Living Environment Teacher Guide



Living Environment


Life Science

Grade Level

ES 5-6

Activity Name(s)

Changing Environments

Virtual Field

Being Prepared

For both of these activities students can have their own computers at their own stations. If individual computer stations are not available, then students can be in pairs. If working in pairs consider having individual students record their answers to the questions in the data collection and the analysis sections in their science notebooks. This will allow them to access their data in the future.

Getting Started

There is no special set-up needed for these simulations. Make sure that you have run all the models and simulations so that you are familiar with how they work so that you can help students trouble shoot as they are working.

Suggested Timeline

The Changing Environments activity should take approximately 45 min. to 1 hr.

The Virtual Field activity should take approximately 45 min. to 1 hr.

Thinking about the Discovery Questions


In Changing Environments, students consider the question "How does a natural or man-made change in the environment affect the different plants and animals living in that environment?" . In Virtual Field, students consider the question "What does variation mean when growing plants?". These questions are used to consider an organisms role and interactions in its habitat.

An animal’s habitat is defined as the total elements in an organism’s physical surroundings which have direct bearing on that organism's function and survival. Different animals have different habitats based on their physical and behavioral adaptations. Each adaptation has been produced by evolution. As the environment changes, animals that cannot adapt die out, and only the adapted ones survive to produce babies. Because baby animals learn from their parents,the whole species then soon adapts to the new environment. Behavioral adaptations occur in response to environmental changes, but physical changes do not. Most importantly, an animal’s habitat has the food, water, and shelter best acquainted for them allowing for survival. A habitat is an animal’s home.

Populations of animals interact with each other and their environment in a variety of ways. Populations of animals that feed on other organisms are called predators. The populations on which predators feed are called prey. Predator and prey relationships are interdependent. When there is a high population of prey, the predator population will increase until the prey population starts to decease. Once the prey population adjusts their behavior (finding refuge, changing feeding patterns, etc..) they will begin to increase.

Producers use water, air, and sunlight to make their own food and food energy. Green plants are producers. They are the only living things that can make their own food. They use the sun’s energy to produce food energy, which they store in their cells (photosynthesis). Some producers include trees and bushes (leaves, fruits, berries, flowers), grasses, ferns, and vegetables.


Students of all ages see food as substances (water, air, minerals, etc.) that organisms take directly in from their environment. They also think food is a requirement for growth, not a source of for growth. They have little knowledge about food being transformed and made part of a growing organism's body.

Some students also hold misconceptions about plant nutrition. They think plants get their food from the environment and not by manufacturing it internally, and that food for plants is taken in from the outside. Even after consistent instruction, students have difficulty accepting that plants make food from water and air, and that this is their only source of food. Understanding that food made by plants is very different from other nutrients such as water or minerals is a prerequisite for understanding the difference between plants as producers and animals as consumers.

Lower elementary-school students can understand simple food links involving two organisms. They often think of organisms as independent of each other but dependent on people to supply them with food and shelter. Upper elementary-school students may not believe food is a scarce resource in ecosystems, thinking that organisms can change their food at will according to the availability of particular sources. Students of all ages think that some populations of organisms are large enough to fulfill a demand for food by another population.

Learning Objectives

  • NGSS
    • Performance Expectations
      • 3-LS1-1. Develop models to describe that organisms have unique and diverse life cycles but all have in common birth, growth, reproduction, and death.
      • 3-LS3-1. Analyze and interpret data to provide evidence that plants and animals have traits inherited from parents and that variation of these traits exists in a group of similar organisms.
      • 3-LS4-3. Construct an argument with evidence that in a particular habitat some organisms can survive well, some survive less well, and some cannot survive at all.
      • 4-LS1-1. Construct an argument that plants and animals have internal and external structures that function to support survival, growth, behavior, and reproduction.
      • 4-LS1-2. Use a model to describe that animals receive different types of information through their senses, process the information in their brain, and respond to the information in different ways.
    • Disciplinary Core Ideas
      • ES-LS1: From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes
        • LS1.A: Structure and Function
          • Plants and animals have both internal and external structures that serve various functions in growth, survival, behavior, and reproduction. (4-LS1-1)
        • LS1.B: Growth and Development of Organisms
          • Reproduction is essential to the continued existence of every kind of organism. Plants and animals have unique and diverse life cycles. (3-LS1-1)
        • LS1.D: Information Processing
          • Different sense receptors are specialized for particular kinds of information, which may be then processed by the animal’s brain. Animals are able to use their perceptions and memories to guide their actions. (4-LS1-2)
      • ES-LS3: Heredity: Inheritance and Variation of Traits
        • LS3.A: Inheritance and Traits
          • Many characteristics of organisms are inherited from their parents. (3-LS3-1)
        • LS3.B: Variation of Trains
          • Different organisms vary in how they look and function because they have different inherited information. (3-LS3-1)
      • ES-LS4: Biological Evolution: Unity and Diversity
        • LS4.C: Adaptation
          • For any particular environment, some kinds of organisms survive well, some survive less well, and some cannot survive at all. (3-LS4-3)
    • Cross Cutting Concepts
      • Patterns
        • Students recognize that macroscopic patterns are related to the nature of microscopic and atomic-level structure. They identify patterns in rates of change and other numerical relationships that provide information about natural and human designed systems. They use patterns to identify cause and effect relationships, and use graphs and charts to identify patterns in data.
      • Cause and effect
        • Students classify relationships as causal or correlational, and recognize that correlation does not necessarily imply causation. They use cause and effect relationships to predict phenomena in natural or designed systems. They also understand that phenomena may have more than one cause, and some cause and effect relationships in systems can only be described using probability.
      • Systems and system models
        • Students can understand that systems may interact with other systems; they may have sub-systems and be a part of larger complex systems. They can use models to represent systems and their interactions — such as inputs, processes and outputs — and energy, matter, and information flows within systems. They can also learn that models are limited in that they only represent certain aspects of the system under study.
    • Practices
      • Developing and using models
        • Develop and/or use a model to predict and/or describe phenomena.
        • Develop and/or use a model to generate data to test ideas about phenomena in natural or designed systems, including those representing inputs and outputs, and those at unobservable scales.
      • Analyzing and interpreting data
        • Analyze and interpret data to provide evidence for phenomena.
      • Engaging in argument from evidence
        • Construct, use, and/or present an oral and written argument supported by empirical evidence and scientific reasoning to support or refute an explanation or a model for a phenomenon or a solution to a problem.
  • NSES
    • Life Science - Characteristics of organisms
      • Organisms have basic needs. For example, animals need air, water, nutrients, and light. Organisms can survive only in environments in which their needs can be met.
      • Each plant or animal has different structures that serve different functions in growth, survival, and reproduction. For example, humans have distinct body structures for walking, holding, seeing, and talking.
    • Life Science – Organisms and their environment
      • An organism’s patterns of behavior are related to the nature of that organism’s environment, including the kinds and numbers of other organisms present, the availability of food and resources, and the physical characteristics of the environment.
    • Life Science – Diversity and adaptations of organisms
      • Biological evolution accounts for the diversity of species developed through gradual processes over many generations. Species acquire many of their unique characteristics through biological adaptation, which involves the selection of naturally occurring variations in populations. Biological adaptations include changes in structures, behaviors, or physiology that enhance survival and reproductive success in a particular environment.
    • Life Science – Life cycle of organisms
      • Plants and animals have life cycles that include being born, developing into adults, reproducing, and eventually dying. The details of this life cycle are different for different organisms.
      • Many characteristics of an organism are inherited from the parents of the organism, but other characteristics result from an individual’s interactions with the environment. Inherited characteristics include the color of flowers and the number of limbs of an animal.

Discussion: Setting the Stage

Changing Environments

  • What are some natural events that can cause a change to environment?

    Some examples are: climate change and natural disasters (floods, fires, etc..).

  • How does a natural change in the environment affect the different plants and animals living in that environment?

    If the change is due to a gradual change over time then organisms will be able to adapt. If the change is sudden then some organisms will not be able to survive and will not be found in that particular area.

  • What are some man-made events that will causes changes to environment?

    Some man-made events are: deforestation, damming of rivers/streams, pollution, etc...

  • How does a man-made change in the environment affect the different plants and animals living in that environment?

    Students should recognize that man-made changes to our environment tend to happen quicker than natural changes. When these changes happen quickly organisms have a harder time adapting and tend to leave the area. Example might include a dam blocking salmon migrations, loss habitat for water fowl resulting from draining lakes, or deforestation of rain forests that are home for some primates (monkeys, apes, etc.).

Virtual Field

  • What does variation mean when growing plants?

    Variation is how plants changes, and become different versions of the same plant.)

  • How do plants change over time?

    Plants change through cross-pollination, and when the seeds are produced they are a new form of the original plant. If this happens over and over the plant will continue to change. Those that are best adapted to the environment will be more successful and produce more offspring.

  • What happens to plants if they do not get their basic needs (water, sunlight, and nutrients)?

    The plants will not survive.

Discussion: Formative Questions

Changing Environments

  • How might mountain growth affect the amount of water available for plants to grow?

    As mountain ranges grow there is likely to be differences in the amount of rain/snowfall on different sides of the mountains. In the Pacific Northwest the western sides of the mountains tend to get more rain/snow while the eastern sides get less.

  • What trends are you seeing between the simulation and the graph that is forming?

    In the plant simulation they may notice that the number of individuals changes as the mountains grow. They may also begin to notice changes in the physical characteristics of the plants as seen by the color changes. In the rabbit simulation should see a direct relationship between the amount of resources(grass) available and the population of rabbits. When the dam is put in place the water resources are limited for the grass and the rabbit population. The students should see a decrease in rabbit population when the dam in in place. If the students are looking at the plant simulation they will see how plant change over time. In the hawks and foxes they may notice that changes in one species affects other species.

Virtual Field

  • In the simulation the plants with smaller leaves seem to be more successful in full sun and larger leaves do better in low sun levels. Why might this happen in real life?

    A plant with larger leaves will be able to collect the maximum amount of light which will allow for greater photosynthesis activity.

  • What changes are occurring in transition light zones?

    The plants seem to be adapting taking some characteristics from both sides of the transition zones allowing them to spread into these zones.

Discussion: Wrapping Up

Changing Environments

  • How does a natural or man-made change in the environment affect the different plants and animals living in that environment?

    Changes in the environments affect both plants and animals. These changes can be both positive and negative. They can cause populations of organisms to decrease or increase based on availability of resources.

  • In the simulation with the dam that environment seemed to move back to its original balance after the dam was removed. Explain why this might happen. Will the new ecosystem be exactly the same as it was before?

    When a change in the environment is reversed organisms will begin to move back into an area. The ecosystem that results may be similar to what existed prior to the disruption but may have some significant differences.

Virtual Field

  • What does variation mean when growing plants? Be prepared to share your answer with the class.

    Variation is how plants change over time, different versions of the same plant.

  • Besides light level, what other environmental variations could affect species success?

    Answers should include moisture levels, nutrient content, introduce species, etc.

Additional Background

A food chain shows how energy passes from one living thing to another living thing. It follows a single path as different creatures eat each other for energy. All food chains begin with energy. This energy comes from the sun. The greatest amount of energy in an ecosystem is found in its producers.

Producers use water, air, and sunlight to make their own food and food energy. Green plants are producers and are the only living things that can make their own food. They use the sun’s energy to produce food energy, which they store in their cells (photosynthesis). Some producers include trees and bushes (leaves, fruits, berries, flowers), grasses, ferns, and vegetables.

A consumer is a living thing that eats, or consumes other living things to get food energy. Consumers cannot make their own food. When an animal eats or consumes a plant, some of the food energy inside the plant is passed on to the animal. Animals need this energy to live. Some animals that eat plants include: deer, moose, whales, elephants, cows, horses, pigs, rabbits, and squirrels. Many living organisms have behavioral adaptations to help them get food and water. In desert climates, animals and insects hunt for food and water during the night and early morning hours. Some of these nocturnal animals include rattlesnakes, lizards, birds, foxes, and rodents. Desert animals get much of their food and water from the plant life in their environment. Most desert animals get their water from the leaves and stems of desert plants. Cactus is an excellent source of water.

Not all consumers eat plants, however. Animals like lions, tigers, cats, wolves, sharks, walruses, polar bears, seals, vultures, anteaters, and owls eat other animals to get energy. In cold climates, living things also adapt their behaviors to find food and water. Some animals, like squirrels, mice, and beavers, gather extra food in the fall and store it to eat during the cold winter months. Other animals get ready for winter by eating extra food and storing it as body fat. Animals that cannot adapt to changing temperatures often migrate. This means that they travel to other places where the weather is warmer so they can find food.

What an organism eats and what eats it is called its niche. No two organisms fill the exact same niche, or role, in a community. In the oak tree food web, each organism has a special but very different niche in the community. For example, the caterpillars, beetles, and squirrels have different niches in the community because they eat different parts of the tree. In turn, they are eaten by different animals in the community. During its lifetime, however, an organism’s niche, or role, may change. This means that what it eats and what eats it may change over time.


Changing Environments

  1. As the mountain height changed, the environment on both sides of the mountains changed. What does this mean for the plants that lived there?

    The plants that had limited resource struggled to survive and the plants that had resources were able to flourish.

  2. In Graph 2, how many types of plants are there?

    There are 2 plant types, separated by leaf size.

  3. Look at the above four graphs again. Tell a story to describe what happened to the plants when the mountains formed and the environment changed.

    Answers will vary but may say something like: As the plants continue to grow the plants on each side of the mountain became different variations of the original. The plants changed in flower color and leaf size.

  4. Think about the impact the dam had on the ecosystem with rabbits and grasses. Over time, what happened to the water level below the dam?

    The water level below the dam decreased.

  5. How did the population below the dam change after many years?

    The population of rabbits decreased over time because there were not enough resources for them to survive.

  6. When the dam was removed, the rabbit population below the dam recovered to its pre-dam status. How did this population change happen?

    As the amount of water increased the number of plants increased. This increase led to an increase in the number of rabbits of all sizes.

Virtual Field

  1. What differences did offspring have from their parents?

    The offspring have different color blooms and different size leaves.

  2. Where in the field did Leaf Size 9 plants grow best?

    Leaf Size 9 grew best in little light.

  3. In this graph, how many types of plants have flowers?

    The graph shows that all (10 total) the types of plants have flowers.

  4. Do you think the graph above is taken after one season, two seasons, or after many seasons? Explain your answer.

    Answers may vary but should talk about the fact that it probably took many season because there are many variations of the original plant. These variations would take time to occur.

Further Investigation

Changing Environments

Students need to continue to see the relationship of organisms to the amount of resources available. To achieve a better understanding students need to work through the simulation involving predators, prey, and producers. This shows another level of the relationships between these organisms. They can also research local changes to their environments and find out how these changes to their environments have affected the different populations of organisms.

Virtual Field

Since creating a an experiment that will show students variation in plants is both time consuming and costly students would benefit from completing the additional simulation located at the end of the activity. As a teacher you can change that amount of water that they can use and amount of money that they can spend on seeds by giving them verbal rules to follow.