Science and Teaching for Field Instructors

Decomposition Mission

In this activity, students investigate the fascinating and complex process of decomposition and lay the foundation for deeper understanding of concepts related to matter and energy transfer in ecosystems. Through exploration and discussion, students go beyond simple definitions. Instead, students discover key characteristics of decomposition as they struggle with creating a sequence for decomposing wood and leaves. They learn the difference between physical decomposition and chemical decomposition and that many things contribute to decomposition, but certain organisms are classified as decomposers. They also search for and discuss evidence of decomposers, make model diagrams to further develop their ideas about the process of decomposition, and discuss decomposition and its role in the cycling of matter. Finally, students are challenged to recognize the evidence and impact of decomposition in the ecosystems they explore.

Students will:
  • Explore, observe, and compare samples of decomposing materials and use reasoning to determine the level of decomposition among them.
  • Search for and classify decomposers (or evidence of them) as fungi, bacteria or invertebrates.
  • Investigate and discuss decomposition as the process of breaking down dead organisms and their waste materials into smaller and simpler forms of matter.
  • Create a model diagram for the process of decomposition.
  • Discuss the role decomposers play in making matter available to living plants.
Download Full Instructor Guide:
Decomposition Mission Student Activity Guide
Decomposition Mission Student Activity Guide
Watch Activity

Note: This video was edited to focus on how the instructor leads the activity; the actual activity is much more student-focused, and students spend most of the activity exploring and discussing ideas with their peers.