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Trees and Carbon

Kennesaw State University

This activity describes the flow of carbon in the environment and focuses on how much carbon is stored in trees. It goes on to have students analyze data and make calculations about the amount of carbon stored in a set of trees at three sites in a wooded area that were to be cut down to build a college dormitory.

This activity may take 2 to 3 fifty minute class periods to complete.

Learn more about Teaching Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness»

ngssSee how this Activity supports the Next Generation Science Standards»
High School: 4 Performance Expectations, 7 Disciplinary Core Ideas, 12 Cross Cutting Concepts, 10 Science and Engineering Practices

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

  • Before students review data collected about other trees, it would be good if they made their own measurements of trees so that the data they review makes sense to them.
  • Putting the data into excel would make some steps in the activity take less time.
  • Students may need guidance through the mathematics. If students are less familiar with logarithmic functions, the formulas can be entered into their excel spreadsheet to handle that step.
  • Rather than having students each measure their lots where they live, groups of students or the whole class can measure a place on or near the school grounds.
  • The activity would be greatly improved if students brainstormed ways that they can save trees or plant new trees as methods to store carbon.
  • Adding a few more questions on the understanding of the carbon cycle would be good to ensure student learning.
  • Measuring tapes might not be readily available but area can be measured by estimates using step length.

About the Science

  • Great activity that addresses a common misconception that trees and other plants get most of their mass through the soil.
  • A basic knowledge of reading balanced equations and calculating and molecular mass is necessary to understand some parts of the reading.
  • Comment from expert scientist: The introductory reading materials need some clarification.
    i) The article uses the term ecosystem when it means biosphere.
    ii) It calls CO2 a waste product even though it is an end product.
    iii) Carbon as part of the carbon cycle has 3 phrases: solid, liquid, and gas. The introduction states that carbon exists in only two phases.
    iv) In plants, sugars are usually dissolved in water and not kept as solids.
    v) Carbon dissolves in water, it is not absorbed by it as stated.
    vi) More precise use of term 'equilibrium' is necessary. Human activities have changed the carbon cycle not its equilibrium.
    vii) Glass window panes are optically opaque in parts of the infrared region of the spectrum. The explanation of the greenhouse effect is misleading, because greenhouse gases do not absorb all of the infrared energy.
    viii) The increase in average temperatures is 0.6 deg C not 1 deg C.
  • Comment from expert scientist: When teaching this activity be aware that converting forests into housing may sequester more carbon than planting more forests because the decomposition rates of the carbon in housing is usually slower than the decomposition rates of forest.

About the Pedagogy

  • Great way of quantifying the carbon cycle, very illustrative and easy to modify so that the connection to local environment is drawn.
  • The introduction to the activity is 9 pages of reading which might be a lot for some students in the classroom (It would be a good homework assignment but teachers would need to review it in class as well.)

Technical Details/Ease of Use

  • Good design, all important pieces of activity are ready to be used and are printable.

Related URLs These related sites were noted by our reviewers but have not been reviewed by CLEAN

This activity is part of a larger collection.

Next Generation Science Standards See how this Activity supports:

High School

Performance Expectations: 4

HS-ESS2-6: Develop a quantitative model to describe the cycling of carbon among the hydrosphere, atmosphere, geosphere, and biosphere.

HS-ESS3-3: Create a computational simulation to illustrate the relationships among management of natural resources, the sustainability of human populations, and biodiversity.

HS-ETS1-3: Evaluate a solution to a complex real-world problem based on prioritized criteria and trade-offs that account for a range of constraints, including cost, safety, reliability, and aesthetics as well as possible social, cultural, and environmental impacts.

HS-LS2-7: Design, evaluate, and refine a solution for reducing the impacts of human activities on the environment and biodiversity

Disciplinary Core Ideas: 7

HS-ESS2.D3:Changes in the atmosphere due to human activity have increased carbon dioxide concentrations and thus affect climate.

HS-ESS3.C1:The sustainability of human societies and the biodiversity that supports them requires responsible management of natural resources.

HS-ESS3.C2:Scientists and engineers can make major contributions by developing technologies that produce less pollution and waste and that preclude ecosystem degradation.

HS-LS1.C1:The process of photosynthesis converts light energy to stored chemical energy by converting carbon dioxide plus water into sugars plus released oxygen.

HS-LS1.C2:The sugar molecules thus formed contain carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen: their hydrocarbon backbones are used to make amino acids and other carbon-based molecules that can be assembled into larger molecules (such as proteins or DNA), used for example to form new cells. (

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-PS3.D2:The main way that solar energy is captured and stored on Earth is through the complex chemical process known as photosynthesis.

Cross Cutting Concepts: 12

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

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

HS-C1.5:Empirical evidence is needed to identify patterns.

HS-C2.2:Cause and effect relationships can be suggested and predicted for complex natural and human designed systems by examining what is known about smaller scale mechanisms within the system.

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

HS-C3.4:Using the concept of orders of magnitude allows one to understand how a model at one scale relates to a model at another scale.

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-C5.1:The total amount of energy and matter in closed systems is conserved.

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-C5.4: Energy drives the cycling of matter within and between systems.

HS-C6.1:Investigating or designing new systems or structures requires a detailed examination of the properties of different materials, the structures of different components, and connections of components to reveal its function and/or solve a problem.

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: 10

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, Engaging in Argument from Evidence, Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information

HS-P1.7:Ask and/or evaluate questions that challenge the premise(s) of an argument, the interpretation of a data set, or the suitability of a design.

HS-P2.6:Develop and/or use a model (including mathematical and computational) to generate data to support explanations, predict phenomena, analyze systems, and/or solve problems.

HS-P3.6:Manipulate variables and collect data about a complex model of a proposed process or system to identify failure points or improve performance relative to criteria for success or other variables.

HS-P4.1:Analyze data using tools, technologies, and/or models (e.g., computational, mathematical) in order to make valid and reliable scientific claims or determine an optimal design solution.

HS-P4.2:Apply concepts of statistics and probability (including determining function fits to data, slope, intercept, and correlation coefficient for linear fits) to scientific and engineering questions and problems, using digital tools when feasible.

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-P5.5:Apply ratios, rates, percentages, and unit conversions in the context of complicated measurement problems involving quantities with derived or compound units (such as mg/mL, kg/m3, acre-feet, etc.).

HS-P6.4:Apply scientific reasoning, theory, and/or models to link evidence to the claims to assess the extent to which the reasoning and data support the explanation or conclusion.

HS-P7.4:Construct, use, and/or present an oral and written argument or counter-arguments based on data and evidence.

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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