Flow of Matter and Energy in Ecosystems: Does Matter Matter?

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Science Objects are two hour on-line interactive inquiry-based content modules that help teachers better understand the science content they teach. This Science Object is the first of three Science Objects in the Flow of Matter and Energy in Ecosystems SciPack. It explores the structure of the biomass in an ecosystem and overall cycling of matter. However complex the workings of living organisms, they share with all other systems the same physical principles that describe the conservation and transformation of matter.

Ecosystems are a community of interdependent organisms and the chemical and physical factors making up the environment with which they interact. For every ecosystem on Earth there is a particular biomass (matter) distribution among organisms in its populations. While the specific biomass distribution in any given ecosystem is unique because of resource availability, there is a common overall biomass distribution pattern in all ecosystems. Greater biomass exists in populations that obtain matter from the physical environment than in populations that obtain matter from other living organisms. As matter flows through different levels of organization in living systems—cells, organs, organisms, communities—and between living systems and the physical environment, chemical elements are recombined in different ways. Matter is conserved through each change.

Learning Outcomes:

  • Define an ecosystem and understand how it comprises an interdependent community of organisms along with their interactions with the chemical and physical components of the environment
  • Categorize organisms in a community based on their sources of matter/biomass and nutrients as one of the following: producers, herbivores (primary consumers), carnivores (secondary consumers; tertiary or top-consumers),
  • omnivores, and decomposers
  • Predict the relative biomass for different levels in a biomass pyramid for a typical ecosystem
  • Explain how matter is conserved in the interactions between consumers and producers, but that in a biomass pyramid there is less biomass at the consumer level compared to the producer level

  • Elementary
  • Middle
  • High

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Reviews (20)
  • on Mon Apr 11, 2016 12:57 PM

I think it is very important to let the students about the interdependency of matters in ecosystem especially when it gets to young children. I love this article because after I read it I had a clear overview of how to effectively teach the students what ecosystem is and the flow of matter. At the beginning of the article, it talked about what matter is by simply observing things around us. By using things in the students' immediate surroundings, they grasp the concept of what matter is and that it does matter. As I read it, I also thought about the interdependency of objects in an ecosystem which I thought to be a great resource when planning for a lesson on food chain.

Seth Kwizera  (Houston, TX)
Seth Kwizera (Houston, TX)

  • on Thu Oct 15, 2015 4:39 PM

When we think about ecosystems, we need to think both big and small. We need to consider the recycling of atoms between organisms and within their environment and the flow of energy through living organisms and its changes from one form to another. We need to appreciate the relationships between organisms, and between organisms and their environment. We also need to consider the potential effects that these relationships have, not only on individual organisms and their environment, but also on our planet.

Aisha Burchfield  (Covington, GA)
Aisha Burchfield (Covington, GA)

  • on Mon Sep 28, 2015 12:12 AM

Learning how matter moves in an ecosystem was very interesting. The Science Object asked for us to consider the question: Where does matter come from? Is it an endless supply? Knowing that matter is any substance that has mass and occupies space, I would say that matter comes from a variety of sources and could most definitely be considered an endless supply. There are a lot of abiotic components that get some of their matter from biotic components in the ecosystem. Take soil and air for example; they are considered abiotic components that get some of their matter from biotic components. It was interesting to find out that matter that makes up the soil can come from dead, decomposing organisms. As far as air is concern, some of the matter in the air consists of oxygen and carbon dioxide from plants, and carbon dioxide from animals and bacteria. These are great examples of how an ecosystem works. The examples used points out how living and nonliving components interact and depend on each other to maintain a balance on earth. The Science Object gives a great definition of an ecosystem; explaining how it is an interdependent community of organisms and their interactions with the chemical and physical components of the environment. It’s understood how an ecosystem has no fixed size and how it can be as small as a puddle or a single tree, as large as an ocean or forest, or as all-encompassing as the entire planet. However, any ecosystem must be large enough to contain enough living and nonliving components to maintain balance. I loved the demonstration that was given when it came to the “Distribution of Matter in Ecosystems.” Using the self-sustaining ecosystem enclosed in the glass ball was fascinating and put in as the old saying goes, “layman’s terms” with a great visual. This would be great to show students who may have a difficult time understating how the ecosystem works. The students would quickly see and understand that the matter that the organisms need to live and survive in the glass ball comes from the air inside the sphere, the various organisms in the sphere and the water in the sphere. Great example of how they rely on one another for survival.

Kizzy Amos
Kizzy Amos

  • on Thu Sep 24, 2015 5:40 PM

Does Matter Matter? This lesson explored ecosystem and Biomass. It was interesting to read about the classic experiments and early scientist. I enjoyed the opportunities to interact with the virtual experiments while debunking misconceptions through information and illustrations. The lesson targeted organisms and focused on ecosystems in relations to producers, primary, secondary, top consumers, and decomposers. Activities were great as they pertained to the Biomass pyramid of an ecosystem. I also enjoyed the comparison and information pertaining to the interaction of consumers and producers. Properties of matter were integrated throughout the lesson.

Sheri Smith
Sheri Smith

  • on Thu Sep 24, 2015 4:35 PM

Each year we build a community to dispaly the biomass. The visual is beneficial to learning. From the article I learned that the Ecosystem is comprisedm of an interdependent community of organisms along with interactions with the chemical and physical components of the environment I am now able categorize organisms in a community based on their sources of matter/biomass. I was able to view the community and defined the producers, herbivores , carnivores omnivores, and decomposers.

Linda Howard
Linda Howard

  • on Wed Sep 23, 2015 9:28 PM

This article was definitely a refresher for me. I will make sure to revisit it before we start our unit on the ecosystem to recap for the delivery of the content to my science classes. Some of the information can be great to extend my students learning.

Adriane Woods
Adriane Woods

  • on Tue Sep 15, 2015 7:27 PM

The “Flow of Matter and Energy Ecosystems: Does Matter Matter?” Science object is very informative. It begins by discussing the different types of matter which create an ecosystem. It details the importance of the organisms found in ecosystems. Lastly, the science object discusses how matter flows throughout the ecosystem. The activities and resources were interactive and would serve as good references for teaching lessons. For example, I plan on using the “Make a Ecosphere” activity as a lab for students studying ecosystems.

Papillon  (Atlanta, GA)
Papillon (Atlanta, GA)

  • on Tue Sep 02, 2014 7:23 AM

I really enjoy Science Objects. In 1-3 hours, the Flow of Matter and Energy in Ecosystems: Does Matter Matter? Science Object will help me re-learn, refresh, or learn for the first time some critical science concepts I will have to know to obtain my Science Educator credentials. I appreciate that I can complete them at my own pace, and that, if used as park of a SciPack, I have access to a content expert to go to for help. The NSTA Learning Center Science Objects are very beneficial!

Naomi Beverly  (Marietta, GA)
Naomi Beverly (Marietta, GA)

  • on Fri Mar 08, 2013 10:35 AM

This provided an excellent overview of how matter and energy is transferred throughout an ecosystem. It does an excellent job of explaining the transfer of energy between trophic levels, an important concept for middle school and high school biology.

Roselle Leone
Roselle Leone

  • on Wed Feb 06, 2013 1:54 PM

The Flow of Matter and Energy in Ecosystems SciPack is a great resource that help teachers better understand the matter content they teach. The content challenges teachers to explore real world phenomena and breaks down each area of matter while clearly showing how it ties directly to state standards. This SciPack defines an ecosystem, categorizes organisms (producers, herbivores, carnivores, tertiary, omnivores, and decomposers) and explains how matter is conserved between consumers and producers. Throughout this SciPack there are numerous interactive activities and assessments. Finally, the layout of the SciPack utilizes the five phases of inquiry-based learning: Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate, and Evaluate; giving the teacher an outline of how he/she could teach it to his/her students.


  • on Sun Nov 18, 2012 8:23 PM

The inclusion of a specific product like EcoSpheres® is excellent. I was so intrigues by this item, I put it on my list of things to try to get for my classroom. It's necessary to cover the mandatory basics in each subject area but if the writers can include neato items like the EcoSpheres®, it really adds a little extra to the study assignment!

James Johnson  (Custer City, PA)
James Johnson (Custer City, PA)

  • on Wed Dec 28, 2011 5:35 PM

This science object does a nice job introducing the viewer to ecosystems and provides a detailed explanation of how matter is conserved in the interactions between consumers and producers. Excellent resource to use when teaching about food webs, and the interdependency of organisms in a community.

Lorrie Armfield  (Laurel, MD)
Lorrie Armfield (Laurel, MD)

  • on Thu Oct 15, 2015 5:22 PM

This SciPack was especially important since I teach Life Science fourth grade standards. The visuals are important and could be used to show students’ examples of living and nonliving, biotic and abiotic factors. The Distribution of Matter section gave me a simple example to follow. The biomass pyramid explanation was exceptionally interesting because I could use this section to show students skills they would be studying in middle school.

Shereen Zimmerman
Shereen Zimmerman

  • on Thu Oct 15, 2015 5:19 PM

This SciPack looks at the life around everyone and considering where life might obtain the matter it needs to grow and reproduce. It is a good resource for elementary students with the study of ecosystems, food webs, and the interdependency of organisms in a community.

JeRita Humphrey
JeRita Humphrey

  • on Thu Oct 15, 2015 5:01 PM

This interactive SciPack allows users to see how interdependent systems compose an ecosystem. Climate and soil have an effect on ecosystems. An ecosystem includes all of the living things (plants, animals and organisms) in a given area, interacting with each other, and also with their non-living environments (weather, earth, sun, soil, climate, atmosphere). This will be a great resource for students in third grade and higher.

Charnita W
Charnita W

  • on Thu Sep 17, 2015 3:56 PM

This science pack on matter was pretty in depth. It provided lots of information in a logical, informative sequence. The primary focus in on exploring how matter moves in an ecosystem. In an ecosystem, organisms learn to adapt to the environment which allows them to efficiently move matter. Turns out that NASA has studied much of this in order to understand our Earth’s systems. To construct an efficient artificial ecosystems—know as the spacecraft - they used the relative information gained from this research. Scientists came up with another type of self-sustaining ecosystem. These ecosystems, called EcoSpheres, have a mix of living and nonliving components held in a glass structure. The goal is to have the various components of an EcoSphere interact much like an actual ecosystem. Then we have producers which are organisms that make organic matter from inorganic matter. The matter that is stored in producers, like plants, is not only used for the plants themselves to survive, but also so other organisms to eat or consume. These consumers get the matter needed to live, grow, and reproduce. In the end, when you consider organisms and how they relate and interact, you can see why the idea of systems and cycles is so important.

Tanya Barrett
Tanya Barrett

  • on Wed Sep 16, 2015 6:11 PM

This SciPack discusses the ecosystem and the organisms/matter within and how they interact as well as dependent on one another in this cycle of life. Matter is very important to the function and composition of the ecosystem. This information would be useful when teaching the students about the food web and interdependence of organisms within a habitat within the ecosystem.

Felicia Anthony
Felicia Anthony

  • on Sat Jan 11, 2014 12:59 AM

I used this Science Object with good results in science class and the only issue I had was at the end of the narration on Biogeochemical Cycles, there is a hiccup where there is a repetition of the narration that starts "pickup ...components of an ecosystem" really close to the end. I don't know if this can be redone or repaired but is the only distracting part of an otherwise excellent presentation.

James Johnson  (Custer City, PA)
James Johnson (Custer City, PA)

  • on Sun Sep 20, 2015 4:45 PM

This resource touches the very elementary aspects of ecosystems and flow of matter. It identifies the parts of an ecosystem and the flow of matter. A few concepts go beyond typical elementary standards, but the information is pretty basic and would be easily understood by middle/upper elementary students.

Bianca Jones
Bianca Jones

  • on Wed Sep 04, 2013 1:04 AM

I thought that this was a little basic and while listening I was uninterested. I has hoped that the "hands-on" experiment which included a materials and procedure would have also included a conclusions section.


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