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Unit Plan on Population Dynamics

Part I: Information about the Lesson

Topic: Resources and Human Impact
Generating Big Ideas

I will teach about population ecology. Many aspects can be covered during this unit, and I will be focusing on levels of organization, carrying
capacity, limiting factors, and interspecies relationships, all the while tethering these to the phenomenon of a hare population cycling in the Boreal
Forest in Northern Canada.

What are the underlying big ideas?

The underlying big ideas are understanding factors that affect and drive population densities in nature. Birth rates and death rates are taught to
show how populations increase and decrease in size. Limiting factors can increase and decrease both birth rates and death rates. Carrying capacity
of an environment is determined by limiting factors present. Keystone species can exist in an environment, and even though they can be small in
number/biomass, they can have profound effects on the biodiversity of the ecosystem. Interspecies relationships are included, mentioning
relationships between predator and prey.


A hare population size fluctuates in tens of thousands of hares over a 10-year period. What factors in their environment drives this vast fluctuation
of hares?

Draw for yourself a full explanatory diagram (your model) that combines representations of observable things and unobservable processes at work.

The hare population increases and decreases by drastic numbers over a 10-year period. This phenomenon has been studied for over 100 years and
has many factors that can contribute to this cycling. A high hare population is driven downward by the vast numbers of predators (the lynx) that
are in their environment. With high predation numbers, death rates increase as more rabbits are consumed, and birth rates decrease as stress has
been shown to increase in hare when predator levels rise. Most hares (60%-90%) will die as a result of predation during peak hare densities. With
high stress levels, the hare focus more on their survival and devote less energy to reproduction, thus causing the hare population to have lower
birth rates, and decreasing the population size. When the hare population becomes too low, the predators do not have enough available food to
survive at such high numbers, so they decline shortly after the hare population declines. Once the predation becomes low enough, the hare stress
levels decrease and consumption of hares decrease, in turn increasing the population size of the hares over a couple of years. This cycle continues
as hare populations climb to their original levels. The “up-down” cycles have to do with carrying capacity. This has to do with the dynamic
balance between the availability of habitat components (food, water, shelter, ext.) and the number of organisms in the habitat. Plant (hare food)
levels do not decrease enough to cause starvation with high hare number. The plants avoid over feeding by hares by producing secondary
chemicals that cause an unpalatable flavor, therefore decreasing the obtainable energy available to the hares to reproduce and survive. It takes 2-3
years for the elevated levels of chemicals to decline back to ‘normal’ levels. Environments like this are not static. They continuously fluctuate in
response to a variety of stimulating and limiting factors. Natural factors tend to maintain population of species within predictable ranges.
Populations like the hare and lynx are either in a period of overshooting their carrying capacity and will soon decline or undershooting their
carrying capacity and will soon increase. Even with no predators, animals like the snowshoe hare will experience population fluctuations.

What does success for students look like?

Students should be able to identify factors that cause other populations to increase and decrease, and identify what it means when population sizes
are increasing and decreasing. They should be able to infer what would happen to a population if a new limiting factor was added or removed from
the ecosystem of study.

Objectives for Student Learning

Michigan Objectives
HS-LS2-6 Evaluate the claims, evidence, and reasoning that the complex interactions in
ecosystems maintain relatively consistent numbers and types of organisms in stable conditions,
but changing conditions may result in a new ecosystem.

NGSS Performance Expectations & Evidence Statements

HS-LS2-2: Use mathematical representations to support and revise explanations based on
evidence about factors affecting biodiversity and populations in ecosystems of different
HS-LS2-6: Evaluate the claims, evidence, and reasoning that the complex interactions in
ecosystems maintain relatively consistent numbers and types of organisms in stable
conditions, but changing conditions may result in a new ecosystem.
Planning Practice #2
Generic Questions Actual Questions What to listen for and plan to respond
Describe how you will introduce the phenomenon: The phenomenon will be shown as a hare population cycling from a graphic and
a brief description of the observations and ecosystem. The graph will be broken into a single cycle graph, highlighting a population
growth, decline, and stability.
Step 1. Eliciting observations What is happening in this graph? • What if students cite relevant features
• What do you see going on here? (Point at increasing part) What is happening of the task?
• What did you notice when here? • What if students cite irrelevant ideas or
___happened? (Point at decreasing part) What is happening cannot understand the representation/
• When or where does ___ occur? here? problem?
(Point at level/even part) What is happening • What if students give inferences rather
here? than observations?
Step 2. Eliciting hypotheses What does it mean when it is increasing? • What if students exhibit pre-
without explanation What does it mean when it is decreasing? conceptions?
• What would you predict about What does it mean when it is level/even? • What if students cite relevant facets of
___? Could it stay increasing/decreasing/level the big idea?
• What has happened here? (at forever? • What if students do make connections
level of inference) What would happen if all food resources were to what they’ve experienced?
• What would happen if ___? removed from the hare population?
What would happen if all predator population
were removed from the ecosystem?
Step 3. Pressing for explanation What are some factors that would cause these • What if students offer explanations
• What might be going on here that fluctuations in the graph? congruent with scientific explanation?
we can’t see? (increase/decrease/level) • What if students offer simplistic cause-
• Why do you think this happens Why might it cycle every 10-11 years? effect?
this way? (emphasize cause) Example: "Why does water boil?"
• What do you think causes ____? "Because you put it on the stove."
• What if kids offer explanations that
involve alternative conceptions?
Step 4. Summarizing What evidence do we need to help us decide • What if students are unable to respond
• What are some things we are not why it is cycling every 10-11 years? to any of these questions?
sure about here?
• How could we test our
• What kinds of information or
experiences do we need to learn

Planning Practice #3
Generic Questions Actual Questions What to listen for and
plan to respond to…
Describe how you will introduce each activity:
Activity 1: Graphing Practice with Population Ecology. Students will practice graphing techniques and use brief information
about 6 populations to identify which information could be association with each graph.
Activity 2: Levels of Organization and Biotic vs Abiotic Factors. Use textbook as resource to discover vocabulary and apply
newly learned vocabulary.
Activity 3: Interspecies Interactions. Watch videos on interspecies interactions and use problem solving skills to identify which
example is which interspecies interaction. Go back after initial thinking to highlight differences to previous ideas.
Activity 4: Carrying Capacity. Students will act out as rabbits and resources in a meadow to determine the importance of
limiting factors and how these can create a carrying capacity for the population of rabbits.
Activity 5: Population Growth activity. Students will explore the factors that cause a population to increase and decrease,
as well as the difference between exponential vs logistic growth curves.
Activity 6: Keystone species. The biodiversity of an ecosystem can be affected when species are removed. What happens
when we remove a keystone species?
Activity 7: Density independent and dependent factors. Students will be handed a notecard with a limiting factor written
upon it. They will choose which side of the room to stand on, each side representing either density independent or
dependent factor.
Step 1. Orienting students to the Activity 1: We will be analyzing graphed data and use Then you need to listen
concepts patterns and prior knowledge to determine what graphed for, plan to respond to:
• What can we observe/ measure in data can represent what species. What if students can cite
this activity? Activity 2: We need to have a basic understanding of the relevant features of the
OR What will we be seeing vocabulary terms that are used to describe ecosystems and activity?
happen/measuring? things within it. What if students focus on
Activity 3: What is the interaction between two species in extraneous features of
an environment? Who benefits from the relationship? Who activity?
is harmed?
Activity 4: What happens (both to the environment and to
the rabbits) as the rabbit population increases?
Activity 5: Why and how does a population
increase/decrease in its environment? How is this related
to carrying capacity?
Activity 6: What is a keystone species and what happens to
the biodiversity of a community when a keystone species
is removed from it?
Activity 7: Which of these limiting factors depend on the
density of the population? Which limiting factors don’t?
Step 2. Back-pocket questions: Activity 1: What species could this be? (Bring attention to What you need to listen
Observations and patterns the pattern) Can you rule out any species it couldn’t be? for, plan to respond to:
• “What are you seeing here?” (or Why can you rule that one out? What if students can cite
similar broad observational question) Activity 2: What is the difference between abiotic and relevant features of the
biotic factors? What is the pattern to levels of organization activity?
in the ecosystem? What if students are
Activity 3: What happens in a (parasitic/ predatory/ focused on extraneous
mutualistic) relationship? What happens if there are more features of activity?
fox in the predatory relationship with the rabbit? What if students mention
Activity 4: What is happening to the availability of patterns, but do not explain
resources as the rabbit population increases? What happens the significance?
to the rabbit population in turn? What happens when we
introduce fox to the meadow?
Activity 5: What factors affect population density? How
does it increase/decrease?
Activity 6: Based on the readings, how is your species
critical for its environment?
Activity 7: What does it mean when something is density-
Step 3. Back-pocket questions: Activity 1: Two of the species look very similar to the What you need to listen
Connection to the big idea phenomenon of the cycling hares (rabbit and fox for, plan to respond to:
• “Can you explain what you are populations in central Ohio). What two species would this What if students hesitate or
doing or what is happening in terms of be? seem to rely on
[the big idea]?” Activity 2: What factors in the boreal forest are vocabulary?
abiotic/biotic? What level of organization within the What if students can make
ecosystem are we examining? connections between
Activity 3: Can you explain the relationship between the activity and some aspect of
hare and the lynx? Who does it benefit? Who does it hurt? big idea?
Activity 4: Can you explain how this would relate to our
lynx and hare dynamic?
Activity 5: Can you explain what it means when our hare
population increases/decreases?
Activity 6: Is the snowshoe hare a keystone species?
Activity 7: What factors in our environment are density-
independent or density-dependent?
Step 4. Whole class coordination of Activity 1: What kind of relationship would these two What you need to listen
student’s ideas & their questions species represent? Who does what to who? Is this similar for, plan to respond to:
• “What did you (addressing whole to our phenomenon? What if students hesitate?
class) find in your activity [adjust this Activity 2: What are abiotic factors? What are biotic What if students can
questions to the specifics of the factors? What level of organization are we looking at describe patterns, insights?
activity, seeing trends, patterns, within the ecosystem when we look at just the hare
differences, etc.]” population? When we look at the hare population and its
biotic surroundings?
Activity 3: What is the relationship between our snowshoe
hare and the lynx? What happens to the hare population
when the lynx population increases?
Activity 4: What would happen if the lynx population
increased? What happens to the rabbits carrying capacity?
Activity 5: What does it mean when our hare population is
increasing, and what may be driving this increase? What
does it mean when our hare population is decreasing, and
what may be dampening population growth?
Activity 6: How does your species compare to the species
of the other three groups? Therefore, what is a keystone
Activity 7: What do we think is causing the hare
population to cycle so drastically, density-independent
factors or density-dependent factors?

Planning Practice #4
Generic Questions Actual Questions and Plans What to listen for and plan to respond
Describe how you will introduce the activity: After everything we learned throughout this unit, we come back to the original
phenomenon and question. The snowshoe hare population in the boreal forest of Northern Canada is cycling drastically over a 10-
year period. What factors cause the population to cycle so drastically and regularly?
Step 1. Re-orienting students to the What is the question we are trying to Then you need to listen for, plan to
focal models and hypotheses. answer? Consider all the activities we respond to:
• “This is what our groups have been covered to help explain the phenomenon. What if students can only talk about their
thinking about— what is it we have These are summarized in the summary explanations in terms of specific
been trying to represent?” table (displayed on the board) observables and not in terms of an
• “What is the puzzle we are trying to underlying model? (see examples on
solve?” previous page).
• “What are we trying to explain?”
Step 2. Coordinating a tentative What are the limiting factors in the What you need to listen for, plan to
explanation with available evidence. environment? Does your model respond to:
• “What do we think is causing ___? represent all limiting factors? What if students start talking about
• “Who would like to offer an descriptive findings only, or talk only
explanation?” about how things are correlated?
Make sure each rise and fall of What if students depend only on
population in your explanation is vocabulary in their explanations?
supported by evidence and reasonings. What if students respond to an imagined
Are all interspecies relationships question?
identified? What if students skip over the chain of
What is the best way to effectively events?
communicate your hypothesis in a
Step 3. Committing an explanation Create a model that both graphically What you need to listen for, plan to
to paper represents and written explanation of respond to:
• “Now stop and write down your what occurs to the snowshoe hare What if students cannot begin to write an
explanation” population in the Boreal Forest. explanation, how will you help them
(groups or individually). Make sure your graph and text match begin?
Followed by: each other at all points. (IE. Don’t have What if students cannot imagine what a
• “Now from the data you collected in your text saying the hare population piece of evidence might be? How will you
the decline is due to high lynx pop. if your help them not just state of piece of
____activity, or from ideas you read graph has a low lynx pop when hare evidence, but understand what counts as
about in the text, you need to come up populations are declining) evidence?
with two pieces of evidence that
supports your explanation.”
Step 4. Talking about the strength Use all evidence we have acquired to What you need to listen for, plan to
of the data and the reasoning mold your final explanation. respond to:
Highlight pieces of data that explain the What will you do if students cannot make
changes in hare populations’ connections between evidence and
birth/death rates. explanations? Or if they don’t see how
evidence might contradict an explanation?
Step 5. Writing a final explanation Use everything you learned in this unit What you need to listen for, plan to
to fully explain why the hare population respond to:
is cycling at a regular interval and to How can you help students understand
drastic extremes. what might have to be changed in their
previous model?
Step 6. Applying the new A unit test is given to analyze whether What you need to listen for, plan to
explanatory model the specific topics (Activities 1-7) were respond to:
understood. Within the How might you help students who cannot
understand how to apply their explanatory
model to another kind of situation or

Part III: Representation of student thinking

Paragraph 1: What is this representation of student thinking? Where did it come from?

Students will represent their thinking by creating final explanatory models for the 10-year hare cycle phenomenon. An initial
model was drafted at the beginning of the two-week unit, in which factors affecting the 10-year hare cycle were hypothesized.
The final model represents the growth in thinking throughout the unit, asking the students to re-explain the phenomenon based
on things they learned learn throughout the unit. This model was inspired and adapted from Ambitious Science Teaching

Paragraph 2: When and how will you use this representation?

This representation of student thinking was used at the beginning of the unit (to hypothesize the causal factors) and at the end
of the unit (to test application of content used throughout the unit). This representation can be used to assess increase in
learning of the students, as well as application of the content. Individual contributions to the poster will be subjectively
assessed based on a peer review that was handed out to the students.

Paragraph 3: Why will you use this representation?

I used this representation to determine increase in content knowledge before and after the unit. Coinciding with the scientific
process, hypotheses can be changed when new information and evidence is discovered, and models can be adapted to adjust
for the newly discovered evidence.
Part IV: Assessment of Students
Assessment Tasks
Formative/Embedded Assessments
Assessment Task Description of Assessment (including exact wording where possible)
1 Interspecies Relationship Worksheet (attached)
 Students had to model interspecies relationships
 Most common struggles were confusion between parasite, parasitoid, and commensalism
 Some students had issues modeling that way I demonstrated for the class
2 Outdoor Carrying Capacity Lab (attached)
 Observe population fluxes, define carrying capacity, identify limiting factors
 Graphing was a far bigger issue than I had anticipated
 When definitions were looked up in text, they were not learned, merely copied
3 Keystone Readings (attached)
 Jigsaw keystone readings then make a class definition and describe what the loss of a keystone
species would do to a biomass pyramid
 Small portion of class contributed ideas, most let others do the talking/thinking
 Didn’t fully understand how keystone species effected biomass pyramids (one of the most missed
questions on the test)

Summative Assessments
Assessment Task Description of Assessment (including exact wording where possible)
1 Population Ecology Unit Test. Test over concepts of population ecology.
2 (if needed) Population Ecology Unit – Final Model. Why is the hare population increasing and decreasing? (See Final
Poster Rubric for model requirements)