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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Participate in Chemistry Education Research Study, Earn $500-800 Dollars!

Posted: Tuesday, May 9th, 2017

WestEd, a non-profit educational research agency, has been funded by the US Department of Education to test a new molecular modeling kit, Happy Atoms. Happy Atoms is an interactive chemistry learning experience that consists of a set of physical atoms that connect magnetically to form molecules, and an app that uses image recognition to identify the molecules that you create with the set. WestEd is conducting a study around the effectiveness of using Happy Atoms in the classroom, and we are looking for high school chemistry teachers in California to participate.

As part of the study, teachers will be randomly assigned to either the treatment group (who uses Happy Atoms) or the control group (who uses Happy Atoms at a later date). Teachers in the treatment group will be asked to use the Happy Atoms set in their classrooms for 5 lessons over the course of the fall 2017 semester. Students will complete pre- and post-assessments and surveys around their chemistry content knowledge and beliefs about learning chemistry. WestEd will provide access to all teacher materials, teacher training, and student materials needed to participate.

Participating teachers will receive a stipend of $500-800. You can read more information about the study here:

Please contact Rosanne Luu at or 650.381.6432 if you are interested in participating in this opportunity, or if you have any questions!

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.

2018 Science Instructional Materials Adoption Reviewer Application

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

The California Department of Education and State Board of Education are now accepting applications for reviewers for the 2018 Science Instructional Materials Adoption. The application deadline is 3:00 pm, July 21, 2017. The application is comprehensive, so don’t wait until the last minute to apply.

On Tuesday, May 9, 2017, State Superintendent Tom Torlakson forwarded this recruitment letter to county and district superintendents and charter school administrators.

Review panel members will evaluate instructional materials for use in kindergarten through grade eight, inclusive, that are aligned with the California Next Generation Science Content Standards for California Public Schools (CA NGSS). 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.

Lessons Learned from the NGSS Early Implementer Districts

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

On March 31, 2017, Achieve released two documents examining some lessons learned from the California K-8 Early Implementation Initiative. The initiative began in August 2014 and was developed by the K-12 Alliance at WestEd, with close collaborative input on its design and objectives from the State Board of Education, the California Department of Education, and Achieve.

Eight (8) traditional school districts and two (2) charter management organizations were selected to participate in the initiative, becoming the first districts in California to implement the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Those districts included Galt Joint Union Elementary, Kings Canyon Joint Unified, Lakeside Union, Oakland Unified, Palm Springs Unified, San Diego Unified, Tracy Joint Unified, Vista Unified, Aspire, and High Tech High.

To more closely examine some of the early successes and challenges experienced by the Early Implementer LEAs, Achieve interviewed nine of the ten participating districts and compiled that information into two resources, focusing primarily on professional learning and instructional materials. 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.

Using Online Simulations to Support the NGSS in Middle School Classrooms

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

by Lesley Gates, Loren Nikkel, and Kambria Eastham

Middle school teachers in Kings Canyon Unified School District (KCUSD), a CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative district, have been diligently working on transitioning to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) integrated model for middle school. This year, the teachers focused on building their own knowledge of the Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs). They have been gathering and sharing ideas at monthly collaborative meetings as to how to make sure their students are not just learning about science but that they are actually doing science in their classrooms. Students should be planning and carrying out investigations to gather data for analysis in order to construct explanations. This is best done through hands-on lab experiments. Experimental work is such an important part of the learning of science and education research shows that students learn better and retain more when they are active through inquiry, investigation, and application. A Framework for K-12 Science Education (2011) notes, “…learning about science and engineering involves integration of the knowledge of scientific explanations (i.e., content knowledge) and the practices needed to engage in scientific inquiry and engineering design. Thus the framework seeks to illustrate how knowledge and practice must be intertwined in designing learning experiences in K-12 Science Education” (pg. 11).

Many middle school teachers in KCUSD are facing challenges as they begin implementing these student-driven, inquiry-based NGSS science experiences in their classrooms. First, many of the middle school classrooms at our K-8 school sites are not designed as science labs. 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 NGSS 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.

Celestial Highlights: May – July 2017

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

May Through July 2017 with Web Resources for the Solar Eclipse of August 21, 2017

by Robert C. Victor. Twilight sky maps by Robert D. Miller. Graphs of planet rising and setting times by Jeffrey L. Hunt.

In spring and summer 2017, Jupiter is the most prominent “star” in the evening sky, and Venus, even brighter, rules the morning. By mid-June, Saturn rises at a convenient evening hour, allowing both giant planets to be viewed well in early evening until Jupiter sinks low in late September. The Moon is always a crescent in its monthly encounters with Venus, but is full whenever it appears near Jupiter or Saturn in the eastern evening sky opposite the Sun. (In 2017, Full Moon is near Jupiter in April, Saturn in June.) At intervals of 27-28 days thereafter, the Moon appears at a progressively earlier phase at each pairing with the outer planet until its final conjunction, with Moon a thin crescent, low in the west at dusk. You’ll see many beautiful events by just following the Moon’s wanderings at dusk and dawn in the three months leading up to the solar eclipse. Learn More…

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Written by Robert Victor

Robert Victor

Robert C. Victor was Staff Astronomer at Abrams Planetarium, Michigan State University. He is now retired and enjoys providing skywatching opportunities for school children in and around Palm Springs, CA. Robert is a member of CSTA.