Teacher Resource


Eco-Bottle Treehouse Project

Lisa Schwartz, Kathryn Orzech, and Jeff Hartman

Learning Information

  • ToL Learner Level:
    • Beginner; Intermediate
  • Target Grade/Age Level:
    • High School (Ages 15-18).
    • Can be modified for many age/grade levels
  • Learning Objective(s). Learners will:
    • Plan and build an ecobottle (or eco-column) out of five 2-liter bottles that will include an acquatic section, a decomposition section, and a terrestrial section. Observe the ecobottle for 4 to 6 weeks and record their hypotheses, observations and analyses in their science notebooks. Create a treehouse for each ecobottle group, based on their research of this simulated ecosystem.
  • Type of Activity
    • Classroom resource
  • Science Subject / Key Words
    • Biodiversity;
    • Ecology;
    • Life History & Development;
    • Methods, Techniques, Apparatus
  • AZ State Education Standards: (view standards):
    • Science
  • National Education Standards (view standards):
    • Biology, Life Science
  • Suggested Time Frame
    • This project needs to be developed over the course of several months so that students have time to create and then observe changes in their ecosystem bottles.
  • Curricular Areas:
    • Mathematics
  • Language:
    • English
  • Teaching and Learning Strategy:
    • Inquiry Learning;
    • Hands-on Learning;
    • Technology Integration/Computer Assisted Instruction
  • Grouping:
    • Large Group instruction;
    • Small Group instruction


Click on an image to view larger version & data in a new window
Click on an image to view larger version & data in a new window

© 2005

Welcome to the Teacher Resource Page about constructing, observing and documenting Ecobottles in a trehouse on the Tree of Life! This project was a collaborative effort between science teacher Jeff Hartman and science teaching fellow Kathryn Orzech in the classroom at City High School in Tucson, Arizona.  Lisa Schwartz, the Learning Materials Editor for the Tree of Life (ToL) supported the project from behind the scenes, working with Kathryn to design hands-on lessons for the students to increase their knowledge of web-page building, and editing student work at the conclusion of the project.   Below you will find a step-by-step guide to the joys and pitfalls of building ecobottles with students and working with them to document their work in a webpage form.


To prepare for the ecobottle activity,we did the following:

  • Familiarized students with the concept of an ecosystem
  • Set the goal for students of creating a mini-ecosystem that would flourish for the duration of the project (requiring instruction on food webs)
  • Worked with students on basic research skills, such as developing hypotheses
  • Introduced students to tools used to build a webpage on the Tree of Life website

Physical Materials and Tools

  • Ecobottle-Building (provided by the teacher)
  • Aluminum or Nylon mesh (for the tops of columns)
  • Aquarium Gravel
  • Cardboard box top (for cutting bottles)
  • Compost
  • Drill (small, to drill holes in caps of bottles)
  • Elodea/Hardy Water Plant
  • Fast-growing plant seeds, such as beans and radishes
  • Filter paper (we used coffee filters)
  • Gravel (to mix with soil in terrestrial section)
  • Grass Seed
  • Markers (to mark where to cut on bottles)
  • Sand
  • Scissors
  • Soil
  • Tape, clear (3 or 4 large rolls, minimum)
  • X-acto knives (2 or 3)
  • For Website-Building
  • Computer with internet access
  • Digital cameras to share across groups
  • List of website requirements (how many pictures, what sections should it include?)
  • Ecobottle-Building, Provided by the Students:
  • 5 2-Liter (or 3-Liter) bottles per group, washed out with labels removed
  • Organisms for the ecobottle - some possibilities:
  • Terrestrial: small frog, non-poisonous spider, praying mantis, land snail(s), crickets, fruit flies
  • Decomposition: fruit flies, mealworms, cockroach, other beetle, pill bugs (roly-polys), dead leaves, grass clippings, fruit
  • Aquatic: guppies, pond snail, algae, betta fish
  • A few links to helpful sites for materials (caution, clicking on these links will open the link in this window):
  • Bottle Biology Tool Box
  • Fast Plants - Planting and Fertilizing
  • Supermarket Science (Science and Plants for Schools) from the UK

Prior Knowledge

Before starting the project, a general knowledge of the scientific method is recommended. Before building the ecobottles, students should conduct research about (or be provided with information about)various organisms that they might choose to put in their ecobottles.


Click on an image to view larger version & data in a new window
Click on an image to view larger version & data in a new window

© 2005

We (Jeff and Kathryn) knew we wanted students to be able to complete the ecobottle project, including constructing ecobottles, observing them for 4 to 6 weeks, and documenting their findings on a Tree of Life Investigation Treehouse, during one semester of freshman science class.  We focused on this project for one 2-hour block per week ("Science Fridays") but students also completed observations and care of their ecobottles on some non-Friday days.

One of the most important things, especially for two teachers working together (but that would also be useful for a single teacher) was creating a semester-long timeline, working back from the last day of the semester, when students would present their work, to the first day when the idea of making a web page on the Tree of Life about their semester-long science proejct would be introduced.  Click below to download our initial timeline in Word format.

document iconView InitialTimelineforEcobottleProject.doc 

II. Background Lessons Related to the Tree of Life

Giving students a strong grounding in the Tree of Life and webpage-building is an important first step for the project, so we started by giving an introduction to the Tree of Life. Students had to explore a scientist, created page or a treehouse in pairs and report to the class on what they had found.  This activity familiarized students with a few aspects of the ToL and enabled them to interact with the site.

Look at the interactive Webquest Introduction to Learning with the Tree of Life

We also gave a lesson focused on the importance of documenting one's work in science, but if we had to do over, we might have delivered this lesson a bit later, since at the point we gave it, students had not yet built their ecobottles and so talk about documenting them was fairly abstract.

Look at the Documenting Research Lesson 

III. Permission Slips

We gave the students permission slips that their parents could complete to allow their son or daughter to display his or her name and/or photo on their treehouse website.  Without this signed permission form, students are identified online only by a psuedonym and cannot be pictured, because they are under 18 years old.  We did not have a Spanish-language version of this form, but that might have been helpful considering the relatively large percentage of Arizona residents for whom Spanish is a first language. Click below to download the permission form we used in Word format.

document iconView ToLClassroomPermission.doc

IV. Dividing Students into Groups and Assigning Roles

Click on an image to view larger version & data in a new window
Click on an image to view larger version & data in a new window

© 2005

We asked students who they would like to work with for the project, since it would take nearly an entire semester, and took those requests into account as much as we could when crafting groups.  Previous experience creating webpages was not an issue, as the Tree of Life web tools are similar to but distinct from other web-page creation programs like Microsoft's Front Page.

Click below to download the introductory worksheet we used to introduce the project and ask for student input on groups.

document iconView 090205EcobottleIntroChoosingGroup.doc

We assigned students to work in groups of 3 or 4.  We had three roles per group, which were:

  • Webmaster:
    • the person who keeps the master plan of the group's webpage and can delegate website-building tasks as the publication date for the pages nears
  • Lead Biologist:
    •  the person who has the final say on which organisms go into the Ecobottle - they supervise construction and record the group's hypotheses about what will happen in their ecobottle
  • King or Queen of Analysis:
    • the person who is in charge of the analysis section of the webpage, responsible for determining what types of analysis to use and carrying them out with the help of their group 

If a group had more than 3 students, any of the roles could accomodate an additional person - often, the fourth person was made a co-webmaster and given responsibility for part of the final page. To download the Ecobottle Roles worksheet we used in Word format, click below.

document iconView RolesforEcobottleGroups.doc

V. Registering the Students as Treehouse Builders

If students are under 18 years of age, they cannot register on the site with their own emails - to do a class project, they must be registered under a psudonym by a teacher.  We chose group psudonyms based on the most prominant organism students were planning to include in their ecobottle - for example, the Snails and the Guppies - or a name that the students preferred  - for example, the Mutants. We did not set passwords, but we would recommend that, even when working with high school students, the teacher set the student's passwords, so the teacher will have a record of the passwords when students may forget theirs.

To view a sample classroom project form and learn more about registering students as treehouse builders, click here 

When students log in for the first time, they will be prompted to type in their real name so that the teacher can see their real name next to their psudonym on any page they have contributed. Teachers can see all their student groups on their Classroom Manager page, and look at the pages contributed by each group. Because it is easy to create new pages, we insisted that students mark one of their pages "Master Page" and add all pertinent information to that page so we could avoid looking through 5 to 20 pages that might or might not contain pertinent information.

VI. Bellwork Related to Ecobottles

We attempted to find short articles related to self-contained ecosystems for students to read as Bellwork on the days we worked on the ecobottle project.

Follow the link here to go to a MSN Encarta encyclopedia article on ecosystems.

We also visited Biosphere 2 here in Southern Arizona.  We used an article from United Airlines Hemispheres magazine (June 1999 Issue, p. 104-110) but other articles are certainly available. (Click here to go to the United Airlines website to learn about ordering back issues of the magazine)

VII. Laying Plans and Gathering Materials for Ecobottles

Click on an image to view larger version & data in a new window
Click on an image to view larger version & data in a new window

© 2005

The EcoColumn Assembly Guide Text, part of a much-copied, anonymous ecobottle construction sheet,  gives ideas for chamber components.

document iconView EcoColumnAssemblyGuideText.pdf  

One possible component is fruit flies; the document below illustrates in pictures and words how to trap fruit flies.

document iconView 090205FruitFlyTrap.doc

Before building their ecobottle, we asked students to draw a diagram of their ecobottle and its contents and also think about food web relationships that would take place within their bottle.  

document iconView 092605EcobottleHabitatDescriptionBeforeBuilding.doc

VIII. Setting Up the Ecobottles

Click on an image to view larger version & data in a new window
Click on an image to view larger version & data in a new window

© 2005

We used an assembly guide to guide students in putting together the bottles. The EcoColumn Assembly Guide depicts how to cut the bottles to wind up with an assembled column made up of 5 2-liter bottles.

document iconView EcoColumnAssemblyGuide.pdf

As students set up their ecobottles, we asked them to complete a watering schedule so each person would have assigned times to water the bottle so it would not dry out. Download the watering schedule template we designed below.

document iconView 092305WateringSchedule.doc

We also asked them to record their hypotheses for the first five days on a hypothesis chart. This chart asked them to construct a hypothesis for each organism in their ecobottle and asked them to record how they would test that hypothesis.

document iconView 092305EcobottleHypothesisAnalysisChartFirst5Days.doc

IX. Observing the Ecobottles

Click on an image to view larger version & data in a new window
Click on an image to view larger version & data in a new window

© 2005

After students built their ecobottles, we gave them several aids for observing them in a scientific way.  The first worksheet below presents "points to ponder" when monitoring their ecobottles, while the second instructs students in making observations.  The third poses nine questions the students could answer about their ecobottle.

document iconView 092605MonitoringEcobottlesInfo.doc

document iconView 093005EcobottleAssignmentMakingObservations.doc

document iconView 101005EcobottleAssignment9QuestionsAboutEcobottle.doc

X. Beginning the Treehouse Webpage

About a month into the project, we began incorporating adding data to student treehouses as part of weekly or biweekly assignments.  Below you can download the handout we gave to students to guide their Treehouse building and show them the general content we expected on their webpages.

document iconView 102005EcobottleTreehouseContentChecklist.doc

XI. More Ecobottle Assignments

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Click on an image to view larger version & data in a new window


© 2005

As the project continued, we set up lessons on pH and had students begin tracking the pH of their ecobottles, and for Halloween had students make tombstones to commemorate the organisms that had died in their ecobottles. We asked them more questions about their ecobottle - specifically, what died, what thrived, and why they thought this happened.

document iconView 102705EcobottleAssignmentpHandTombstones.doc

document iconView 102805EcobottleQuestionsWhatDiedWhatThrived.doc

To analyze their ecobottle data, we asked students to make a graph in Excel for as much temperature and pH data as they had recorded.  We also asked them to make a Venn diagram comparing their ecobottle with another econbottle in the class.  Finally, we had them make "detail drawings" of organisms that were living (or had been living) in their bottle.

document iconView 110405KingsandQueensofAnalysisMakeExcelGraphsforTempandpH.doc

document iconView 110405LeadBiologistVennDiagram.doc

document iconView 110405WebmasterDetailDrawings.doc

Venn Diagram
Click on an image to view larger version & data in a new window
Click on an image to view larger version & data in a new window

© 2005 cockroach4

Detail Drawings 
Click on an image to view larger version & data in a new window
Click on an image to view larger version & data in a new window

Left © 2005 Snail1, right: © 2005 Ninja5.

Left: © 2005 Guppy5, right: © 2005 Mutant1.

XII. Finishing Up the Treehouse Webpage

To finish the pages, we asked each group's webmaster to report on what was complete and to asign themselves and their group members discrete tasks to complete the imcomplete parts of the group page.

document iconView 112205WebmasterAssignmenttheFinalWebsiteChecklist.doc

document iconView 112205TreeofLifeTreehouseAssignmentforEachStudent.doc

XIII. Ecobottle Pictures

Follow the link here or below under the Portfolio Pages heading to view the portfolio of completed pages for this project

This is what a completed ecobottle looks like:

Click on an image to view larger version & data in a new window
Click on an image to view larger version & data in a new window

© 2005

Here is a closup of a terestrial section (and also decomposition: this group planted grass seed in both sections):

Click on an image to view larger version & data in a new window
Click on an image to view larger version & data in a new window

© 2005

Here is a decomposition section with fruit beginning to mold:


Click on an image to view larger version & data in a new window
Click on an image to view larger version & data in a new window

© 2005

This is a closeup of an aquatic section. This group's guppies thrived the entire duration of the project!

Click on an image to view larger version & data in a new window
Click on an image to view larger version & data in a new window

© 2005


After publication of their treehouses, we asked groups of students to present their treehouses to the class. We gave out a handout to allow other students to provide some basic constructive feedback to their peers (see Ecobottle Evaluation Student under Support Materials). We did not use a formal rubric to grade student treehouses, although there are rubrics available on this site.

Education Standards

State Education Standards

  • AZ Education Standards
    • Science

National Education Standards

  • National Education Standards
    • Biology, Life Science

Portfolio Pages

Ecobottle Investigations Portfolio
this is what the students made..

Information on the Internet

  • Care of Living Materials in Eco-columns  Answers those questions: what do guppies and snails eat? What do crickets eat?
  • Plants in the Eco-Column  Student Resources: questions to get you thinking
  • Bottle Biology - TerrAqua Columns  The "Fill" page to decide what to put in; the "Observe" page to help on deciding what to observe
  • Food Webs 1  British site illustrates a pond food web
  • Food Webs 2  Simple "chain reaction" game illustrates basics of a food chain
  • Food Webs 3  Game with pond, meadow and arctic food webs
  • Food Web 4  Basic information on food chains and food webs
  • Terrariums  Fact sheet on terrariums
  • Aquariums  Information on freshwater aquariums, including a listing of fish by common name that gives information on each species (including diet and tempeature preference)

Education Standards

State Education Standards

National Education Standards

About This Page

This page was developed as part of the project "New Strategies for Life Sciences Outreach in Arizona: Developing a Digital Library of Audio and Video Features in the Context of the Tree of Life Web Project" funded by the “Anyplace Access for Arizonans” Initiative under the University of Arizona Technology and Research Initiative Fund.

Lisa Schwartz
University of Arizona

University of Arizona

Jeff Hartman
City High School

Correspondence regarding this page should be directed to Lisa Schwartz at , Kathryn Orzech at , and Jeff Hartman at

All Rights Reserved.

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