September/October 2017 – Vol. 30 No. 1

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 Is Now Accepting Nominations for Board Members

Posted: Friday, November 17th, 2017

Current, incoming, and outgoing CSTA Board of Directors at June 3, 2017 meeting.

Updated 7:25 pm, Nov. 17, 2017

It’s that time of year when CSTA is looking for dedicated and qualified persons to fill the upcoming vacancies on its Board of Directors. This opportunity allows you to help shape the policy and determine the path that the Board will take in the new year. There are time and energy commitments, but that is far outweighed by the personal satisfaction of knowing that you are an integral part of an outstanding professional educational organization, dedicated to the support and guidance of California’s science teachers. You will also have the opportunity to help CSTA review and support legislation that benefits good science teaching and teachers.

Right now is an exciting time to be involved at the state level in the California Science Teachers Association. The CSTA Board of Directors is currently involved in implementing the Next Generations Science Standards and its strategic plan. If you are interested in serving on the CSTA Board of Directors, now is the time to submit your name for consideration. 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.

State Schools Chief Tom Torlakson Announces 2017 Finalists for Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching

Posted: Wednesday, September 20th, 2017

SACRAMENTO—State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson today nominated eight exceptional secondary mathematics and science teachers as California finalists for the 2017 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST).

“These teachers are dedicated and accomplished individuals whose innovative teaching styles prepare our students for 21st century careers and college and develop them into the designers and inventors of the future,” Torlakson said. “They rank among the finest in their profession and also serve as wonderful mentors and role models.”

The California Department of Education (CDE) partners annually with the California Science Teachers Association and the California Mathematics Council to recruit and select nominees for the PAEMST program—the highest recognition in the nation for a mathematics or science teacher. The Science Finalists will be recognized at the CSTA Awards Luncheon on Saturday, October 14, 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.

Thriving in a Time of Change

Posted: Wednesday, September 13th, 2017

by Jill Grace

By the time this message is posted online, most schools across California will have been in session for at least a month (if not longer, and hat tip to that bunch!). Long enough to get a good sense of who the kids in your classroom are and to get into that groove and momentum of the daily flow of teaching. It’s also very likely that for many of you who weren’t a part of a large grant initiative or in a district that set wheels in motion sooner, this is the first year you will really try to shift instruction to align to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). I’m not going to lie to you, it’s a challenging year – change is hard. Change is even harder when there’s not a playbook to go by.  But as someone who has had the very great privilege of walking alongside teachers going through that change for the past two years and being able to glimpse at what this looks like for different demographics across that state, there are three things I hope you will hold on to. These are things I have come to learn will overshadow the challenge: a growth mindset will get you far, one is a very powerful number, and it’s about the kids. Learn More…

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Written by Jill Grace

Jill Grace

Jill Grace is a Regional Director for the K-12 Alliance and is President of CSTA.

If You Are Not Teaching Science Then You Are Not Teaching Common Core

Posted: Thursday, August 31st, 2017

by Peter A’Hearn 

“Science and Social Studies can be taught for the last half hour of the day on Fridays”

– Elementary school principal

Anyone concerned with the teaching of science in elementary school is keenly aware of the problem of time. Kids need to learn to read, and learning to read takes time, nobody disputes that. So Common Core ELA can seem like the enemy of science. This was a big concern to me as I started looking at the curriculum that my district had adopted for Common Core ELA. I’ve been through those years where teachers are learning a new curriculum, and know first-hand how a new curriculum can become the focus of attention- sucking all the air out of the room. Learn More…

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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

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

Tools for Creating NGSS Standards Based Lessons

Posted: Tuesday, August 29th, 2017

by Elizabeth Cooke

Think back on your own experiences with learning science in school. Were you required to memorize disjointed facts without understanding the concepts?

Science Education Background

In the past, science education focused on rote memorization and learning disjointed ideas. Elementary and secondary students in today’s science classes are fortunate now that science instruction has shifted from students demonstrating what they know to students demonstrating how they are able to apply their knowledge. Science education that reflects the Next Generation Science Standards challenges students to conduct investigations. As students explore phenomena and discrepant events they engage in academic discourse guided by focus questions from their teachers or student generated questions of that arise from analyzing data and creating and revising models that explain natural phenomena. Learn More…

Written by Elizabeth Cooke

Elizabeth Cooke

Elizabeth Cooke teaches TK-5 science at Markham Elementary in the Oakland Unified School District, is an NGSS Early Implementer, and is CSTA’s Secretary.