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Ecosystem Consequences of Town Decisions

Unit Plan: Eco-ChoicesTime: Three 45-minute sessions Setting: Classroom
6-8, 9-12Water & Watersheds
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Students evaluate the environmental, political and economic consequences of their actions, and grapple with the difficult nature of making environmentally sound choices.


    This game asks middle and high school students to become decision makers in a hypothetical county. These tough decisions help students understand the connections between water and air pollution through the concept of watersheds and airsheds, as well as understand the impacts of their decisions on human health and biodiversity. 

    We based the game on the idea of human-accelerated environmental change (Likens 1991), which refers to the ways in which people change multiple aspects of the environment at the same time, making it difficult for ecosystems to remain “healthy”.  This lesson helps students understand the complexities of environmental citizenship, giving them a taste of difficult decisions.  Lastly, we have found that this game is particularly successful in teaching about watersheds and air-sheds. Therefore, activities like conducting a stream study, researching local pollution issues, building watershed models or learning about where your food comes from would fit well before or after using this game in the classroom.


    • Pre-assessment
    • Student Instructions
    • Graph paper
    • Icons & money
    • Town Descriptions
    • Town Choices
    • Thinking Chart
    • Decision Chart
    • Large watershed map
    • County Decision Choices OR Ultimate Greening Worksheet
    • Reflection/Post-assessment
    • Introductory powerpoint
    • Ultimate greening powerpoint
    • Sample rubrics

    Lesson Preparation:

    1. Prepare one packet for each town. The packet should include the student instructions, graph paper(s), town descriptions, starting number of icons and money, thinking and decision charts, county decision choices.
    2. Print and laminate extra icons and money, to make a “bank”.
    3. Make one copy of the Town Choices for each town. 
    4. Make copies as necessary of the Ultimate Greening Solution worksheet, assessments, and rubrics. 
    5. Either print the large watershed map, or draw on a large poster paper. 


    Starting Icons/Money:


    Air quality

    Water quality


    Human Health


    Moose City






























    Optional: Use the introductory powerpoint, available online, to introduce the basics of the game. 

    Break up the students into 5 groups, give them their packets and ask them to open the instruction booklet and begin the game accordingly.  You will need groups of at least 2-3 students per group.  Ideally, you will have enough students in each group so that you can have a Reader, Recorder, Graph-keeper, Reporter, and Banker (if there fewer students in each group, just double up on roles).

    Part 1

    • Students should carefully read through their town description and fill in the constraints and considerations table, which is designed to help them make decisions appropriate for their town (even if they personally feel otherwise). Visit each group to make sure they have understood their town "identity". For younger students, creating a town slogan/cheer helps with this aspect.
    • Be sure that they fill in the first graph which represents where they stand before making any choices. Older students can draw the bar graphs, while younger students may benefit from having large graphs which they visualize with the help of the cards. Positive and negatives are represented on the same graph, but with different colored cards. Poor quality=red colored icons, while the white icons are positive or good quality of water, air, biodiversity, and health. Have the Reporter should share their graphs and provide background information to the class about their town.
    • Students will now make decisions on water, air, and land in their town – the Reader should read each choice to the group. The Recorder should write down all the options on the "Thinking Chart", and make final decisions on the "Decisions Chart", which needs to be signed off on by a teacher. At this point, you can check in with each group to make sure they are keeping the main goals of the game in mind, and not just focusing on the numbers of icons or amount of money they will gain or lose. Asking students "Why did you make that decision?" or "How will that improve your ecosystem?" will help them think through their choices.
    • Once students have made their decisions, they will visit the Banker (an adult or a trusted student) to get the money they need and the cards that have changed as a result of their decisions.
    • Students should fill in the next graph before going to the whole-class activity of looking at the watershed map.
    • All cards should get the name (or the first letter) of the town written on the back with wet-erase marker. This will help identify the pollution in the next step.
    • Ask the Reporter in each group to explain to the class the decisions made by his/her town, and the reasons for those choices.

    Part 2

    • Gather students around the large county map, where they should place their cards. All icons should have the town name on the back of the originating town, so that students will know where the pollution came from.
    • Starting with the concept of watersheds, remind them what direction water flows and then begin moving water pollution cards in that direction, while removing human health and biodiversity cards. Move one red card at a time; this portion of the game will be different each time as students make different decisions. A red water quality card will affect downstream towns by reducing their biodiversity and human health. You can decide "how much" each red card will affect each downstream (or downwind) town. You can also add "pollution" from outside the county if the towns were environmentally friendly and didn't create any pollution.
    • Do the same for the airshed by moving air pollution cards along the direction of the prevailing winds while removing human health and biodiversity cards that the pollution crosses on its path.
    • Students now take all the cards that are in their town back with them, and create a new graph accordingly. Since all icons have town names on the back, students will know who caused pollution in their town. This will help them think about who should reduce pollution at the county-level decision making process.

    Part 3 – County Decisions

    • Important: When each town calculates the amount of money they have 5 years in the future, you may or may not want to make them pay back the loan. These are all interest free loans.
    • Students now split up using the jigsaw method into county level decision making teams; one representative from each town meets with the other towns. In these county level groups, they will choose which county-level decision is best OR spend time researching and developing a greening initiative.
    • A powerpoint is provided to help students think about different greening solutions. Depending on the amount of time in your class, you can provide students with the "County Decision Choices" handout, which provides several different options for greening, or ask students to complete the "Ultimate Greening Solution" worksheet, which walks students through the process of developing a solution and creating a presentation for the class.
    • Allow students an appropriate amount of time depending on the option you have selected. Students usually need about 20 minutes to discuss the provided options, and up to a week to research and develop a presentation on their own greening solution.
    • Each County Committee makes a presentation to the class about their chosen/designed option.
    • This last part of the game often lends itself to heavy debate. It is important to stress the real-world context in this portion. The decision they are fighting for should not just depend on number of cards, but the concepts of watershed and airsheds, as well as the what people in their town would support or not. This is also an opportunity to bring in any regional issues or decisions (a proposed wind farm or increase in farms, for example) in your area to help bring this game into the real world of the students.
    • As a class, the students should discuss how much money each town should provide for the greening solution, and how the ecosystem services and human health cards might change as a result.


    Pre and post assessment

    There are two types of assessments, either a pre assessment and/or a reflection. The reflection determines the level at which students reflect on their impact on watersheds, airsheds, and ecosystem services. Several sample rubrics are also provided: one for the reflection, one for the presentation, and one for the entire activity. The pre assessment can be used again as a post assessment to determine students' ability to connect several environmental issues, and thus describe the multifaceted consequences of one decision.

    Lesson Files

    Cards (to laminate)
    Money icons (to laminate)
    Introductory Powerpoint
    Instruction Booklet
    Town Descriptions
    Thinking Chart
    Decision Making Chart
    Graph Paper
    Town Choices
    County Level Decisions
    eco-Choices Rubric
    Ultimate Greening Powerpoint
    Ultimate Greening Solution Worksheet
    Presentation Rubric
    Reflection Rubric

    Benchmarks for Science Literacy

    2A Patterns and Relationships, 5D Interdependence of Life, 7D Social Trade-offs, 7E Political and Economic Systems, 12D Communication Skills

    NYS Standards

    MST 4- Physical setting, living environment and nature of science, MST 6- Interconnectedness of mathematics, science, and technology (modeling, systems, scale, change, equilibrium, optimization), ELA 4 - Language for communication and social interaction with a wide variety of people
    Next Generation Science Standards

    Science and Engineering Practices

    Using mathematics and computational thinking, Construction explanations and designing solutions, Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information

    Cross Cutting Concepts

    Patterns, Cause and effect

    Disciplinary Core Ideas

    ESS2C: The Role of Water in Earth’s Surface Processes, ESS2D: Weather and Climate, ESS3A: Natural Resources
    New York State Science Learning Standards

    Performance Expectations

    MS-ESS3-3. Apply scientific principles to design a method for monitoring and minimizing a human impact on the environment.*, MS-ESS3-5. Ask questions to clarify evidence of the factors that have caused the rise in global temperatures over the past century., HS-ESS2-5. Plan and conduct an investigation of the properties of water and its effects on Earth materials and surface processes., HS-ESS3-3. Create a computational simulation to illustrate the relationships among management of natural resources, the sustainability of human populations, and biodiversity., HS-ESS3-4. Evaluate or refine a technological solution that reduces impacts of human activities on natural systems.

    Developed and written by Cornelia Harris and Kimberly Notin