Teacher Resource


Building Treehouses about Sonoran Desert Organisms

Lisa Schwartz, Kathryn Orzech, and Laurie Cale


This teacher resource outlines how students built Sonoran Desert Organism Treehouses as part of a 3 section unit on Ecosystems that included a whole class map making activity, an independent study, and the development of an ecosystem lab, where students set up an experiment after coming up with a testable question related to a set topic.

Learning Information

  • ToL Learner Level:
    • Beginner; Intermediate
  • Target Grade/Age Level:
    • High School (Ages 15-18).
  • Learning Objective(s). Learners will:
    • Create a Treehouse on a Sonoran Desert organism that they are studying;
    • Incorporate media that they have created, and generally follow the basic treehouse building guidelines.
  • Type of Activity
    • Classroom resource; Lab resource; Field resource
  • Science Subject / Key Words
    • Biodiversity;
    • Ecology;
    • Sonoran desert; Arizona
  • Additional Treehouse Type:
    • Investigation
  • Language:
    • English
  • Teaching and Learning Strategy:
    • Technology Integration/Computer Assisted Instruction


Students from Laurie Cale's 9th grade honors biology class worked with Tree of Life research assistant Kathryn Orzech to create treehouses about Sonoran Desert organisms that they studied. This teacher resource outlines the context and sequence of the project. View students' treehouses by visiting the portfolio section below or following this link: Sonoran Desert Organisms Treehouse Portfolio


In Ms. Cale's class, students learned about the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan (see link below), and drew or took pictures of Sonoran Desert organisms to familiarize themselves and their classmates with local flora and fauna (as well as to decorate the classroom). As part of their ecoosystem unit (detailed below) they made a topographic map of the Tucson basin. Before building the map, they did research in groups about a variety of physical and biological aspects of the Sonoran desert and Tucson in particular.

Physical Materials and Tools

  • Computers for internet research and making the Treehouse website
  • Camera for capturing images of the students' chosen organism (if available - if not, original drawings may be made)
  • Research materials such as books and magazines

Prior Knowledge

Students should have a general familiarity with the Sonoran desert and its organisms. This will enable them to choose an apropriate organism for research.


Ecosystem Unit Information 

These treehouses were built as part of a 3-part unit on Ecosystems. 

Part 1 of the unit focused on general ecosystem information acquired
from reading and class activities, as well as specific ecosystem information
the students learned in groups about the local ecosystem – the Sonoran
Desert in which Tucson, Arizona is located. 

Students made a map as a class that reflected both general and specific knowledge (general city land use all the way down to locations of landfills and approximate densities of specific species like the non-native buffelgrass).

Part 2 of the unit was an independent study assignment. For this
independent study, students could choose from a variety of projects,
such as:

  • Creating a photo essay about their favorite local (natural) place
  • Going on a local guided nature walk and reporting back to the class about the experience
  • Doing volunteer work to further the local ecosystem (such as pulling invasive buffelgrass or working for a few hours at a recycling center)
  • Making a poster presentation on a conservation program in Southern Arizona
  • Constructing a ToL treehouse about a local species (native or introduced)

Part 3 of the unit was an ecosystem lab, where students set up an
experiment (usually involving plants, but sometimes animals), varying
the conditions in the same type of container and charting their results
over several weeks.

Ecosystem lab groups had to come up with a testable question related to one of the topics listed below:

  • Biodiversity: Biological cores and corridors
  • Ecological symbiotic relationships - predation, parasitism, commensalism, and mutualism
  • Nutrient cycling (the water cycle, carbon cycle, nitrogen cycle)
  • Food webs - the cycling of energy through an ecosystem 

Student groups then developed a hypothesis and designed an appropriate experiment to test their hypothesis.  

These three parts of the ecosystem unit are summarized in a 2-page handout given to students prior to their written exam.

document iconView EcosystemFinalAssessmentPg1.pdf

document iconView EcosystemFinalAssessmentPg2.pdf

Treehouse Building as an Independent Study Option 

Although only a few students built treehouse webpages in the ecosystem
unit, the teacher hoped to have all students build pages as part of an
upcoming evolution unit.  Ideally, the students who have already mastered the
treehouse-building skills will serve as peer teachers when the rest of
the class is ready to build their treehouses.

Whether they built treehouses or not, all students:

  1. Receive an introduction to the Tree of Life.
  2. Participate in activities to learn about the Sonoran desert, including learning about the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, drawing or taking pictures of desert organisms, and participating in a mini-research project to prepare for making a topographic map of the Tucson basin (researching housing density in one group, for example, while another group mapped locations and densities of bullfrogs and the invasive species buffelgrass).
  3. Were presented with multiple independent study options listed above.  Note: Students could complete more than one independent study option, allowing for students who went on the Buffelgrass pull, for example, to document their work there and make a Treehouse page on this invasive species in the Sonoran desert.   

Students who chose to make treehouses:

  1. Met with Tree of Life Research assistant Kathryn Orzech to discuss their project, and register as classroom project treehouse builders.
  2. Chose an organism, often consulting the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan website to choose an appropriate organism.
  3. Brainstormed ideas for their project, including narrowing down to one specific question about their organism that they wanted to address in their page.  document iconView Brainstorm and Plan Treehouse Web
  4. Researched their question about their organism using internet and print resources.
  5. Took digital pictures and/or drew pictures to document their organism and/or its habitat.
    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

    Lynx rufus. © 2005 butterfly1

  6. Built their page with guidance from Kathryn.


This was a 25-point assignment (as were all the independent study assignments), so the main evaluation of the page focused on whether the student had selected an appropriately narrow question to address, whether they addressed their question, whether they used appropriate internet and print resources and whether they included an original image in the page that enhanced viewer understanding of the organism.

Information on the Internet

  • Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan  This page provides a lot of information on Sonoran desert conservation and has a link to "species in Pima County" used by students to choose organisms for research for their treehouse webpages.
  • Sky Island Alliance  Another conservation website dedicated to the preservation and restoration of native biological diversity in the sky islands of the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico.
  • The Nature Conservancy - Arizona  This site provides links to activites and events sponsored by the Nature Conservancy in Arizona.
  • Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum  A site that provides information and links (and if all else fails, email contact with experts) about Sonoran desert organisms.
About This Page

Lisa Schwartz
University of Arizona

University of Arizona

Laurie Cale
Catalina Foothills High School

Correspondence regarding this page should be directed to Lisa Schwartz at , Kathryn Orzech at , and Laurie Cale at

All Rights Reserved.

 Treehouses are authored by students, teachers, science enthusiasts, or professional scientists. Anyone can sign up as a treehouse contributor and share their knowledge and enthusiasm about organisms. Treehouse contributions are checked for general accuracy and quality by teachers and ToL editors, but they are not usually reviewed by expert scientists. If you spot an error, please get in touch with the author or the teacher. For more information about quality control of Tree of Life content, see Status of Tree of Life Pages.

ToL Treehouses

Treehouse Content


Explore Other Groups

random page

  go to the Tree of Life home page