Hands-on Activity: Environmental Interactions

Contributed by: Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder

A spider web in nature.
Students create interaction "webs"
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In this activity, students create a "web" to identify and demonstrate the interactions among the living and non-living parts of an environment. This information allows students to better understand what an environment is and to also consider how engineers use teamwork to solve problems.
This engineering curriculum meets Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

Environmental engineers are part of teams that work at universities, private consulting firms, government agencies, testing laboratories and private industries, among others. Teamwork helps environmental engineers solve some of the most challenging environmental problems, and as a result, ultimately helps make our lives better.

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • Describe cause and effect relationships in an environment.
  • Classify parts of the environment as either biotic or abiotic.
  • Understand how engineers use teamwork to solve problems.

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Educational Standards

Each TeachEngineering lesson or activity is correlated to one or more K-12 science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) educational standards.

All 100,000+ K-12 STEM standards covered in TeachEngineering are collected, maintained and packaged by the Achievement Standards Network (ASN), a project of D2L (www.achievementstandards.org).

In the ASN, standards are hierarchically structured: first by source; e.g., by state; within source by type; e.g., science or mathematics; within type by subtype, then by grade, etc.

  • Make a claim about the merit of a solution to a problem caused when the environment changes and the types of plants and animals that live there may change. (Grade 3) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Develop a model to describe the movement of matter among plants, animals, decomposers, and the environment. (Grade 5) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Draw a scaled picture graph and a scaled bar graph to represent a data set with several categories. Solve one- and two-step "how many more" and "how many less" problems using information presented in scaled bar graphs. (Grade 3) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Things that are found in nature differ from things that are human-made in how they are produced and used. (Grades 3 - 5) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Draw a scaled picture graph and a scaled bar graph to represent a data set with several categories. (Grade 3) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
Suggest an alignment not listed above

Materials List

Each group should have:

  • Seven 4 x 6 index cards (one per student)
  • A variety of markers/pens/pencils
  • Seven 2" strips of masking tape (one per student)
  • One large ball of any-colored yarn

If graphing:


What if small towns or large cities did not have anyone that knew how to design and maintain a water sanitation (cleaning) system? What if that person did not exist at all, in any locale? Or what if pollution was never measured? Talk about an environmental disaster! If we do not know how much we are polluting, then we may never discontinue our polluting actions. In reality, if such a situation exists, people become very sick as a result of poor sanitation systems, dirty water and air, and excessive pollution. In some situations, they might even die due to the poor living conditions.

Environmental engineers study and manage the effects of humans and other activity on the natural and human-made environment so that populations can thrive and live as healthy of lives as possible. They work in many different major categories of environmental protection, including water, air, land and toxic materials. Environmental engineers closely study LAWS and help us utilize them in better ways. Who can define LAWS for us? (Answer: light, air, water, soil)

Today we are going to look at the interactions between living ( biotic) and non-living ( abiotic) things in the environment. Do you think there are a lot of interactions? An interaction is when one thing has a relationship with something else. For example, a flower needs to use water to live, so that flower and water interact so that the flower lives. Essentially, they work together to accomplish something. We will talk about what happens when one component of the environment changes. Who and what will it affect? Sometimes environmental changes cause problems for plants, animals, or even humans. Environmental engineers will then work to solve the problem. Examples of environmental changes can include: an increase in temperature, decrease in water due to drought, increase in a certain species of plant or animal, and many more possibilities.

Have you ever been on a team? A sports team, perhaps? What is it like? Is it different than trying to do something alone? How is it better? We are going to try to understand how things in the environment work together, similar to how a team works together to try to win a basketball or soccer game. Engineers also work together with the environment as a team. We call this special interaction among people and living and non-living things, teamwork.


Before the Activity

  • Decide where students are going to work so that they can spread out (playground, gym, common area, etc.).
  • Tear enough 2" pieces of tape from a roll of masking tape so that each student has one strip.
  • Make copies of the two attachments (Web Tally Chart and Environmental Interactions Graph Paper).
  • If desired (i.e., if children are likely to get confused or if pressed for time), write enough environmental terms on index cards so that each student has one card. Ensure that the environmental LAWS (light, air, water, soil) are included in your identified environmental "things." Skip step #3 below.

With the Students

Part 1: Creating a Web

  1. Distribute an index card and a piece of tape to each student.
  2. Ask each student to choose something in the environment that s/he would like to be (e.g., a pine tree, grizzly bear, cat, tulip, sun, fish, air, water, soil, etc.).
  3. Ask the students to write on their index card their chosen environmental "thing." Be sure that students include land, air, water and soil in their selections. (If you prepared your cards ahead of time, as noted above in the Before the Lesson section, you may skip this step.)
  4. Ask each student to tape the index card to the front of her/his shirt.
  5. Divide the students into groups of at least 8 (groups may be larger or smaller, if desired, but they must be at least 5 students).
  6. Ask the members of each group to sit or stand in a circle.
  7. Distribute a ball of string/yarn to one member of each group.
  8. The student with the ball of string/yarn should hold the end of the string and then pass the ball to another member of the group to whom s/he is "related" based on their index card identifications (for example, a "fish" passes the ball of string to the "water," because a fish needs water to live). The student who passed the string ball must explain his/her "relationship" with the next student (e.g., "a fish needs water to swim in and help it breathe").
  9. The next student continues in the same fashion (see Figure 1). For example, the "water" holds the string and passes the ball to a "flower" and then explains their relationship (i.e., water is what allows a flower to grow and survive).

 Ten different colored circles represent ten students who have possible environmental interactions. Each circle is labeled with an environmental term (i.e., Air, Rock, Light, Bush, Dog, etc.). A black line connects the Dog circle to the Air circle, as a dog needs air to survive. Another black line connects the Dog circle to the Water circle, as a dog also needs water to survive.
Figure 1. Initial web (environmental interactions) connections.
Copyright © Image created by Janet Yowell, University of Colorado at Boulder, 2005.

  1. At this point, ask each student to note how many connections s/he has. Students are tempted to just count the number of strings they are holding, but remind them that each time they hold the string it actually represents two connections. Ask students to commit this number to memory as they will need it for Part 2: Graphing (optional). If graphing, ask students not to let go of their webs just yet.

Ten different colored circles represent ten students who have possible environmental interactions. Each circle is labeled with an environmental term (i.e., Air, Rock, Light, Bush, Dog, etc.). Many black lines connect circles to circles to circles, in a repetitive pattern forming a web of connections (i.e., environmental interactions).
Figure 2. Complete web (environmental interactions) connections.
Copyright © Image created by Janet Yowell, University of Colorado at Boulder, 2005.

Part 2: Graphing

  1. Pass out a Web Tally Chart to each student.
  2. In order to graph, students need to fill in their Web Tally Charts immediately after counting their web connections (or, because letting go of and then picking up the string may likely cause mass chaos, ask students to select one group member to write down the connections for each person on their chart).
  3. Ask students to predict an answer to the following question: What happens if one part of their 'environment' is removed? (Answer: The environment will be affected: it will "be loose," "fall apart" or "become destroyed.") Record students' answers on an overhead or the chalk/whiteboard.
  4. Ask students to test their predictions. Select one person in each group to let go of his/her strings to see what happens.
  5. Ask students to share what happened with their web. (Answer: Students should recognize that when one part of their environment was disconnected, the rest of the environment is affected or even destroyed: the web gets very loose or completely falls apart.) Record their answers on an overhead or the chalk/whiteboard.
  6. Discuss with students these different environmental changes, represented by letting go of the string. Have them think about how a particular change would affect each part of their environment.
  7. Choose one environmental change in the web and have students brainstorm potential solutions to handle that environmental change (for example, increase/decrease in water).
  8. Ask students to complete their Web Tally Charts (or do a class tally chart) and create their graph (either individually or as a class, see step #7).
  9. Using the Environmental Interactions Graph Paper, students should make a bar graph that represents the number of connections each student in the group has. There are a couple of different ways to generate the graph:
  • Individually – Older or advanced students may be able to complete their own bar graphs within their groups (refer to Sample Web Tally Charts and Graphs, Figure 5).
  • As a class (interactive) – Create a class bar graph using the Web Tally Chart and following the class tally instructions. For example, if more than one person in the class represents "air," then just add the number of connections from all the "air" students to record in the graph.
  1. Have students complete the "Numbered Heads" post assessment described in the Assessment section.


Safety Issues

Remind the students (and keep an eye them!) not to wrap the string/yarn around their (or their peers') necks or too tightly around their fingers.

Although students should pull the string/yarn taunt, they should not pull so hard that students fall over.

Troubleshooting Tips

Consider using one group to model the activity for a couple of rounds before asking each group to do it on their own.

The string can get very easily tangled (depending on how many connections the students make). When this happens, it becomes more difficult for the students to hold their strings and pass the string ball. It may be helpful to assign an "assistant" for each group that can help pass the string ball while the other students concentrate on holding onto their strings and explaining the relationships. The assistant can also help with counting the string connections, etc.

When counting the connections, students are tempted to just count the number of strings, but each string they hold actually represents two connections (except for the student who holds just one string end for having started the web).

Plan on helping the students count the number of connections either individually (this can be good practice counting by 2s once the students understand that each string they hold — except the initial starting string — represents two connections) or as a class (a recorder can tally the results from the group/class using the class instructions on the Web Tally Chart.)


Pre-Activity Assessment

Discussion Questions: Solicit, integrate and summarize student responses.

  • What if small towns or large cities did not have anyone that knew how to design and maintain a water sanitation (cleaning) system?
  • What if pollution was never measured?

Activity Embedded Assessment

Prediction: Ask the students to predict an answer to the following question. Record their answers on an overhead or the chalk/whiteboard.

  • What happens if one part of their 'environment' is removed? (Answer: The environment will be affected: it will "be loose," "fall apart" or "become destroyed.")
  • What impact does this environmental change have on everything and everyone else in the environment? What are possible solutions to this problem?

Web Tally Chart: Have students use the attached Web Tally Chart to record their number of web connections and to graph their group interactions.

Post-Activity Assessment

Numbered Heads: Break the class up into teams of three to five. Students on the team should pick numbers so each member has a different number. Ask the students a question from the list below (give them a time frame for solving it, if desired). The members of each team should work together on the question. Everyone on the team must know the answer. Call a number at random. Students with that number should raise their hands to answer the question. If not all the students with that number raise their hands, allow the teams to work on the question a little longer.

  • What combination of things did your group consider to be an environment? (Note: there are many different types of environments: a desert, a rainforest, an ocean, and an entire planet, for example.)
  • What are some examples of this environment's biotic (the plants and animals — the consumers, producers and decomposers) factors? What are some examples of abiotic (the natural environment of light, air, water and soil — the environmental LAWS) as well as the man-made (houses, stereos, tennis shoes, gum wrappers, etc.) factors?
  • What happens when one part of an environment is destroyed (removed from that environment)? (Answer: All things in the environment are affected somehow, either directly or indirectly.)
  • What part(s) of the environment would you not want to be destroyed? Why? (Answer: We would not want the abiotic LAWS — especially air and water — to be destroyed. Students may also have additional opinions. Accept most answers as long as the students provide justification.)
  • Which part(s) of the environment seem most important? (Answer: The abiotic LAWS should be the main focus of the answer. Students should be able to answer this from the graphing/counting portion of the activity.)
  • Think about the connections to water and air. Why are there so many? (Answer: Most living things require these two abiotic factors to survive.)
  • What would happen if an environmental change happened that caused the amount of water to increase or decrease? What would happen if the air became dirty? How could engineers work to help solve these problems?
  • How does this activity demonstrate teamwork? How do you think engineers use teamwork? (Answer: Students may discuss how their groups had to work together; how the different natural and manmade interactions work together like a team; or how engineers work with the environment as a team to make our lives better. Accept most answers as long as the students provide justification.)

Activity Extensions

Mix the groups in a new way and redo the activity. Ask the students to explore if the new "environment" is any different than the first one. In what ways is it different? The same? Depending on time, you may repeat this process as many times as desired. This will allow students to discover that the factors in all environments are interdependent.

You may want to have a group "assistant" make a paper diagram of the activity as it progresses for later reference. (They should label all the members of the circle and draw the connections in the order that they occur.)

Design "environment" cards for different types of environments. You could use everyday environments like school, bedroom, pond, amusement park, etc. Or you could use it to compare different biomes like tundra, rainforest, grassland, desert, etc. Discuss the similarities and differences of each environment.

Activity Scaling

  • For 3rd grade, it may be easier to do this activity in a large group, but modified in the following way. Select a group of about 8-10 students. Have them sit in a circle and distribute a pre-made environment card to each of them. Have the remaining students sit in a circle surrounding the other students so that they can see the activity as it progresses. Follow the same procedure as described in steps #7-11 of Part 1 of the Procedures section.

Also, younger students can classify the items in the environment as living or non-living (instead of biotic and abiotic). They can count the total number of each type of connection in their "environment." They can compare who is holding the least or most number of strings.

As a class, the students can add up the number of connections made by living things as compared with non-living things. Create a graph. The students can compare which category has more connections. (Note: The nonliving factors, or LAWS — especially air and water, should have the most connections.)

A teacher can make a bar graph quite quickly on an overhead or the chalk/whiteboard by simply polling the students in the class. Then the teacher can lead the discussion about what the graph represents.

  • For 4th grade, do the activity as is. Students may need help with the graphing part of the activity.
  • For 5th grade, students should be more autonomous during the activity and graphing. They should be able to count and record data in their groups and generate a graph from a simple data table.

Students can explore and use ratios to demonstrate their understanding of the different relationships (for example, biotic factors:abiotic factors).

Data can be converted to percents and a pie graph created instead of a bar graph.


Durell, Ann, Craighead George, Jean and Paterson, Katherine (eds). The Big Book For Our Planet, New York: Dutton Children's Books, 1993.

McFadden (ed). Science Plus – Technology and Society (Level Red), Austin, TX: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1993.

Sakamoto Steidl, Kim. Environmental Portraits – People Making a Difference for the Environment, Boulder, CO: Good Apple, Inc., 1993.

Spurling Jennett, Pamela. Investigations in Science – Ecology, Westminster, CA: Creative Teaching Press, Inc., 1995.


Amy Kolenbrander; Jessica Todd; Malinda Schaefer Zarske; Janet Yowell


© 2005 by Regents of the University of Colorado.

Supporting Program

Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder


The contents of this digital library curriculum were developed under a grant from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), U.S. Department of Education and National Science Foundation GK-12 grant no. 0338326. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the Department of Education or National Science Foundation, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Last modified: June 16, 2017