Beacon Lesson Plan Library

The Portable Niche

Louise Kent


Students capture an ecosystem in empty film cans placed inside the bottoms of a two-liter bottles. Each created niche is then used to observe distinctive biotic samples.


The student knows the ways in which plants and animals reshape the landscape (e.g., bacteria, fungi, worms, rodents, and other organisms add organic matter to the soil, increasing soil fertility, encouraging plant growth, and strengthening resistance to erosion).

The student knows that the interactions of organisms with each other and with the non-living parts of their environments result in the flow of energy and the cycling of matter throughout the system.


-Two 2 liter bottles for each group of students
-10 clear film cans and tops for each group
-Watch glass
-Magnifying glass
-Field guides for each ecosystem studied
-Permanent marker pen
-Small sticky labels
-Small cup
-Soil Testing Kits
-Water testing kits


1. Obtain several two liter bottles.
2. Ask photo shop to save all film cans from customers.
3. Collect samples or have students collect samples of the ecosystem.
4. Prepare simple field manuals. These can be simple, traced drawings from a lab manual or book. It does not have to be elaborate.
5. Purchase field manuals at book store. (optional)
6. Purchase poster paper for drawings of each area of niche.
7. Provide crayons or markers to illustrate parts.


(Background Information)
Studying a niche is a very difficult concept in ecology to understand. If you question the students and break it down into parts, then the complex parts and the varied roles of the inhabitants in the abiotic system can be understood.

Populations and communities make up an ecosystem. A population's characteristics include its size, density, and spacing. The place where an organism lives is its habitat and its role in the environment is its niche. (example: Two species of birds may inhabitat the same area and nest in the same tree but they nest on different levels of the tree One may feed on insects and the other feeds on seeds. Any biotic or abiotic factor may be considered a limiting factor of the number of organisms in the population.
Ecology is the study of the relationships among organisms and their environment. How does the relationship between an organism, a population, and a community affect an ecosystem? All aspects of an organismís role within a community make up its niche. The niche extends beyond the abiotic to include interactions with other organisms for food, reproduction, shelter, growth and development. The portable niche enables students to examine the complexity of ecosystems by observing the niches within the larger niche of a system. The portable niche allows students to, also, observe a food chain.

The teacher may create several niches for students to observe or students may create their own after listening to the instructions.

Making the Niche

Cut four inches off the top of a 2-liter bottle with scissors. A permanent marker pen may be used to draw the line evenly around the bottle to form a cutting line.
Cut two inches off the bottom of a second bottle; this will be the top of the portable niche. Inside the large portion of the bottles will be placed one or two layers of the clear film cans, each of which contains a distinctive biotic sample from an ecosystem. Collect all the samples from a small area (about 25 square feet to 100 square feet) For example, collect from a pond to a wooded area.
If a pond is used, fill each film can with samples from the following:
-Surface pond water from the center of the pond
-Muck from pond bottom
-Pebbles and sand from the pond bottom near the edge
-Floating algae and weeds near the edge of the pond
-Bark from a nearby tree
-Leaf litter under the tree
-Feathers under the tree
-Insects floating on top of the water

Procedure: (for students) Day 1
1. Have students research animals, plants and climatic conditions found in the ecosystems they will be studying. This may be researched in the library or from a collection of books found in the classroom.
2. Have students prepare bottles for collection.
3. Each group collects a minimum of five cans for the portable niche and labels where each can was collected.
( See instructions for students above)
4. Each group defines the physical and chemical characteristics of the environment of the niche. Water and soil testing kits will be used.
5. List the organisms, which would inhabit or interact directly with the niche.
6. Use field guides (either, small easy to use, teacher made, or purchased field guides) to make identification of organisms found in the samples.
7. Compare the lists of organisms and record results.
8. Write up results of observations including living and non-living materials, interactions, results of tests, etc.

Day 2:

1. If different niches ( such as, a grassy community or a pond community) are assigned to each group, have groups report their findings to the class as a class presentation. Each group describes pertinent details using their observations from yesterday. Suggest that students take notes on the discussion to use on the final assessment of this lesson.

2. If one niche is used for a class, the entire niche can be broken down into parts and studied. A report of each part is presented to the class. For example: a pond is studied; a sample niche is made from organisms found on the bank and just into the water, a second niche is made from water and material found off the bank, and a third is made from material found on the pond bottom about two feet away from the bank, it should contain plants and fish(?). As many bottles can be prepared as needed to show different ecosystems make up many niches. After all the reports are presented, one student from each group, with coaching from other team members, is placed in the room in relation to other student who represent niches (individual cans) found in the ecosystem. Each student is given a drawing that represents the part of the ecosystem represented. The students holding the signs and pictures demonstrating different niches inside a niche are a three-dimensional recreation of the original system. It's like a puzzle; you describe the part and then you place the part in relation to the other parts that belong next to it.
Each group will then explain its position in the system.

3.Instruct students that they will be required to write a conclusion about niches and ecosystems. At this time, share the criteria for the essay that is listed in the assessment box. Allow time for a discussion and maybe a question and answer period to make sure that all students understand a niche, how the non-living and living items that make up the niche interact and the effect on the environment.

Day 3:
Allow students time to write their essays. They may use their observations they wrote about the niches. They may use any notes that they took during class discussions. Remind them about the criteria and that an essay should have a definite beginning and ending.


Students write reports of the ecosystems and the niches created/observed. Reports should include:
a. Definition of physical characteristics of the environment chosen to study, ie. is it a wet environment or dry?
b. Defininition of chemical characteristics of the environment. What did the test on the soil and water for acidity or akalinity show? What effect does this have on the ecosystem? Where might the energy come from in the ecosystem?
c. List and description of the organisms found in the niche. How many organisms were observed? What is their classification? What do they eat? How do they reproduce
d. Description of the interdependence of the organisms. What do the organisms do to change the ecosystem? Do they add oxygen to the air, the the animals change the soil? (ex ; earth worms eat particles and secrete wastes that help fertilize the soil. By burrowing into the soil they allow the soil to get air which gives oxygen to other micro-organisms)

NOTE: Students whose essays do not meet the criteria listed should have an opportunity to reread information and rediscuss the activity. They then should be allowed to rewrite the essay until mastery of the benchmarks is shown.


Additional questions for discussion:
1.Are the film cans representative of a niche? Many niches? A part of a larger niche?
2.Can an entire niche be contained in a container?
3.Can niches of different organisms overlap?
4.How can a student make good observations? Discuss the differences between assumption and an objective observation?

Attached Files

The file contains drawings of how to set up the portable niches.     File Extension: pdf

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