} CAS: Teachers - What Contains Carbon?

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Anytime Lesson Plan: What Contains Carbon?


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)
  • 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 (verb): to add carbon dioxide to a substance, such as a beverage
  • calcium carbonate (noun): CaCO3 is a white, insoluble solid which occurs naturally as chalk, limestone and marble and is a main component of chicken eggshells, snail shells, shells of marine organisms, and pearls



  • Ask students, “What do you know about carbon?” Many students do not know much about it. They may state that it’s in the name, carbon dioxide. Let them know that Carbon is an element that is in both living and non-living things.

  • Tell students that we’re interested in how Carbon helps and hurts the planet. Make a table on the board. Have students write their ideas for either column on a square of paper. Have the students come up and put their squares of paper up in the Help or Hurt column. Read the lists out to the class. An example is below.

How does Carbon Help the planet?

How does Carbon Hurt the planet?

Carbon is an important element in living things.

Plants need carbon dioxide to photosynthesize and grow.

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

Some of the things we use everyday contain carbon.

Too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere changes the climate.

Too much carbon dioxide dissolving in the ocean makes it more acidic.  Many marine organisms make their skeletons out of calcium carbonate. They may decline and their ecosystems may be affected.

Chlorofluorocarbons deplete the ozone.



  • Tell students that carbon is an integral part of life on earth. Carbon can also 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 plants and ocean animals, it is important for there to be certain levels of carbon in the atmosphere and ocean.

  • Older students may worry that if humans add too much Carbon Dioxide to the atmosphere, there will not be enough Oxygen left for humans to breathe. You can reassure them that the Oxygen is a much much bigger proportion of our atmosphere, so the Carbon Dioxide will not use up or push out the Oxygen.


  1. Show students all of the objects.

  2. Tell students that they will predict whether these objects have carbon in them or not. 

  3. Pass out a What Contains Carbon Worksheet to each student.

  4. Have students work individually to decide whether they think each object contains carbon or not.

  5. Then have students work in groups to discuss their choices and explain their reasoning.

  6. After they discuss, have them add to or change their choices and reasons on their worksheets.

  7. Once students have finished filling out the worksheet, bring them together as a class to discuss their answers. Ask them to explain how they can find out the answer.

  8. Discuss each object and explain why it contains carbon, if the students did not already do so. See the teacher background section for details.

  9. 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. Have them do the research to figure out if the objects contain or do not contain Carbon.

  • Finish the lesson by passing out another color of paper squares. Have students list another way that Carbon helps or hurts the planet (ie different than what they wrote the first time). Have the students add their paper squares to the Help/Hurt list on the board. Read the new list out loud. Have students talk to a partner about “How the Help/Hurt list change from the beginning to the end of the lesson?” and “What surprised you about Carbon?”


Follow this introductory activity with the Carbon Cycle Roleplay and/or the Carbon Cycle Poster lesson.


California Content Standards

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.

Next Generation Science Standards

Grade Five

Performance Expectation

5-LS2-1 Develop a model to describe the movement of matter among plants, animals, decomposers, and the environment.

5-ESS2-1 Develop a model using an example to describe ways the geosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere, and/or atmosphere interact.


LS2.B Cycles of Matter and Energy Transfer in Ecosystems

ESS2.A Earth Materials and Systems

Middle School

Performance Expectation

MS-LS2-3 Develop a model to describe the cycling of matter and flow of energy among living and nonliving parts of an ecosystem.

MS-ESS2-1 Develop a model to describe the cycling of Earth’s materials and the flow of energy that drives this process.


LS2.B Cycle of Matter and Energy Transfer in Ecosystems

ESS2.A Earth’s Materials and Systems



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 and that it can move between the major spheres. 

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 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 and build its cell walls out of cellulose.
  • Plastic is derived from petroleum, which contains hydrocarbons, compounds composed entirely of hydrogen and carbon. Petroleum was once tiny marine organisms that lived millions of years ago in the world’s oceans.
  • Fabric contains carbon.  In plant-based fabrics such as cotton or modal, the carbon comes directly from plants. If it is polyester or acrylic, it is made from petroleum products which contain carbon, and petroleum was once marine organisms. If it is wool or silk, the carbon came from an animal, which ate plants to acquire its carbon.
  • Carbonated beverages are named for the carbon dioxide gas that has been dissolved in the liquid, creating their fizz. Some carbon dioxide remains dissolved in the liquid even if the drink has stopped making bubbles.
  • A glass of tap water also contains carbon dioxide, although in much lower concentrations than carbonated beverages. This is because carbon dioxide diffuses into water. The amount of carbon dioxide in the glass of water is directly related to the amount of carbon dioxide in the air. This is the same way the carbon dioxide gets into the oceans to cause ocean acidification. Ocean acidification is not caused by acid rain.

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.


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