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Classroom Terrariums: The Essential Guide

Plants growing

Middle & High School

Terrariums, miniature ecosystems in a container, are the perfect addition to your science classroom. Besides their obvious beauty, these glorious miniscapes are fascinating to observe and provide hands-on learning for every grade level. By creating a more controlled and observable environment with terrariums, students can study the intricate relationships within ecosystems and understand the complex biological and ecological concepts that sustain our planet.

With terrariums, students witness plant life cycles firsthand, gaining practical insights into germination, growth, and reproduction. They’ll explore how Earth's systems— like water and nutrient cycles, photosynthesis, and respiration —interact within this microenvironment, providing them with real-world applications of these concepts. 

Here are some ideas for immersive demonstrations and their real-world applications that can help you incorporate terrariums in your classroom:

Creating Man-Made, Closed Ecological Systems

A closed ecological system is a self-sustaining environment where all living and non-living components interact and recycle materials and energy internally without relying on outside inputs. These systems are designed to maintain life by regenerating air, water, and food within a sealed or controlled space. Genius!

Share these real-world examples with your students to spark their curiosity and build excitement:

  • Biosphere 2: This enormous closed ecological system in Arizona is probably the most famous example. Originally constructed to research self-sustaining space colonization technology, it houses different biomes, including a rainforest, an ocean with a coral reef, mangrove wetlands, a savannah grassland, a fog desert, and agricultural systems.
  • Space Habitats: NASA and other space agencies have developed controlled ecological life support systems (CELSS) to study and provide life support for astronauts during long space missions. These include growing plants in space to regenerate air and water and provide food to create a sustainable living environment beyond Earth.
  • Aquaponics systems: These integrate fish and plant cultivation to explore sustainable agricultural techniques. The waste produced by aquatic animals supplies nutrients for plants grown hydroponically (without soil). In turn, the plants help purify the water, which is recirculated back to the fish tanks. It’s a circle of life!

Students will love using a terrarium to construct their own closed ecosystem in the classroom to observe these interactions up close.

Try this activity to enhance learning: 

Have students measure and record oxygen and carbon dioxide levels within the terrarium using simple tools like CO2 gas sensors, O2 gas sensors, or Carbon Dioxide Test Kits. Observing changes in these gases can teach students about respiratory and photosynthetic processes in a controlled setting, providing insight into the balance of gases crucial for life on Earth—or in a closed system on a Martian space colony!

 Microclimates: Exploring Ecosystems in the Classroom

Remember how awesome it was to watch the winter wonderland inside a snow globe? Well, real-world microclimates are even more amazing! Microclimates are localized sets of atmospheric conditions within a larger area that differ from the surrounding climate. 

Share these examples with your students to highlight how geographic features, human activities, and ground cover can create small-scale climate variations that significantly impact the environment and how organisms live and interact:

  • Urban Heat Islands (UHI): Cities often experience higher temperatures than surrounding rural areas due to the concentration of buildings, roads, and other infrastructure that absorb and retain heat. The average UHI index was lowest in Wichita (7.2°F) and highest in New York (9.5°F), San Francisco (8.8°F), Chicago and Miami (8.3°F), and Seattle (8.2°F).1 Gardens and parks can create microclimates that are cooler and more humid than their surroundings, offering a refuge from the urban heat islands.
  • Coastal Areas: The climate can be milder than inland areas near large bodies of water. For example, areas near the ocean often have cooler summers and warmer winters due to the water's moderating effect. Syracuse, Buffalo, and Rochester, NY, are among the snowiest big cities in the United States, averaging more than 8 feet of snow annually due to their proximity to lakes Erie and Ontario.2 This geographical setup creates a distinctive microclimate during the winter months. Now, that’s deep!
  • Valleys and Hollows: These areas can be colder, especially at night and during the winter, as cold air settles in lower elevations. This effect can create frost pockets where temperatures are significantly lower than surrounding higher areas. Some of the most well-known examples include Death Valley, California; Napa Valley, California; and Willamette Valley, Oregon.

By simulating different microclimates within terrariums, students can see how moisture, light, and temperature variations affect living organisms.

Simulating Microclimates: To create varied microclimates, use different terrarium setups with varying light, humidity, and soil types. For example, create a wetland microclimate with a very moist, almost marshy soil base, high humidity, and lower light conditions to mimic the shaded, humid environment. Plants could include small sedges, rushes, and other hydrophilic (moisture-loving) species. Or simulate a savannah, a grassland ecosystem with a mix of soil that drains well but retains some moisture. Incorporate tall grasses, small acacias, or other drought-tolerant shrubs, and maintain a light regime that mimics an open savannah's strong, direct sunlight.

Student Activities: Encourage students to experiment by placing terrariums in different classroom locations, under artificial lights, or near windows. They can use thermometers and hygrometers to monitor temperature and humidity, documenting how these factors influence plant growth, soil moisture, and overall ecosystem health.

Bringing the Rainforest or Desert into Your Classroom

Some terrariums are specially designed to simulate complex ecosystems like rainforests or deserts, providing students with a vivid, interactive model of these environments.

Features of Specialized Terrariums: Products like the biOrb® AIR Terrarium/Vivarium are equipped with settings that can replicate the humid, warm conditions typical of a tropical rainforest or the arid conditions of a desert. This opens up the opportunity for a lot more demonstrations and observations for your class!

Setting Up Ecosystem-Specific Terrariums: For a rainforest terrarium, select plants native to tropical environments, such as small ferns, orchids, and bromeliads. These plants typically require high humidity and filtered light, mimicking the rainforest canopy. On the other hand, a desert terrarium could feature luscious succulents and cacti, which love basking in bright light and don't need much water. Students might enjoy breaking up into two study teams, let’s say, the Desert Troopers and the Tropical Storms. Okay, we know they can come up with better names.

Lesson Suggestions: Students can use these setups to learn about biodiversity by comparing the variety of life found in rainforests and deserts. Discuss the importance of rainforests in global climate regulation and their role in providing a safe harbor for much of the world's biodiversity. Discuss the processes that create distinctive desert features like sand dunes and alluvial fans. 

Fun Fact: Rainforests are the most biodiverse ecosystems on Earth, with about 50% of all life on land. One hectare of rainforest can contain 42,000 insect species, 807 trees of 313 species, and 1,500 higher plant species.3

Incorporating terrariums into the classroom enriches students' understanding of ecological and biological concepts and enhances their appreciation for the complexity and beauty of Earth’s various life systems. 

View our Build Your Own Terrarium Guide for a step-by-step guide to building a simple terrarium for your classroom.

Get the Best Without the Stress 

Even easier, save time by getting the state-of-the-art biOrb® AIR Terrarium and replicating a variety of climates, from deserts to rainforests. This modern terrarium offers automated climate control, misting, and lighting, providing an optimal plant environment with minimal effort. Everything you need to get started, just add plants and soil!

Don’t forget to share your experiences and student projects involving terrariums on our popular Science By You page

 1. Climate Central: Urban Heat Spots, 2023 2. Democrat and Chronicle: Lake effect snow warning issued for parts of Rochester region, up to 3 feet possible in some areas, January 17, 2024. 3. World Rainforests: Why are rainforests so diverse? 2019