Biomes: Teaching An NGSS-Aligned Unit

While you won’t find biomes in the NGSS, you can still fully align a unit on biomes to the NGSS. Check out how in this blog post about teaching biomes.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 than 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, can a cactus live here? Then, they present their biome to the class along with their conclusions.


Introduce students to interactions between biotic and abiotic factors in this NGSS-aligned unit on biomes.

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 had students identify factors in the biome. I provided them with a bunch of words – some were nonliving things (abiotic factors) and some were living things. My initial instruction was just – sort these cards into two groups. I did not even tell them living vs nonliving.  My goal is to see, what can they come up with?

Card sorts make great Explore activities in your 5E instructional sequence. This card sort focuses on biotic and abiotic factors in biomes.

After giving them a few minutes to do this, I would 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 would try to guide them to that idea.

See It In Action


First, I might break apart the classifications students came 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 came 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 are 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 – our two categories are living and nonliving – I would 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 would 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 would look at the non-living factors we identified — temperature, precipitation, latitutde, etc. I would 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?” My goal is for students to connect some of the characteristics and needs of living things to the environmental conditions of the biome we are examining.


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.

how to teach biomes with the NGSS


Introduce students to interactions between biotic and abiotic factors in this NGSS-aligned unit on biomes.



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.  If you do – or if you don’t – stay tuned on the blog to learn about some tips and tricks for implementing stations in your classroom.) At this point, I bring in the SEP “analyzing data” as well.

The NGSS performance expectations are designed for three dimensional learning. The Science and Engineering Practices and Crosscutting Concepts are already bundled right into the standard!

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, subscribe to my email list. You’ll get it right in your inbox, along with access to a bunch of other resources!)

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” — aka 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.

This Explain activity breaks down the concepts students explored related to the interactions between biotic and abiotic factors. It also ties in the Science and Engineering Practices by focusing on analyzing data.

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


Elaborate on biomes:

I like to give students another opportunity to apply their new understandings before any summative evaluations, so we are back to Elaborate.  Again breaking students into small groups (I love collaborate 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:

Evaluate should really be occuring 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 is an opportunity for students to demonstrate their understanding of Earth’s biomes and the interactions between biotic and abiotic factors to address the Next Generation Science Standards Disciplinary Core Idea: LS2.AThe 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!


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 5 days with my typical students (urban school). If you have high achievers, you may be able to power through it even more quickly, while slower learners 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.

Teaching With Invasive Species

Meet NGSS standards with this place-based education project!One of my favorite ways to teach ecology is through the lens of invasive species. Because they are SO disruptive to ecosystems, it is incredibly easy to interweave all the “ecology concepts” into a unit about their introduction and consequences. It’s easy to add discussions about their effects on the environment, the food web, relationships in ecosystems, and so on as we learn about the basics of ecology.

To wrap up the unit and address the NGSS standard, my students complete a unit capstone – invasive species project.  They start by researching an invasive species in their local region and evaluate how it has affected biodiversity. Then, they work in groups to create a community action plan to address the problem, identifying criteria and constraints and evaluating several proposed solutions.

Students learn ecology by investigating invasive species!

The present their learning in two parts — a “WANTED” poster and then a presentation of their community action plan.  I just finished an update of my project a few weeks ago so that it is now COMPLETELY aligned to the NGSS! The update includes additional resources for organizing research, more detailed descriptions of the understanding to be demonstrated (based on the PE), and an improved rubric for both parts of the project (more fully aligned to the PE). It also includes more detailed teacher instructions.

Teaching with invasive species creates a connection to the local environment AND engage students in real world problems!

Learn how you can engage students and assess their understanding of ecology concepts through a mystery-based problem-solving activity.

Making Detectives in Middle School: Engaging Students In A Science Mystery

While I have spent time teaching everything from fifth grade physical science to high school earth science, environmental science has always been where my heart is. I actually never even liked science until I took Intro to Environmental Science in college! Becoming a science teacher was definitely at the bottom of my career choices prior to that course!

Anyway, environmental science is essentially an interdisciplinary field that looks at how humans and human systems fit into the “natural” world (granted, we are a part of that natural world).  While there’s all kinds of theories on different lenses through which to study environmental science, I’m not going to get into that here. I just want to say – I love environmental science, and so anytime I have the opportunity to incorporate some type of environmental theme into a unit, I do! In Earth Science, I build my atmospheric science unit around the issue of global warming and climate change, and I use a water resources unit to discuss water quality issues and pollution.

Ecology is another disciplinary area where it is SO EASY to incorporate environmental issues.  I actually frame my entire ecology unit around the issue of invasive species. Believe it or not, you can meet every single one of the performance expectations in the middle school Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics DCI by studying invasive species.

Check out this teaching strategy to engage middle and high school students in an ecology unit through puzzle-based mystery activities.While I can’t wait to share more with you about that in a future post (it’s coming soon, I promise!), today I just want to share one of my favorite activities in honor of April’s status as National Frog Month – an Ecology Mystery: Where Have All The Tree Frogs Gone?

After working through our ecology unit, and one students have a firm grasp on the many factors that can play a role in maintaining stability or causing change in ecosystems, my students will participate in this detective-style activity designed to solve an ecology mystery — a sudden decline in the tree frog population in a fictional Florida town.  That said, a decline in amphibian populations is NOT a fictional issue, as year after year scientists are seeing population levels plummet in response to a host of issues — from climate change to water pollution to habitat destruction.

Anyway, in this activity, students are provided with a stack of fictitious clues to explore — from advertisements from the local garden shop, company memos about the success of a recent sale, and diary entries, to newspaper articles and graphs of data collected by local scientists.  They have to use these clues to answer the question, What happened to the tree frogs in Mayberry? For this activity, there is not a right or wrong answer — a “right” answer is one they can support with evidence and reasoning. After working together to examine the clues, students use a graphic organizer to propose three plausible causes of the population decline, and then they write a Claim-Evidence-Reasoning argumentative response based on the theory they believe is best supported by the evidence.  

Students can demonstrate their understanding of ecology concepts in this problem-based learning assessment.

I created this project all the way back in 2014, so it is definitely in need of a revision. I plan to update the teacher and student instructions, add additional clues, and align the rubric to better meet the NGSS in the near future.  As it is, it does currently align with MS-LS2-4, “Construct an argument supported by empirical evidence that changes to physical and biological components of an ecosystem affect populations.” Until then, the activity is available in my TeachersPayTeachers store for a discounted price. If you purchase it before the update – or you already have it – don’t worry – I will send out the new version once I get it updated! That said, it is one of the most fun and engaging activities I have created, and I am so proud of it! I need to create more resources like it, actually…

If you’re interested in creating your own detective-style activity like this, you can follow the same steps I did below!

Step 1: Identify The Problem

For my ecology unit, using a change in population was a no-brainer.  I chose frogs because amphibian populations are actually declining in the real world, and I was able to find a ton of resources about that issue to help me build my clues.  That said, you could choose any number of animals to focus on — a fish population in a stream or the ocean, a population or community of macro-invertebrates, honey bees, or something larger like bald eagles.  The most important thing is to find a problem that could have several potential causes.

This could be done with other disciplinary areas as well.  For example, in an earth science class where students are learning about water resources, you could investigate water contamination.  What caused the contamination — mining? A hazardous waste site? Non point source pollution from nearby farms or fields? Factory dumping? Was the water contaminated as it traveled through the pipes? Was it a combination of factors? In a health science class, students could track the source of an epidemic, using clues about when symptoms started and where people traveled to work their way to patient zero and the disease’s source. Whatever topic you choose, it is important that there is some ambiguity in terms of the correct answer.  Students need to be able to argue their point – finding the evidence to support it – while still reasonably considering other options.

Step 2: Identify Several Possible Solutions

So you’ve picked a topic with several possible solutions — now, list those out. You’ll want to provide at least one – potentially two or three – clues for each solution.  Before you can construct the clues, you need to know what you’re “clueing” people into. So write out those solutions!

Step 3: Create Your Clues

Beneath each solution, start brainstorming clues.  For example, if we were looking at water contamination, I might include a brochure for historic mine tours, as well as a memo from the EPA (or a fictitious agency) about the dangers of acid mine drainage.  I could include a map of hazardous waste sites which indicates a site near the source of water (stream, lake, whatever). I could include a company email about factory dumping, as well as a diary entry from a young person who witnessed some sort of dumping event.  I may include research on how certain characteristics of water can degrade lead pipes and a note from a plumber about disposing of lead pipes he replaced at an old home. Lastly, I could provide graphs about land usage in the area, indicating a significant amount of farmland and fields, and a newspaper article with an interview of a farmer who discusses the challenges of farming and his use of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers.  These are some examples of clues that students can use to build a case. You could also include some actual news articles and research papers to provide supplemental information that could help students – information about the consequences of commercial farming, the difference between point source and nonpoint source pollution, or how hazardous waste is disposed of.

To maximize the “engagement” factor, make your clues look authentic.  Use notebook paper for the diary entries (or invest in some notebook paper clip art and handwritten fonts) and bright colors for the advertisements.  Format the memos and emails as they would appear in real life. Make the students believe they are truly science detectives!

Step 4: Teach

For this activity to be successful, students must have been introduced to these concepts before beginning.  They need to have an understanding of the content in order to recognize the clues for what they are and piece together their argument.  So make sure you cover the topics you are discussing — acid mine drainage, hazardous waste, agriculture, lead pollution, and so on.

Step 5: Create The Task

While exploring the clues is the fun part, to get some value from this activity, you will want to create some sort of assessment.  To understand my students’ thinking, I asked them to identify three possible solutions and list the pieces of evidence that supported that solution.  This showed me that they understood several different concepts that we had learned throughout the unit. To assess their ability to use that evidence to construct an argument, I had my students write a Claim-Evidence-Reasoning written response in which they identified the solution they thought best fit the evidence and then used the evidence to support it.  This is an exercise not only in the content itself but also in important science skills and content literacy.

You could also have students present their arguments or discuss them in a “Socratic Smackdown” type activity.  If you haven’t heard of it, it is an amazing activity to generate TRUE discussion and engage students in the content and issues they are learning about.  I’ll have to tell you more about that another time.

Anyway, there you go! You have an awesome and engaging activity to wrap up your unit, and if your students are anything like mine, they will love it! They might not even mind writing the essay at the end.