Teaching Your Biomes Unit In An NGSS Classroom

Planning to teach biomes in your life science course? Learn how to align your biomes unit with the NGSS by focusing on the ecology and climate connection. 

A how-to guide to help you align your biomes unit with the NGSS.

Biomes is a topic I have often seen on the course curriculum sheets provided by schools and districts, yet it is not a topic that is anywhere in the Next Generation Science Standards.  Whether it is on your mandated course curriculum or you just like the topic, you may be wondering — how can I reconcile teaching this topic with the NGSS?

Don’t worry, you can! And I’m going to show you how.

The Standard

Biomes (the topic) doesn’t easily align with any particular standard, but there’s obvious connections to ecology and climate.  Because I am working with a life science course, I decided to go with the ecology connection. (Plus, the PEs that relate to climate don’t really apply to biomes well.)

The standard I identified that most easily aligned was:

LS2.A.1 Organisms, and populations of organisms, are dependent on their environmental interactions both with other living things and with nonliving factors.  with the accompanying Performance Expectation:

MS-LS2-1 Analyze and interpret data to provide evidence for the effects of resource availability on organisms and populations of organisms in an ecosystem.

So biomes is the lens through which I will be teaching that standard. Since the thing that makes one biome different from another biome is the nonliving factors in the environment (particularly the climate and geology), my focus is on how organisms and populations interact with factors related to the climate and geology.

[Note: This unit is based on the 5E Model. If you are not familiar (or find yourself confused as you read on), you may want to check out this Quick Guide to the 5E Model.]

Engage With Biomes

I chose as my anchoring phenomena, Why can’t a cactus live in Pennsylvania? because I live in Pennsylvania.  We often have cactus plants inside, but you’re typically not going to find any outdoors. (I know there are technically some exceptions in some mountains somewhere in eastern Pennsylvania, but I’m ignoring that.) 

As an anchoring phenomena, this connects to prior knowledge (cacti, home state) and gets them wondering. I start the unit by discussing this idea with students, giving them time to generate and record their ideas.

Then, they dive into a jigsaw activity where they are introduced to one biome.  They learn about their assigned biome and decide if a cactus can live there. Then, they present their biome to the class along with their conclusions.

Printable biome identification cards for use in the NGSS classroom.

This gives students a quick overview of the biomes, and it gets them thinking about the interaction between living things and their nonliving environment.

 Explore Biomes

In the Explore phase, students are introduced to the idea that there are two types of factors within an environment (or biome or ecosystem).  Labels are not yet applied in this phase.

I love doing card sorts during the Explore phase, especially in relation to classification or organization. I think it’s a great way for students to begin making sense of the different categories.  If they begin to identify those differences themselves, they are more likely to remember those categories later.

For this activity, I have students identify factors in the biome. I provide them with a bunch of words – some are nonliving things (abiotic factors) and some are living things. My initial instruction is simply: sort these cards into two groups. I don’t even tell them living vs nonliving.  My goal is to determine what they come up with.

Sample student worksheet showing what factors they use to categorize biomes.

After giving them a few minutes to do this, I typically ask students to share their ideas.  Hopefully, a student suggests sorting the items into living and nonliving (although they may not use those exact terms).  If students don’t suggest that, I try to guide them to that idea.

See It In Action


First, I break apart the classifications students come up with by identifying cards that don’t fit. I don’t recommend saying, “You’re wrong. Where does this one go?” Rather, I might say, “That’s an interesting way to sort the cards! Where did you put _____?”

Alternatively, if students come up with a category that was too specific, I might try to broaden their category by building on their response.  If they said “animals,” I might say: “I like that you identified a few of those cards as animals. I wonder if there’s a way we could combine your category with this card that says trees?”

Once students are all on the same page with the two categories being living and nonliving, I make sure we all are in agreement on which cards are living and which cards are nonliving.  Then, the goal is to move students back toward the standard – interactions between living factors and their nonliving environment.

See It In Action

I ask students to examine the living factors. I might say, “  What are some things these organisms need to survive? What are some things they have that help them to survive in their environment?” I always have students at least jot down some key points of our discussion in their notebooks.

Then, we look at the non-living factors we identified: temperature, precipitation, latitude, etc. I ask students: 

  • How do you think these non-living things connect to the living things we just discussed? 
  • How might temperature affect an animal’s survival? 
  • What might an animal do or have that would help them to survive in certain temperatures? 
  • How might water or sunlight affect an animal’s survival?
PowerPoint presentation for introducing biomes to students.

Explain Biomes

Explain is where you are going to start applying labels.  I vary my Explain-phase activities. Sometimes, I use PowerPoint presentations.  Other times, we will analyze an image, graph, or text using a document camera. 

I typically also incorporate some sort of stations activity, where students can work independently to develop their own explanations.  This may be by taking notes from a video they watch on iPads or creating a graphic organizer with student-constructed definitions.

Sample student data analysis sheet with anchoring phenomena and student's notes and data.


Students need time to work with the concepts independently to really reinforce their learning.  The Elaborate phase allows for this. For my first Elaborate activity, I break students into groups and give each group a Biome Card and Sort Terms very similar to the previous Explore activity.  Students are asked to apply that same process – sorting the cards into biotic and abiotic factors – using new information. To connect the interactions aspect, I asked students to answer a few analysis questions. Using an example from your cards, how might organisms interact with abiotic factors in your biome?

Explore Biomes Again

Wait, what!? You may be asking, why are we back to Explore? Well, the 5E Model is NOT linear.  It is cyclical, in the same sense that the rock cycle or carbon cycle are cyclical. There are many paths that you can follow.

After students have mastered (more or less) biomes and biotic and abiotic factors, students can dive deeper into the interactions between those factors within a biome.

Again, I break students into stations. (I LOVE stations.  You can learn more about utilizing stations here!) At this point, I bring in the SEP “analyzing data” as well.

Snapshot of the NGSS three-dimensional elements.

In their groups, students develop visual literacy and explore cause and effect relationships. They are asked to read an introduction/background information card and then to examine the graphs provided.  The analysis sheets I provide walk students through this data analysis process.

(If you’d like to get your hands on a Data Analysis freebie that you can use with ANY graph or map, find it here on TeachersPayTeachers!)

Download this biomes unit for NGSS-aligned classrooms!

These Explore activities are vital, because they provide additional, real-world examples of the phenomena we are studying – the interaction between abiotic and biotic factors in a biome.

Explain Biomes Again

After an Explore activity, you always have to have an Explain. Students must digest what they have encountered and make sense of what they observed.  While the student analysis sheets in the Explore activity walk students through the process, it’s important to make sure they “followed the right path” and that their conclusions made sense.

I typically use a document camera to essentially repeat this process with students. Students share their observations and the conclusions they came to, and we simply discuss their ideas.  If necessary, we correct misconceptions. Students record this all in their notebooks, so that they have a hard copy they can refer back to and draw from later.

Sample student work showing a graph of the data from their Explore activity.

These two activities directly build towards their unit Performance Expectation MS-LS2-1.

Elaborate On Biomes Again

I like to give students another opportunity to apply their new understanding before any summative evaluations, so we are back to Elaborate.  Again breaking students into small groups (I love collaborative work!), students discuss scenarios about changes to abiotic factors in a biome and make predictions about the effects on the growth and reproduction of biotic factors.

Evaluate Student Understanding Of Biomes

Evaluation should really be occurring throughout the unit.  I am constantly looking at Science Starters, Exit Tickets, and student responses during activities and discussions to formatively evaluate understanding. That said, the summative assessment comes at the end of a unit.  I typically assess students in two ways — a project of some sort and a traditional paper/pencil quiz or exam.

For the biomes unit, I decided to build on an old favorite of many teachers – the biome diorama – to create a project better aligned to the NGSS. The project is an opportunity to integrate the SEPs and the content.  

I ask students to research a biome, which aligns to the Evaluating, Obtaining, and Communicating Information SEP, and then construct a Biome In A Box to present their findings. In order to truly meet the SEP, students must not just “google” information but also evaluate their sources.  I provide resources for the research portion of this assignment that scaffold students through this process.

Biome In A Box Project For Assessment

A Biome In A Box project from iExplore Science to help students present their understanding of biomes in the NGSS classroom.

The Biome In A Box project itself incorporates the content – the biome they were assigned, the idea of biotic and abiotic factors, and how those factors interact. A written component ensures that this is not just an art project. It asks students to use the model they created to understand interactions and make predictions should changes occur.

I use a rubric to evaluate the project. By providing this to students at the start, students know exactly what to do. We also explicitly discuss what an A+ project would look like (I even show examples, if I can!).  I also add authenticity to the project by incorporating a gallery walk assignment, and I am sure to tell students about this component at the beginning.

Why do a gallery walk?  

Displaying student work is something most of us probably do in our classroom, but oftentimes, no one actually looks at it once it’s hanging up.  Gallery Walks are a way to focus student attention on the hard work of others. It adds legitimacy to tasks, because let’s be honest – who wants to invest time and energy into something NO ONE is going to see? Plus, doing a gallery walk here benefits other students, because they get a review of the content.  If you can do this prior to the test, you’re in even better shape!

Project Wrap Up

So that is my Biomes Unit.  I typically spend about 1-2 weeks, depending on whether or not students complete most of their project at home or in class.  I can finish the actual activities in about five days with my typical students (urban school). If you have high achievers, you may be able to power through it even more quickly, while those with learning differences may need additional time.

Biomes (the topic) is tricky, because it is not an area that completely aligns with the NGSS — at least, not in the same way that things like “photosynthesis” and “natural selection” do.  That said, the NGSS is not a curriculum. They are standards, and you can be creative with how you teach those standards. So if you really love biomes – or if you have to teach it as a part of your school’s curriculum – you don’t need to quit the NGSS to do it.

You can get my complete Biomes 5E Unit Plan on TeachersPayTeachers or on Spark Science.

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A complete 5E instructional sequence that introduces Earth’s biomes and uses these as a vehicle through which to teach biotic and abiotic factors and aligned for the NGSS.