1/3 with two holes, 1/3 with three holes
o Water collection beaker or large graduated cylinder
o Clip board
o Marker to write on cups
o Student lab notebooks or graph paper for data collection
o Stopwatch
• Physical Space
o This activity involves spilling water, so is best done outside where cleanup will
need to be minimal
o Access to fresh water will make setup and transport easier

Time required:
The pre and post food web assessments should take a portion of the class before and after
the activity day. The cup activity and discussion will take an entire class period.

Students will be working against a clock to transport as much water as they can, but they
need to be certain not to run or collide with other students. Lots of water will also be spilling, so
students should wear appropriate cloths and the

Instructional sequence:
2 1. Introducing the lesson (end of day prior to cup activity): Popplet presentations and
3 Have the student groups from the Popplet lesson briefly introduce their food web to the
class. For each web (or a select few if extra time is needed for the activity) review the
key components of a food web:
• Producers, consumers, scavengers, autotroph, heterotroph, herbivore,
Have the class make general observations about the various food webs the groups
created, do they all have the same structure? Try to make sure the students get a clear
understanding of the diversity of
5 2. Representing the content: Water cup energy chain activity
Before the start of the class period, take all necessary materials outside for the activity.
Divide the class into teams and let them know that they will be exploring how energy is
transferred through the food webs they created the day before. Don’t explain how the activity
relates to food webs, but foster discussion during the activity to ensure the students are
making the critical connections. Have each team line up in front of a large water tub, and
give each student a cup.

Sample sequence from adapted material:

• Student Procedures:
o The first student in the line will dip a cup of water from the large container
and carry it to the second student in line to transfer the water. The first
student needs to keep an accurate count of the number of cups dipped.
This is continued for THREE MINUTES.
o The LINE JUDGE (or teacher) should monitor for students placing their
fingers over the holes in the bottom of the cups.
o The last student in line will pour the remaining water in the container/pan
at the end of the line. The person at the end of the line is responsible for
measuring the water in the end container and reporting the amount to the
After one round has been conducted, ask the students to explain why they are doing this
activity. Prompt by asking questions such as:
-What does the water represent?
-What is your cup, why does it have holes in it?
-Why do some cups have more holes than others?
-What role is the water tub playing?
If the class struggles to reach a point where they are beginning to adequately justify the
activity let the students know that the water represents energy. Make sure to focus on the key
terms the students should have learned in the previous lessons: autotroph, heterotroph,
producer, consumer, herbivore, carnivore, omnivore, and scavenger. Where do each of these
fit in the activity?
Once the students have a clear concept of the representation in the activity, have them
contribute ways in which they could modify the activity to better represent a real food web.
There are a number of directions this activity can go, some suggestions include:
Groups can modify the length of their energy chain.
Groups can change the number of herbivores and carnivores. Can the chain ever run out
of energy?
Instead of a line, students can form a web. This can be useful in helping the students
determine what proportion of producers to consumers needs to be present for all species
to gain enough energy for survival.
7 3. Wrapping up the lesson: Cleanup, “Big Ideas” , and Modifying Popplet webs
(discussion at beginning of next class period)
Based on the amount of time remaining, allow the students to refine their activity model,
but be sure to save enough time for proper cleanup and an introduction to the “big ideas”
discussion the class will have the next day. Have all of the students participate in cleanup:
collecting cups, draining and drying buckets, putting items away.

For the “Big Ideas” discussion at the beginning of the next class period, either on a white
board or a large sheet of poster paper write “Cup Activity-Big Ideas”. Divide the students
into groups and provide each with a large sheet of poster paper. Tell the class that they
should write what is on the board in the center of their paper and then work together to create
a web of what they think the “Big Ideas” were for the water cup activity. After giving the
students some time to work, have each group tape or stick their idea web to the front of the
board and have the class look for reoccurring themes. This is also an optimal time to bring in
observations as a teacher watching the group, and remind them of elements of the activity
they may have missed in their idea webs.

If time allows, give the students time after the “Big Ideas” discussion to work in their
Popplet groups on charting the flow of energy in their webs. This can be done either on the
computer, or on an annotated printed copy of their in-development webs. Have the students
address where the energy is originating, and where it is “lost” along the way. Have the students
draw connections between the amount of energy remaining at a certain level of a web, and how
that relates to the diet of an animal at a particular level.
9 4. Evaluating learning:
Learning Objective Associated Assessment
Link the elements of the cup activity with the Assessed during activity as students generate
elements of a food web. their own explanations, also documented in
their “Big Ideas” webs after the activity.
Combine their content knowledge with their Annotated Popplet web and
observational skills in order to gain a complete
understanding of energy flow in an ecosystem.
Use basic data collection techniques to support Use of clipboard and data sheets to record
their initial observations. water levels.
Students will be able to explain what “energy Part of “Big Ideas” web and annotated Popplet
lost” means in a trophic system

Design Rationale:
This activity focuses on utilizing student inquiry to create meaningful connections between
content knowledge and an engaging group activity. Students have minimal formal instruction up
front, with more of an emphasis on taking their observations and applying them to the learning
goals. Students are given ample opportunities after the activity to apply the concepts they were
exposed to in meaningful ways, such as modifying their Popplet and creating idea webs the
whole class can use and comment on.