Lesson 1 – Carbon Footprints

Description: This lesson will expose students to the central ideas of this unit, including carbon cycling, sustainability, and the potential for algae as a sustainable resource. The main activity (Carbon Emissions Activity) is designed for students working together in small groups of 3 to 4.

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COURSE: Life Science, Environmental Science, Integrated Science, STEM, BioChem

UNIT: Photosynthesis, Ecology, Biogeochemical Cycling, Genetics

OBJECTIVES: See the Standards Addressed page for information about the published standards and process we use when aligning lessons with NGSS and other Science, Math, Literacy and 21st Century skills). Here is a document that displays all NGSS for this module. In addition to the aligned objectives listed in buttons on the upper-left of this page and in the table below, for this lesson, here is a breakdown of:

What students learn:
  • Students learn how petroleum can be used to make products and how algae can also be used to make similar products.
  • Students access prior knowledge on the carbon cycle and apply it along with new research to create a network of carbon emissions relevant to their local community.


What students do:
  • Students brainstorm ways in which our current fuel economy benefits from petroleum oil and how we could benefit from algae oil as well.
  • Students create a network using vocabulary terms related to the carbon cycle to show how carbon is cycling in their local area.


Aligned Next Generation Science Standards 
All three dimensions of the Next Generation Science Standards are addressed in this lesson. Please note that based on what part of this lesson you emphasize with students, you will cover different NGSS to different levels. Based on what is possible, we have listed here and in the buttons on the left the NGSS that are make the most sense to integrate and emphasize with this content. Please note that in the buttons on the left there are more SEPs and CCCs listed than in the chart below. That is because these other SEPs and CCCs are covered when students complete their algae experiments which span the entire length of the module.

Performance expectation(s):

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.

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

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

HS-ESS3-4 – Evaluate or refine a technological solution that reduces impacts of human activities on natural systems.

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

Science and Engineering Practice(s)

Disciplinary Core Idea(s)

Crosscutting Concept(s)

SEP-1: Asking Questions and Defining Problems.

Analyze complex real-world problems by specifying criteria and constraints for successful solutions.

SEP-2: Developing and Using Models.

Develop, revise, and/or use a model based on evidence to illustrate and/or predict the relationships between systems or between components of a system. 

SEP-6: Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions.

Design, evaluate, and/or refine a solution to a complex real-world problem, based on scientific knowledge, student-generated sources of evidence, prioritized criteria, and tradeoff considerations.

LS2.B: Cycles of Matter and Energy Transfer in Ecosystems

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.

LS4.D: Biodiversity and Humans

Biodiversity is increased by the formation of new species and reduced by extinction. Humans depend on biodiversity but also have adverse impacts on it. Sustaining biodiversity is essential to supporting life on Earth.

ESS2.E: Biogeology

The biosphere and Earth’s other systems have many interconnections that cause a continual co-evolution of Earth’s surface and life on it.

ESS3.C: Human Impacts on Earth Systems

Sustainability of human societies and of the biodiversity that supports them requires responsible management of natural resources, including the development of technologies.

CCC-2: Cause and Effect

Empirical evidence is required to differentiate between cause and correlation and make claims about specific causes and effects.

CCC-4: Systems and System Models

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.

Models (e.g., physical, mathematical, computer models) can be used to simulate systems and the interactions – including energy, matter, and information flows – within and between systems at different scales.

CCC-5: Energy and Matter: Flows, Cycles, and Conservation

The total amount of energy and matter in closed systems is conserved.


TIME: 1-2 50 minute periods depending on optional activities

PREREQUISITES:  Before class, students should be familiar with DNA and how it contains our genotypes, transcription and translation in the central dogma (DNA→RNA→Protein), and general knowledge about carbon cycling.


This lesson will expose students to the central ideas of this unit, including carbon cycling, sustainability, and the potential for algae as a sustainable resource. The main activity (Carbon Emissions Activity) is designed for students working together in small groups of 3 to 4.


In order to engage students in the topic of this unit, pique their interest with current uses for algae. This can take the form of physical examples (suggestions: cosmetics, diet supplements, fish food, and if you can find them: foam or rubber products made from algae-derived oil). Use the slides for the Hook: Algae-based Products (Google Slides | PowerPoint Slides) to introduce the hook. This includes a video, The Origin of Petroleum (located through this YouTube link or downloadable from here or here), that will get students thinking about the fundamental underlying issue in this unit – the unsustainability of petroleum and the need for alternatives. Lead a discussion to surface students’ prior knowledge about algae and sustainably produced materials as a whole. Ask students what makes a product “sustainable”.

OPTIONAL: Depending on the prior knowledge of your students, you may want to provide a reminder of fundamental concepts of biology that students will encounter in this unit. This includes the central dogma of biology (DNA→RNA→Protein) and transcription/translation. You could also discuss the carbon cycle and climate change in a broad sense to establish a common knowledge foundation for your students.


After the initial hook/discussion, administer the pre-assessment (Google Doc | MS Word Doc). Students should complete these individually and turn them into the teacher. This can be done on paper or digitally, for example through Google Classroom. Use these to assess the overall level of understanding in your class – this can help you determine what additional background knowledge may be necessary to support student success in the rest of the unit.


Group students into groups of 3 or 4 and pass out the Carbon Emissions Activity (Google Doc | MS Word Doc). Students should complete this on paper since it involves drawing diagrams. They will need access to the internet for research, either smartphones or computers. They will also need index cards or paper, scissors, and a flat surface to build a network (whiteboard, wall, table, poster paper). Optional: Give students roles like facilitator, recorder, and reporter to support efficient group work.

Pre-Activity Questions:
Similar to the pre-assessment, this should be an individual activity to capture students’ own ideas. Have students write quietly for 5-10 minutes. Then invite students to discuss their thoughts in their team, and prepare to share with the whole class if asked. Circulate and answer questions if students have them, listening to discussions and identifying any ideas you think the whole class should hear. After groups are finished, pull together for a whole-class discussion, inviting different groups to share their ideas. Encourage cross-group discussion and questions. At this stage, let student prior knowledge drive the conversation – they will have opportunities to learn concrete information and adjust their preconceptions throughout the unit.

STEP 1: Drawing the Carbon Cycle. Have students complete this quietly and independently. This diagram should capture their own prior knowledge without any other inputs.

When all students are finished, invite them to share around their table. At this point, they should NOT change their diagrams. They should remain a snapshot of their own knowledge before the activity.

STEPS 2-4: Beginning at this step, this activity is a group activity and you can give groups freedom to progress through the rest of the activity at their own pace. Provide the materials they need to build their networks at step 4, which should use all the elements they came up with in step 3. Ensure students complete the analysis questions. When all groups are finished, choose a strategy to have students see each others’ networks – you could do a gallery walk format, or selected team presentations (or, if time permits, all teams present).


Pass out handouts (Google Doc | MS Word Doc) for this activity. Transition from the previous activity by explaining that now that they have thought about the carbon cycle and the need for new sustainable practices, it’s time to think about the differences between petroleum and sustainable fuels, like algae biofuels. Have students talk as a team to fill in the bubbles around the two barrels with products that can be made from each oil. Encourage them to do research on the internet to identify more products that they may not be aware of. They should continue their teamwork by turning to the back of the handout and working together, along with additional research if needed, to identify Pros and Cons of both petroleum and algae biofuel.

When students are finished, lead a class discussion to share out ideas, perhaps while filling out a copy of the diagram using a document camera or whiteboard.

Show the video “Bioengineering” (Google downloads available here, here and found in the Hook Slides (Google Slides | PowerPoint) and at this YouTube Link to provide more information about petroleum and algae biofuel. Encourage students to add to their diagrams as they watch. Then have students turn their worksheet over and fill in the table of benefits and drawbacks.


Formatively assess students learning in this lesson using your choice of exit ticket format. Suggested questions:

  • What did you learn today that surprised you?
  • Why is sustainability important?
  • What are you excited to learn more about?
  • What questions do you have at this point?

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How will I know they know……

Pre-assessment Key (Google Doc Version, MS Word Version)

Carbon Emissions Activity Student Example (Google Doc, MS Word)

Brainstorming Activity Student Example (Google Doc, MS Word)

Exit Ticket – Suggested questions:

  • What did you learn today that surprised you?
  • Why is sustainability important?
  • What are you excited to learn more about?
  • What questions do you have at this point?



ELL students may benefit from a vocabulary list and peer notes that correspond with the module. Also, for the videos, choose closed captioning from either the Google or YouTube links. And/or slow down the videos to go over key points