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Steller Web Spinning Mystery

Nancy N. Miller
OverviewProcedure for teachersStudent Resources and Materials
Grade Level
Time Alloment
3 class periods


This lesson starts with an introduction to systems. The students use the internet and complete the activity through a guided search for information about what systems and feedback are. A mystery in Alaska, "Where are all of the Steller seals going" and how clues found through observation and experimentation lead to the ultimate solution of this question. These parts of the mystery are the real-world application of this learning unit about systems. The students will be treated to a video exploration of what is happening to the Steller seals of Alaska. They will collect clues to solve the mystery, much like a crime scene investigation. These clues will lead to the development of an interconnected web of information showing how the components of a system work together and provide feedback to create change or maintain the status quo.

The mystery is explained with a scripted video lesson using the NATURE program, "A Mystery in Alaska."

Major corporate support is provided by Canon U.S.A., Inc. and Ford.

The clues will be developed through an activity designed to highlight the system to which the Steller seals are central. The activity allows the students to create a physical model of the system using colored mini marshmallows, toothpicks, and multicolored yarns.

Learning Activities

Students will be able to:
  • Explain what a system is;
  • Explain the difference between positive and negative feedback;.
  • Apply the concepts of systems and feedback to a real-world situation.


National Science Standards copied from:

STANDARD: As a result of activities in grades K-12, all students should develop understanding and abilities aligned with the following concepts and processes:

  • Systems, order, and organization
  • Evidence, models, and explanation
  • Constancy, change, and measurement
  • Evolution and equilibrium
  • Form and function

Some of the fundamental concepts that underlie this standard are:


The natural and designed world is complex; it is too large and complicated to investigate and comprehend all at once. Scientists and students learn to define small portions for the convenience of investigation. The units of investigation can be referred to as "systems." A system is an organized group of related objects or components that form a whole. Systems can consist, for example, of organisms, machines, fundamental particles, galaxies, ideas, numbers, transportation, and education. Systems have boundaries, components, resources flow (input and output), and feedback.

The goal of this standard is to think and analyze in terms of systems. Thinking and analyzing in terms of systems will help students keep track of mass, energy, objects, organisms, and events referred to in the other content standards. The idea of simple systems encompasses subsystems as well as identifying the structure and function of systems, feedback and equilibrium, and the distinction between open and closed systems.

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As a result of their activities in grades 5-8, all students should develop understanding of:
  • Structure and function in living systems
  • Reproduction and heredity
  • Regulation and behavior
  • Populations and ecosystems
  • Diversity and adaptations of organisms

Fundamental concepts and principles that underlie this standard include:


  • A population consists of all individuals of a species that occur together at a given place and time. All populations living together and the physical factors with which they interact compose an ecosystem.

  • Populations of organisms can be categorized by the function they serve in an ecosystem. Plants and some micro-organisms are producers--they make their own food. All animals, including humans, are consumers, which obtain food by eating other organisms. Decomposers, primarily bacteria and fungi, are consumers that use waste materials and dead organisms for food. Food webs identify the relationships among producers, consumers, and decomposers in an ecosystem.

  • For ecosystems, the major source of energy is sunlight. Energy entering ecosystems as sunlight is transferred by producers into chemical energy through photosynthesis. That energy then passes from organism to organism in food webs.

  • The number of organisms an ecosystem can support depends on the resources available and abiotic factors, such as quantity of light and water, range of temperatures, and soil composition. Given adequate biotic and abiotic resources and no disease or predators, populations (including humans) increase at rapid rates. Lack of resources and other factors, such as predation and climate limit the growth of populations in specific niches in the ecosystem.

New York State Science Content Standards

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Students will understand and apply scientific concepts, principles, and theories pertaining to the physical setting and living environment and recognize the historical development of ideas in science.

The Living Environment

6. Plants and animals depend on each other and their physical environment. Students:
  • explain factors that limit growth of individuals and populations.
  • explain the importance of preserving diversity of species and habitats.
  • explain how the living and nonliving environments change over time and respond to disturbances.
Media Components


NATURE: "A Mystery in Alaska" (episode #2009)

This site provides a comprehensive list of definitions, an encyclopedia type article explaining the term, and several examples of the term.

This site has a detailed explanation of open and closed systems, system components, and feedback.

This search engine will provide definitions of terms typed into the search space.


Per Class of 24:
  • 24 Small snack size baggies of colored miniature marshmallows (about 4 large store size bags total)
  • 6 small bottles of white glue
  • 24 paper plates
  • 1 box wooden toothpicks
  • 24 Scissors
  • Two to three different colors of yarn or string (1 ball or skein of each)