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Forest Ecology - On-site Activities/Ranger Led

Grade Level: 5
Content Area: Science
Time to Complete: 90 minutes
Maximum number of students: 30
Title of Lesson: Forest Ecology

South Carolina State Standards Addressed:


Use the senses and simple tools to gather information about objects or events such as size, shape, color, texture, sound, position, and change (qualitative observations).

I.A.2.a. Compare, sort, and group concrete objects according to two attributes.
I.A.3.a. Use standard (U.S. customary and metric) to estimate and measure mass, length, area, perimeter, volume, and temperature to the nearest whole unit (quantitative observations).

Use drawings, tables, graphs, written and oral language to describe objects and explain ideas and actions.

I.A.5.a. Explain or interpret an observation based on data and prior knowledge.

Devise a statement of assumption, based on observations, experiences, and research, that can be supported or refuted through experimentation.


Investigate and understand how plants and animals in aquatic/terrestrial ecosystems interact with one another and with the nonliving environment.


Distinguish among the roles organisms serve in a food web (producers,decomposers, consumers, prey and predators).

II.B.3.a. Recognize that energy passes from organism to organism in food webs.

Identify and investigate the abiotic factors in an ecosystem such as quantity of light, air, and water, range of temperature, salinity, water pressure, and soil composition.

II.B.4.b. Identify and investigate the biotic factors in an ecosystem.

Program Description:

Students will conduct field investigations to observe and explore the natural forest ecosystem of Paris Mountain State Park.  They will identify populations, food web roles, as well as biotic and abiotic factors in the ecosystem, including temperature and pH.  The final investigation will be a detailed survey of one square meter in the forest.

Focus Questions for Students:

1. What are two abiotic and two biotic factors that influence the type of life found in the forest at Paris Mountain State Park?
2. How does a snake get the sun's energy by eating a mouse?

What are some food web roles for the snake and for the mouse (out of these four: producer, consumer, predator, prey)?

4. How does the forest surrounding Lake Placid protect populations in the lake?

Culminating Assessment:


Students will be able to name two abiotic and two biotic factors that influence the type of life found in the forest at Paris Mountain State Park (see standard II.B.4.a.).


Students will be able to explain the roles of the snake as consumer and predator, the roles of the mouse as consumer and prey, and the role of plants as producers.

3. Students will be able to describe the role of the forest in protecting the lake ecosystem, preventing muddy run-off, flooding, and pollutants as rainwater slowly filters into the lake from the forest soil.


clipboard, sheets and pencils for My Square Meter investigation  
square meters  
square meter kits (one per every 3 students; contains thermometer, soil thermometer, pH strips, vial of distilled water, magnifier box, and hand lens)  
tape measures (one per every 3 students)  

Teacher Preparation:

1. Complete pre-site activities.
2. Read background information and be prepared to participate in activities and discussions.

Background Information:

   Paris Mountain is located in the northeastern part of Greenville County, within the piedmont region of South Carolina.  It is the southernmost extension of the Blue Ridge mountains.  The area is a watershed: a region in a green mountain valley, where water drains into a common area, often a river or lake.  Lake Placid is one of four lakes in the park created in the 1890s as a source of drinking water for the people of Greenville.  The  land has been protected since then, originally to protect  drinking water.  The protection of forests around an aquatic area prevents muddy run-off, pollution, and flooding, with rainwater being slowly filtered through the forest soil, into the lakes and streams. 

     The students will be ‘forest ecologists,’ studying forest ecology: the relationship between living forest organisms and their environment.  The environment is determined by biotic (living) and abiotic (nonliving) factors.  Biotic factors include populations of plants, animals, bacteria, and fungi that are, or were once, alive.  Sticks on the ground, a millipede in the soil, and raccoons in the trees are all biotic factors.  Some living organisms serve as decomposers, slowly breaking down trees that topple to the forest floor, and everything else that dies.  This decomposed material helps create soil.

      The living organisms of the forest make up the food web, with plants producing energy, and animals consuming it.  Paris Mountain predators include snakes, foxes, and centipedes, which eat prey animals, such as mice and beetle larva.  Every animal has niches in the forest: its roles (jobs) in the forest.   One niche of a snake is to consume mice, thereby affecting their population numbers. 

     Abiotic factors include temperature, pH, moisture, quantity of light, and the rocks of the area.  All the living organisms of the forest have a range of temperature, pH, moisture, etc. within which they can live.  Students will measure ground temperature, soil temperature, and pH during their field investigation.

     The pH is a measure of how acidic or basic a substance is, with a range of 1 – 14, and is related to hydrogen ions (for more detail, see pre-visit activity background).  A pH of 7 is neutral, neither acidic nor basic.  The pH number is determined by the rocks that help make the soil, acid in leaves and other biotic factors, and from man-made causes such as acid rain or other pollution.  Some animals can live in soil that is fairly acidic, while others cannot. 

     Forests are really layers of life: (1) The forest floor layer is the wastebasket of the upper layers, with all the leaves, dead animals, and other items that decompose there.  It includes the animals that make their home in the soil.  (2) The herb layer is made up of small, soft-stemmed plants such as ferns, grasses, and wildflowers.  It receives limited sunlight.  Rabbits and many other animals live there.  (3) The shrub layer typically has woody, multi-stemmed plants no taller than 15 feet, such as rhododendron and mountain laurel.   (4) The understory layer is made up of small, shade-tolerant trees, such as dogwoods and sourwoods.  (5) The canopy layer is the top layer, represented at the park by tulip poplars, pines, oaks and hickories.  These get full sunlight, and shade the lower layers. 

     The dominant tree populations of the park are oaks and hickories. This tells us that the forest has been protected for at least 50 years.  It takes time to create a forest.  First protected in the 1890s to protect drinking water, the forest  became Paris Mountain State Park in 1937 - a place enjoyed by many, and home to many layers of life.


Students are introduced to the park and its role as a watershed.  Students are introduced to their role as forest ecologists.  Clipboards are handed out.

Note: If two classes, one class will then go around the lake with a Volunteer Naturalist, experiencing a Nature Hike that is based on state science standards.  Activities and/or discussion are involved at each of eight stations.  A brochure covering the points of the Nature Hike is available to the public, and can be used by the teacher if a volunteer is not available.  After lunch, the two classes will switch.

2. With Park Interpreter, class walks to the dam, then to open area just past the dam, to the 1st Station: Abiotic factors
What makes this forest different from a forest near the beach, or in Alaska or Hawaii?
Discuss temperature, moisture, soil chemicals, rocks and other abiotic factors.

2nd Station: Layers of the Forest. (at open view of canoes across the lake, by a big downed tree on right).
I spy game of layers: canopy, understory, shrub, herb, and forest floor. 

4. 3rd Station: Fungus, Bacteria and Insects  (at post #4).
Discussion and hunt for biotic factors that act as decomposers.
Look under and around logs.
5. 4th Station: Beaver Lodge (before huge cut tree by trail). 
Look for signs of beaver activity.
Define the term ‘population,’ and discuss the impact of beaver populations on the environment. 
Discuss the niche of an animal as its role in its environment.
6. 5th Station: Age of the Forest (at post #3).
Discuss succession of sun-loving plants being replaced over time by increasingly shade tolerant plants.
Find oaks and hickories to infer the age of the forest. Discuss importance of the established forest to protect the lake. 
Estimate circumference of some large tree trunks, then use tape measure to find out the actual circumference.
7. 6th Station: Producers and Consumers (at post #2). 
Discuss plants as producers, animals as consumers, and animals as predator and prey.
How does a snake get the sun’s energy by eating a mouse?
Identify niches.  Show food web picture.

7th Station: My Square Meter (at turn-off into woods, past hill of exposed roots). 

Explain each section of forest ecologist form on the students’ clipboards.
Demonstrate use of collection boxes, thermometers and pH strips.
Students get into groups of 3 and find a square meter frame, already in place in the woods.  They use form to complete all activities (each previous station has helped prepare them for these activities). 
After completion of activities, discuss findings.
Make a statement of hypothesis about the forest.  For example:  The forest at Paris Mountain State Park is healthier than younger forests because it has more diversity of plants and animals.

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