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Carbon Sequestration in Campus Trees

Robert S. Cole, Spreadsheets Across the Curruculum; Washington Center; Science Education Resource Center (SERC)

In this activity, students use a spreadsheet to calculate the net carbon sequestration in a set of trees; they will utilize an allometric approach based upon parameters measured on the individual trees. They determine the species of trees in the set, measure trunk diameter at a particular height, and use the spreadsheet to calculate carbon content of the tree using forestry research data.

Activity takes about a one-hour class period with subsequent homework or computer time.

Learn more about Teaching Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness»

ngssSee how this Activity supports the Next Generation Science Standards»
High School: 1 Performance Expectation, 3 Disciplinary Core Ideas, 8 Cross Cutting Concepts, 7 Science and Engineering Practices

Climate Literacy
About Teaching Climate Literacy

About Teaching the Guiding Principle
Other materials addressing GPd
Biogeochemical cycles of greenhouse gases / Carbon cycle
About Teaching Principle 2
Other materials addressing 2d
Climate is complex
About Teaching Climate Literacy
Other materials addressing Climate is complex
Biosphere drives the global carbon cycle
About Teaching Principle 3
Other materials addressing 3e
Our understanding of climate
About Teaching Climate Literacy
Other materials addressing Our understanding of climate

Excellence in Environmental Education Guidelines

1. Questioning, Analysis and Interpretation Skills:G) Drawing conclusions and developing explanations
Other materials addressing:
G) Drawing conclusions and developing explanations.
1. Questioning, Analysis and Interpretation Skills:B) Designing investigations
Other materials addressing:
B) Designing investigations.
1. Questioning, Analysis and Interpretation Skills:E) Organizing information
Other materials addressing:
E) Organizing information.
2. Knowledge of Environmental Processes and Systems:2.1 The Earth as a Physical System:A) Processes that shape the Earth
Other materials addressing:
A) Processes that shape the Earth.
2. Knowledge of Environmental Processes and Systems:2.1 The Earth as a Physical System:B) Changes in matter
Other materials addressing:
B) Changes in matter.
2. Knowledge of Environmental Processes and Systems:2.2 The Living Environment:D) Flow of matter and energy
Other materials addressing:
D) Flow of matter and energy.
2. Knowledge of Environmental Processes and Systems:2.4 Environment and Society:D) Technology
Other materials addressing:
D) Technology.

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

  • If this activity is being done for the first time, it will serve as a baseline for future, follow-up projects by other students.
  • This module is best used when data on a given set of trees are available from prior years, but establishing a solid baseline is important for all scientific measurements.
  • Assuming that data from field measurements are available to students, this module could be used as a homework exercise, or as a lab exercise. The module is also useful in teaching about how ecologists and biologists use allometric relationships as well as teaching about the power function.
  • An instructor version of the PowerPoint, with the cell equations for the embedded spreadsheets, is available upon request: http://www.evergreen.edu/washcenter/modules/request.asp?m=SSAC2006.QC879.8.RC1.1

About the Science

  • The resource guides students through the process of estimating tree biomass from measurements of tree diameter at breast height and the use of the allometric relationship between growth and size of one portion of a tree and the growth and size of the whole tree.
  • Instructor can assign this as is (using the example data set to teach the process) or can add enrichment, including a campus tree survey in collaboration with groundskeeping.
  • Opportunity to stress the global seasonal flux of CO2 due to plants in the Northern Hemisphere absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere through photosynthesis in the spring and summer and releasing carbon through decay into the atmosphere in the fall and winter.
  • Comments from expert scientist: It makes users think about the age of the trees and how their uptake compares to our emissions. It may give a simplistic idea of carbon sequestration without considering the drawbacks of large forest stands. Having a lot of trees around may be good for carbon sequestration, but on watersheds trees crowd out grasses which are much better for precipitation infiltration than a thick forest.

About the Pedagogy

  • This module consists of a PowerPoint presentation with background materials and instructions on how to recreate the embedded images of spreadsheets. The students develop the needed cell formulas and complete the spreadsheet to estimate the amount of carbon stored in the tree's biomass.
  • Students build quantitative skills and skills working with Excel spreadsheets.
  • Manipulating spreadsheet models may be engaging for some students.
  • If the instructor chooses to do a tree inventory on campus, students may be more engaged in the activity, as it is more applicable to their lives.
  • Little teacher support, other than guidance, is required for this exercise.

Technical Details/Ease of Use

  • The PowerPoint slideshow carefully guides students through the development of a spreadsheet that determines the amount of carbon that is stored in a set of trees over the course of a year.

Next Generation Science Standards See how this Activity supports:

High School

Performance Expectations: 1

HS-LS2-5: Develop a model to illustrate the role of photosynthesis and cellular respiration in the cycling of carbon among the biosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere, and geosphere.

Disciplinary Core Ideas: 3

HS-ESS2.D4:Current models predict that, although future regional climate changes will be complex and varied, average global temperatures will continue to rise. The outcomes predicted by global climate models strongly depend on the amounts of human-generated greenhouse gases added to the atmosphere each year and by the ways in which these gases are absorbed by the ocean and biosphere.

HS-LS2.B3:Photosynthesis and cellular respiration are important components of the carbon cycle, in which carbon is exchanged among the biosphere, atmosphere, oceans, and geosphere through chemical, physical, geological, and biological processes.

HS-LS2.C2:Moreover, anthropogenic changes (induced by human activity) in the environment—including habitat destruction, pollution, introduction of invasive species, overexploitation, and climate change—can disrupt an ecosystem and threaten the survival of some species.

Cross Cutting Concepts: 8

Patterns, Cause and effect, Scale, Proportion and Quantity, Systems and System Models, Energy and Matter, Stability and Change

HS-C1.4: Mathematical representations are needed to identify some patterns.

HS-C2.4:Changes in systems may have various causes that may not have equal effects.

HS-C3.1:The significance of a phenomenon is dependent on the scale, proportion, and quantity at which it occurs.

HS-C3.5:Algebraic thinking is used to examine scientific data and predict the effect of a change in one variable on another (e.g., linear growth vs. exponential growth).

HS-C4.2:When investigating or describing a system, the boundaries and initial conditions of the system need to be defined and their inputs and outputs analyzed and described using models.

HS-C4.3:Models (e.g., physical, mathematical, computer models) can be used to simulate systems and interactions—including energy, matter, and information flows—within and between systems at different scales.

HS-C5.2:Changes of energy and matter in a system can be described in terms of energy and matter flows into, out of, and within that system.

HS-C7.2:Change and rates of change can be quantified and modeled over very short or very long periods of time. Some system changes are irreversible.

Science and Engineering Practices: 7

Asking Questions and Defining Problems, Developing and Using Models, Planning and Carrying Out Investigations, Analyzing and Interpreting Data, Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking, Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions, Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information

HS-P1.2:ask questions that arise from examining models or a theory, to clarify and/or seek additional information and relationships.

HS-P2.5:Develop a complex model that allows for manipulation and testing of a proposed process or system.

HS-P3.4:Select appropriate tools to collect, record, analyze, and evaluate data.


HS-P5.2:Use mathematical, computational, and/or algorithmic representations of phenomena or design solutions to describe and/or support claims and/or explanations.

HS-P6.2:Construct and revise an explanation based on valid and reliable evidence obtained from a variety of sources (including students’ own investigations, models, theories, simulations, peer review) and the assumption that theories and laws that describe the natural world operate today as they did in the past and will continue to do so in the future.

HS-P8.2:Compare, integrate and evaluate sources of information presented in different media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively) as well as in words in order to address a scientific question or solve a problem.

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