MIT Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The Ecological Cost of Dinner

Leslie Reinherz
Biology teacher
Canton High School
Canton, Massachusetts

*MIT BLOSSOMS thanks the Plimoth Plantation for allowing us to film this lesson on-site.

This lesson is about the flow of energy in ecosystems. The setting is Plimoth Plantation, a living history museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts, USA, where students will learn about the first Thanksgiving meal in America, celebrated in 1621 by early American settlers and Wampanoag Indians. By examining this meal and comparing it to a modern day Thanksgiving celebration, students will be able to explore the way in which food energy moves and is transformed in an ecosystem. The learning goals focus on the movement of energy from one feeding level to the next within a food web, the way in which energy changes form, and the inefficiency of energy transfer, which in turn affects the availability of food energy for organisms at the highest feeding level. The lesson is directed at high school level biology students. Students should be familiar already with food webs, food chains, and trophic (feeding) levels. They should also be familiar with the general equations for photosynthesis (CO2 + H2O => C6H12O6) and cell respiration (C6H12O6 => CO2 + H2O), and understand the basic purpose of these processes in nature. This lesson can be completed during one long classroom period, or can be divided over two or more class meetings. The duration of the lesson will depend on prior knowledge of the students and on the amount of time allotted for student discussion. There are no supplies required for this lesson other than the downloadable worksheets (accessed on this BLOSSOMS site), paper and some glue or tape. 

Leslie Reinherz received her PhD in zoology from Duke University, and spent the early part of her career producing science and wildlife documentary films for public television and other national media outlets. She began teaching high school science in 2009. 

A history of the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States of America.
http://www.plimoth.org/learn/MRL/read/thanksgiving-history

Notes on the food served at the original Thanksgiving celebration in the year 1621, compared with food served at a modern American Thanksgiving. 
http://www.plimoth.org/learn/thanksgiving-history/partakers-our-plenty

A good, easy-to-read summary of energy flow in ecosystems, from the University of Wisconsin.
http://www4.uwsp.edu/cnr/wcee/keep/Mod1/Flow/foodchains.htm

An online interactive ecology lab from Annenberg Learner that allows students to create and manage their own ecosystems: http://www.learner.org/courses/envsci/interactives/index.php

A virtual lab from McGraw Hill that lets students examine energy flow in different types of ecosystems.
http://www.mhhe.com/biosci/genbio/virtual_labs/BL_02/BL_02.html

The Global Footprint Network website, http://www.footprintnetwork.org, which includes a personal ‘ecological footprint’ calculator.
http://www.footprintnetwork.org/en/index.php/GFN/page/personal_footprint/ 

An online article from Cornell University that poses ecological arguments in favor of a vegetarian diet.
http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/2007/10/diet-little-meat-more-efficient-many-vegetarian-diets

An online article from Mother Earth News that poses ecological arguments against an exclusively plant-based diet.
http://www.motherearthnews.com/nature-and-environment/the-vegetarianism-myth-zmaz10jjzraw.aspx?PageId=1#axzz3CHrqnmSJ

An online review of Michael Pollan’s book, An Omnivore’s Dilemma.
http://michaelpollan.com/books/the-omnivores-dilemma/

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This Lesson is in the following clusters: Environmental Sustainability