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How Might Elevated CO2 Affect Plants?

University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR)

In this activity, students plant, care for, and observe the changes in plants growing under conditions of ambient (normal) CO2 (carbon dioxide) and increased levels of CO2. Students learn about the relationships among CO2, plants, and climate change.

Activity takes about two class periods plus 3-4 weeks with daily 5-minute observations. Additional materials required.

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Learn more about Teaching Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness»

Climate Literacy
About Teaching Climate Literacy

Individual organisms survive within specific ranges of temperature, precipitation, humidity, and sunlight. Organisms exposed to climate conditions outside their normal range must adapt or migrate, or they will perish.
About Teaching Principle 3
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Life—including microbes, plants, and animals and humans—is a major driver of the global carbon cycle and can influence global climate by modifying the chemical makeup of the atmosphere. The geologic record shows that life has significantly altered the atmosphere during Earth’s history.
About Teaching Principle 3
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Excellence in Environmental Education Guidelines

1. Questioning, Analysis and Interpretation Skills:G) Drawing conclusions and developing explanations
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G) Drawing conclusions and developing explanations.
1. Questioning, Analysis and Interpretation Skills:B) Designing investigations
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B) Designing investigations.
1. Questioning, Analysis and Interpretation Skills:C) Collecting information
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C) Collecting information.
1. Questioning, Analysis and Interpretation Skills:E) Organizing information
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E) Organizing information.
2. Knowledge of Environmental Processes and Systems:2.2 The Living Environment:A) Organisms, populations, and communities
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A) Organisms, populations, and communities.
2. Knowledge of Environmental Processes and Systems:2.2 The Living Environment:C) Systems and connections
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C) Systems and connections.
2. Knowledge of Environmental Processes and Systems:2.2 The Living Environment:D) Flow of matter and energy
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D) Flow of matter and energy.

Benchmarks for Science Literacy
Learn more about the Benchmarks

Plants on land and under water alter the earth's atmosphere by removing carbon dioxide from it, using the carbon to make sugars and releasing oxygen. This process is responsible for the oxygen content of the air.
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The world contains a wide diversity of physical conditions, which creates a wide variety of environments: freshwater, marine, forest, desert, grassland, mountain, and others. In any particular environment, the growth and survival of organisms depend on the physical conditions
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Notes From Our Reviewers The CLEAN collection is hand-picked and rigorously reviewed for scientific accuracy and classroom effectiveness. Read what our review team had to say about this resource below or learn more about how CLEAN reviews teaching materials
Teaching Tips | Science | Pedagogy | Technical Details

Teaching Tips

  • Educators have to make sure that seedlings of the same quality/height are left when thinning out seedlings at the beginning of the experiment.

About the Science

  • This activity guides students through a simple scientific investigation of how carbon dioxide affects plant growth.
  • The investigation is carefully structured with pairs of experiments - one with elevated CO2 levels and one a control under ambient conditions - and duplication of plant selections among the student groups.
  • A more sophisticated version of this experiment would monitor the CO2 levels in both experimental containers and plant growth over time (with a a measuring stick beside the plant in the container).
  • A graph can then be drawn to show growth over time in relationship to CO2 concentration. This would reduce uncertainty in the reasons for the variability of results.
  • This activity was adapted from Global Climates – Past, Present, and Future, developed by Sandra Henderson, Steven R. Holman, and Lynn L. Mortensen at the United States Environmental Protection Agency, June 1993.

About the Pedagogy

  • Hands-on activity will engage students of different learning styles.
  • This three-week-long experiment might prove challenging to ensure that each plant is watered the same amount and frequency.
  • To see the necessary results may take longer than three weeks in some cases.
  • There are good questions at the end that help develop the implications of these experiments.

Technical Details/Ease of Use

  • The explanation of the setup and procedure are clear and complete.
  • A picture of the setup would be helpful to assure students and educators that they have followed the directions.
  • There is some background material that educator might have to supplement with their own research on different plant species and soil/growth conditions.

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