Terrestrial Nitrogen Cycle Jigsaw Puzzle

In this activity, students represented organisms in the nitrogen cycle and collaboratively formed a physical representation of the cycle.

Author: Christine Gehrig-Downie, Lecturer in Environmental Science, Policy, and Management
Course Number & Title: XESPM 15: Introduction to Environmental Science
Grant Type: Lecturer Teaching Fellows Program (LTF)

This work is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Nitrogen cycle
Activity Title Terrestrial Nitrogen Cycle Jigsaw Puzzle
Delivery Format In-person

High Impact Practices (HIPs) Categories

(Review definitions for each category(link is external))

  • Collaborative Assignments and Projects
Learning Objectives
  • Accurately label the various components and processes of the natural terrestrial nitrogen cycle
  • Identify and describe the inputs and outputs associated with each component of the nitrogen cycle
  • Demonstrate a clear understanding of how different elements within the nitrogen cycle interact and connect
Brief Summary of Activity
  1. Students receive prepared name stickers with one of seven organisms in the terrestrial nitrogen cycle in different colors. 

  2. Students research their role in the N-cycle, identify their input and output and stick it to the back of their hands with sticky notes.

  3. Students with the same roles meet, compare and discuss notes.

  4. Students with the same colors meet, introduce themselves and their roles in the N-cycle, and arrange themselves into a cycle connecting hands.

  5. Students pass a ball in their cycle multiple times while saying aloud inputs and outputs.

Innovative Teaching Reflection

For the past five years, I have been trying to find an activity that helps students better understand the terrestrial nitrogen cycle and remember its steps. The activity outlined here is the one where students demonstrated best learning retention (see Impact & Feedback). Moreover, the use of name stickers and tennis balls added fun to the activity.

Activity Length 20-30 min
Step-by-Step Instructions

Materials: multi-colored “Hello my name is…” stickers, sticky notes, markers, tennis balls.



  1. Prepares colorcoded “Hello, my name is…” stickers with the following names: Azotobacter, Clostridium, Nitrobacter, Nitrosomonas, Pseudomonas, Rhizobium, Plant, (Lightning) in as many colors as you are expecting home-groups. E.g. three different colors for 21 students. (Add ‘Lightning’ as an additional player if the student number doesn’t divide by 7.) 
  2. Starts the activity by briefly reviewing important steps of the terrestrial nitrogen cycle: Nitrogen Fixation, Nitrification, Denitrification, Assimilation, Ammonification.
  3. Assign “players” by randomly handing out colored “Hello, my name is…” stickers.


  1. Identify their “job”. E.g., if the player’s name sticker reads Azotobacter their job would be Nitrogen Fixation.
  2. Spend ~3 minutes to research online what role they play in the nitrogen cycle and what conversion they are responsible for.
  3. Get together with students of the same “job” and compare notes.
  4. Write their intake on one sticky note and stick it on the back of their left hand.
  5. Write their output on the other sticky note and stick it on the back of their right hand.
  6. Find their coworkers (players with the same color but different name.)
  7. Introduce themselves by saying their name, job, intake, and output.
  8. Organize their hands to show a cycle with sub-cycles. This will be easier if students sit on the floor.
  9. Practice cycling nitrogen by passing a tennis ball and saying their intake and output out loud.
  10. Call the instructor and show how nitrogen cycles through all players.
Impact & Feedback

I collected student feedback at the end of the (New) activity and compared it to feedback from a different (Old) N-cycle activity with the prompt “Please rate the effectiveness of the N-cycle activity. Has it helped you get a better understanding?” The students that participated in the “New” activity had slightly better learning outcomes in the N-cycle related questions in our midterm compared with students who participated in the “Old” activity: mean 4.36 points vs. mean of 3.95 points.

Here's a quote from one of the students participating in the activity:

"The Nitrogen Cycle activity we practiced in class greatly helped my understanding of the concept and from speaking with classmates, I know it helped them as well. Considering this, I am not surprised to learn that our class scored better in the midterm exams!"