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4th & 5th

Ecosystems Investigations

Topic- Ecosystems, Food Webs, Producer/Consumer/De-composer, Carbon Cycle

Background/ Summary- This lesson is intended to take children beyond the obvious things they can see in nature, to looking "behind the scenes" at what keeps nature all working. Their attention will be focused on nature's COMPLEXITY, and the connectedness in ECOSYSTEMS. The field trip includes:

  • An AQUATIC INVESTIGATION of Ruby Pond, including an introduction to basic abiotic factors and hand-on investigation/pond sampling for macro and micro invertebrates.
  • A FIELD WALK into the forest to focus on producers and consumers (with an introduction to the vocabulary of an ecosystem, and the CARBON CYCLE, prior to the walk.)
  • A choice of lab activities: an OWL PELLET DISSECTION that focuses on food chains, or a ROCK AND MINERAL show. Plus an outdoor DE-COMPOSER DIG focusing on the complexity of soil and variety of creatures in it.
Grade Level- 4th/5th (also appropriate for higher grade levels).


  • Outdoor: Trail walk (45 minutes); Aquatic Study (1 hour); Soil dig (20 minutes)
  • Indoor: Carbon Cycle Lesson (Discovery Center)- (15 minutes); Owl Pellet Dissection or Rock & Mineral Show (40 minutes)
Location- Quinta Mazatlan, McAllen 600 Sunset Drive

Contact- Education Supervisor, Carol Goolsby (956) 681-3370

Duration- 3 hours 9:00 am- Noon Three one-hour pods

Suggested- 3 class group. (Schools with 4 or 5 class groups will be provided a restructured lesson plan.)

Conditions- Must have a minimum of 10 students. Every 10 students must be accompanied by one adult chaperon.

Reservations- Required in Advance. Date are confirmed once payment (or P.O.) and reservation form are received.

Activities/ Objectives- Students will spend one hour each in the following lessons:


  • Introduction to the term ECOSYSTEM, and what is meant by an ABIOTIC versus BIOTIC factor in an ecosystem.
  • ABIOTIC INVESTIGATION: temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen
  • BIOTIC INVESTIGATION: pond sampling with nets to collect macro and micro-invertebrates. Students will have access to magnifiers and microscopes.
  • Date will be recorded daily, for class groups to see changes and patterns. Teachers can then use data to follow up in classroom with graphing results.
  • Focus will be on the question: Is this a healthy pond?


  • Introduction to the CARBON CYCLE- students will see a demonstration of how carbon moves form CO2 in the air into a PRODUCER that converts it to a simple sugar glucose, that is them passed through all the animals in the ecosystems.
  • Point emphasis: All plants are PRODUCERS. All animals are CONSUMERS.
  • OUTDOOR FIELD STUDY: Students will be given an ECOSYSTEM VOCABULARY. In small groups, they will explore the trails to find: 3 types of producers, primary consumers, secondary consumers, and decomposers. They will also search for signs of a FOOD WEB, a PREDATOR, and PREY.
  • Binoculars will be provided.


-Inside the Lab:

  • OWL PELLET DISSECTION- Students will be introduced to the concept of a FOOD CHAIN, and the term SECONDARY CONSUMER. In pairs, students will investigate the bones they dissect from an owl pellet to determine what animal the own had eaten.
  • ALTERNATE: ROCK AND MINERAL SHOW- Students will learn about the layers of rocks found beneath the surface of the earth. (ie. Sedimentary, Metamorphic, and Igneous) with examples of each. Then they will learn the difference between ROCKS and MINERALS, MINERAL and METALS, and see a variety of different minerals in the rock collection.

-Outside the Lab: Soil and De-composer Dig

  • Students will look at the components of Soil
  • Students will create a "soil zoo", by digging for de-composers and other other components of the soil.
  • Learn what a butterfly's life is like by BECOMING ONE. Students will start by role-playing the egg stage, then move onto their bellies and "eat like a caterpillar", the pupate inside the a "chrysalis" sac, then emerge and put on wings to fly to find nectar to drink.
  • When in season, students will also be able to hold a live caterpillar and see butterflies in chrysalis stages.
  • Next the class will learn about the connection between insects and "native plants", and make a flower armband.
Key Terms-

Ecosystem- A biological community of interesting organism and their physical environment.

Food Chain- A series of organisms each dependent on the lower level as a source of food.

Producer- PLANTS that are able to photosynthesize to make food.

Consumer- ANIMALS that must depend on eating a producer or other consumer to get is food.

Decomposer- Organisms that break down dead plants or animals, returning their nutrients to the soil or air.

Carnivore- Animals that eat other animals.

Herbivore- Animals that eat plants.

Omnivore- Animals that eat both plants and animals.

Predator- An animal that must capture and eat another animal for food.

Prey- An animal that is eaten by another.

Carbon Cycle- The movement of carbon from the air as a gas (CO2), into plants, then animals, then back into the air.

Invertebrates- Animals without backbones.

Micro invertebrates- Animals without backbones that can only be seen with a microscope.

pH- The level of free hydrogens in a solution, that determines if it is acidic (below 7), neutral (7), or alkaline (above 7).

Dissolved Oxygen- The amount of oxygen molecules suspended in water, and available for plants and animals.

Mole & Shrew- Small animals often eaten by owls.

Modification- During the rain or inclement weather:

  • The Aquatic lesson will continue, with students making brief trips to the pond to collect (using umbrellas if needed), and the investigation moving inside to the Discovery Hall. Samples of creatures taken by previous class will be available for students to observe under the microscopes, inside.
  • The Soil Dig will be restructured with students searching for creatures in the "soil zoo" from previous classes.
  • The Trail Walk will continue using umbrellas. An alternative movie is available if needed that shows ecosystem activity.

  • Draw 12 things that can be found in a FOREST or POND ecosystem.
  • Is the following pond healthy or unhealthy: It is almost covered by lily pads, it had a pH of 5, low dissolved oxygen, and a large number of one of kind of invertebrate- mosquito larva.
  • Draw a diagram showing a food web.
  • Describe what is in SOIL.

Contact Us
Quinta Mazatlan

600 Sunset Drive
McAllen, TX 78504

(956) 681-3370

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