May/June 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 7

What Contains Carbon?…¿Qué Contiene Carbono?…什麼東西含有碳?

Posted: Friday, February 25th, 2011

Courtesy of the California Academy of Sciences


In this activity, students will learn that carbon is an extremely common element on the earth which can be found in many forms, in both living and non-living things.


In this activity, students will:

  1. learn that carbon is an extremely common element on the earth.
  2. learn that carbon can be found in many forms, in both living and non-living things.


  • pencils
  • What Contains Carbon Worksheet (1 per student) English, Spanish, or Chinese
  • seashell
  • piece of wood
  • plastic
  • fabric
  • carbonated beverage
  • cup of water
  • other carbon-containing objects (optional)


  • carbon: a naturally abundant, nonmetallic element that occurs in all organic compounds and can be found in all known forms of life
  • carbon dioxide: a colorless, odorless gas that is present in the atmosphere, breathed out during animal respiration, produced by decaying plants, used by plants in photosynthesis, and formed when any fuel containing carbon is burned
  • hydrocarbon: compound containing only hydrogen and carbon and often occurring in fossil fuels
  • carbonate: to add carbon dioxide to a substance, such as a beverage



  • Ask students, “Is carbon good or bad?”
  • Discuss what students already know about carbon, making a table on the board. See the example table below.
What is Good about Carbon? What is Bad about Carbon?
Carbon is an important element in living things.Plants need carbon dioxide to photosynthesize.

Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere keeps the planet warm and livable.

Some of the things we use everyday contain carbon. For example, the graphite in pencils is carbon.

Too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere changes the climate.Too much carbon dioxide dissolving in the ocean makes it more acidic, which can harm animals and plants that are adapted to less acidic environments.

Carbon dioxide and other gases react with water to form acid rain.

Chlorofluorocarbons deplete the ozone.

  • Tell students that carbon itself is good. It is an integral part of life on earth. But, carbon can cause negative consequences. Although the amount of carbon on the planet remains consistent, there can be more or less in various places on the planet. For humans, it is important for there to be certain levels of carbon in the atmosphere and ocean. Too much carbon in the atmosphere or in the ocean can be a bad thing.
  • “What is it?” (Carbon is an element that is in both living and non-living things.)


  1. Ask students, “What kinds of things contain carbon?” and list their responses on the board.
  2. Show students all of the objects.
  3. Tell students that they will have to hypothesize about whether these objects have carbon in them or not.
  4. Pass out a What Contains Carbon Worksheet to each student.
  5. Have students work in groups to decide whether each object contains carbon or not. Then, have students work individually to fill out their worksheets and explain their answers.
  6. Once students have finished filling out the worksheet, bring them together as a class to discuss the answers.
  7. Discuss each object and explain why it contains carbon. See the teacher background section for details.
  8. At the end of this discussion, ask students what percentage of the objects contain carbon. (100%)


  • As a class, classify the objects into living and non-living groupings, including things that used to be alive as living. (You can classify the seashell and the wood as living and the plastic, fabric, water, and carbonated beverage as non-living. But, it is a bit more complicated than that as the fabric may have come from living plants such as cotton, and the plastic came from hydrocarbons, which were formed millions of years ago from living things. This complication shows that carbon can be in both living things and non-living things and that it moves from one type of thing to another. )
  • Now that students have a better idea of how common carbon is, ask them to fill in the last three rows of the worksheet with other items in the classroom.


  • Follow this introductory activity with the Carbon Cycle Roleplay.
  • Then, assess the student using the Carbon Cycle Poster lesson.


California Content Standards

Grade Three

Physical Sciences
1h. Students know all matter is made of small particles called atoms, too small to see with the naked eye.

Grade Five

Physical Sciences
1h. Students know living organisms and most materials are composed of just a few elements.
Life Sciences
2f. Students know plants use carbon dioxide (CO2) and energy from sunlight to build molecules of sugar and release oxygen.
2g. Students know plant and animal cells break down sugar to obtain energy, a process resulting in carbon dioxide (CO2) and water (respiration).
Investigation and Experimentation
6a. Classify objects (e.g., rocks, plants, leaves) in accordance with appropriate criteria.

Grade Eight

Life Sciences
6a. Students know carbon, because of its ability to combine in many ways with itself and other elements, has a central role in the chemistry of living organisms.
6b. Students know that living organisms are made of molecules consisting largely of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur.

Teacher Background:

Carbon is an extremely common and important element on the earth. It comprises approximately 50% of all living tissues and is present in all four major spheres of the planet: biosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, and lithosphere. This activity is meant to show students that we can find carbon in many forms all around us.

Most of us don’t go around counting the number of things that contain carbon, but if you do this exercise, you will quickly see that a lot of different objects contain carbon. Your body contains carbon. The air you breathe contains carbon dioxide. The food you eat contains carbon. The clothes you wear contain carbon.

The objects suggested for this activity also all contain carbon. Seashells come from organisms that extract calcium and carbon from the water around them to form calcium carbonate shells. Wood contains carbon because it comes from a plant that once completed photosynthesis, taking in carbon dioxide to produce glucose. Plastic is derived from petroleum, which contains hydrocarbons, compounds composed entirely of hydrogen and carbon. Different kinds of fabric contain carbon that comes from different places depending on the type of fabric it is. If it is a plant-based fabric such as cotton, the carbon comes from the photosynthetic process. If it is polyester, it is made from two petroleum products, one of which contains carbon. Carbonated beverages are named for the carbon dioxide gas that has been dissolved in the liquid, creating their fizz. Regular water also contains carbon dioxide, although in much lower concentrations than carbonated beverages. This is because carbon dioxide can freely diffuse into water.

Although carbon is not in everything, like aluminum cans and glass windows, it is in many different objects that we encounter in our daily lives. Carbon is present in the living and non-living parts of the planet, as a component in organisms, rocks, atmospheric gases, and water. Not only does carbon occur in all theses spheres, but individual carbon atoms actually cycle between the different spheres, moving from one sphere to another through a variety of processes. Besides the relatively small additions of carbon from meteorites, the amount of carbon on the planet is stable. The amount of carbon in any given sphere of the planet however can increase or decrease depending on the functioning of the carbon cycle.

Download a full copy of the lesson plan.

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

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CSTA Annual Conference Early Bird Rates End July 14

Posted: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

by Jessica Sawko

Teachers engaged in workshop activity

Teachers engaging in hands-on learning during a workshop at the 2016 CSTA conference.

Don’t miss your chance to register at the early bird rate for the 2017 CSTA Conference – the early-bird rate closes July 14. Need ideas on how to secure funding for your participation? Visit our website for suggestions, a budget planning tool, and downloadable justification letter to share with your admin. Want to take advantage of the early rate – but know your district will pay eventually? Register online today and CSTA will reimburse you when we receive payment from your district/employer. (For more information on how that works contact Zi Stair in the office for details – 916-979-7004 or

New Information Now Available On-line:

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

Goodbye Outgoing and Welcome Incoming CSTA Board Members

Posted: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

Jill Grace

Jill Grace, CSTA President, 2017-2019

On July 1, 2017 five CSTA members concluded their service and four new board members joined the ranks of the CSTA Board of Directors. CSTA is so grateful for all the volunteer board of directors who contribute hours upon hours of time and energy to advance the work of the association. At the June 3 board meeting, CSTA was able to say goodbye to the outgoing board members and welcome the incoming members.

This new year also brings with it a new president for CSTA. As of July 1, 2017 Jill Grace is the president of the California Science Teachers Association. Jill is a graduate of California State University, Long Beach, a former middle school science teacher, and is currently a Regional Director with the K-12 Alliance @ WestEd where she works with California NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative districts and charter networks in the San Diego area.

Outgoing Board Members

  • Laura Henriques (President-Elect: 2011 – 2013, President: 2013 – 2015, Past President: 2015 – 2017)
  • Valerie Joyner (Region 1 Director: 2009 – 2013, Primary Director: 2013 – 2017)
  • Mary Whaley (Informal Science Education Director: 2013 – 2017)
  • Sue Campbell (Middle School/Jr. High Director: 2015 – 2017)
  • Marcus Tessier (2-Year College Director: 2015 – 2017)

Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

Finding My Student’s Motivation of Learning Through Engineering Tasks

Posted: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

by Huda Ali Gubary and Susheela Nath

It’s 8:02 and the bell rings. My students’ walk in and pick up an entry ticket based on yesterday’s lesson and homework. My countdown starts for students to begin…3, 2, 1. Ten students are on task and diligently completing the work, twenty are off task with behaviors ranging from talking up a storm with their neighbors to silently staring off into space. This was the start of my classes, more often than not. My students rarely showed the enthusiasm for a class that I had eagerly prepared for. I spent so much time searching for ways to get my students excited about the concepts they were learning. I wanted them to feel a connection to the lessons and come into my class motivated about what they were going to learn next. I would ask myself how I could make my class memorable where the kids were in the driver’s seat of learning. Incorporating engineering made this possible. Learn More…

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Written by NGSS Early Implementer

NGSS Early Implementer

In 2015 CSTA began to publish a series of articles written by teachers participating in the California NGSS k-8 Early Implementation Initiative. This article was written by an educator(s) participating in the initiative. CSTA thanks them for their contributions and for sharing their experience with the science teaching community.

State Schools Chief Tom Torlakson Unveils Updated Recommended Literature List

Posted: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

SACRAMENTO—State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson unveiled an addition of 285 award-winning titles to the Recommended Literature: Prekindergarten Through Grade Twelve list.

“The books our students read help broaden their perspectives, enhance their knowledge, and fire their imaginations,” Torlakson said. “The addition of these award-winning titles represents the state’s continued commitment to the interests and engagement of California’s young readers.”

The Recommended Literature: Prekindergarten Through Grade Twelve list is a collection of more than 8,000 titles of recommended reading for children and adolescents. Reflecting contemporary and classic titles, including California authors, this online list provides an exciting range of literature that students should be reading at school and for pleasure. Works include fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and drama to provide for a variety of tastes, interests, and abilities. Learn More…

Written by Guest Contributor

From time to time CSTA receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CSTA. By publishing these articles CSTA does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CSTA’s Disclaimer Policy:

Teaching Science in the Time of Alternative Facts – Why NGSS Can Help (somewhat)

Posted: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

by Peter A’Hearn

The father of one of my students gave me a book: In the Beginning: Compelling Evidence for Creation and the Flood by Walt Brown, Ph. D. He had heard that I was teaching Plate Tectonics and wanted me to consider another perspective. The book offered the idea that the evidence for plate tectonics could be better understood if we considered the idea that beneath the continent of Pangaea was a huge underground layer of water that suddenly burst forth from a rift between the now continents of Africa and South America. The waters shot up and the continents hydroplaned apart on the water layer to their current positions. The force of the movement pushed up great mountain ranges which are still settling to this day, resulting in earthquakes along the margins of continents. This had happened about 6,000 years ago and created a great worldwide flood. Learn More…

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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the Region 4 Director for CSTA.