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Carbon: A Unit For Years 5 and 6

Elementary, Middle


This student-led inquiry explores the element carbon as a building block of matter, a source of energy and a key culprit in greenhouse gas production and climate change.   Following an introduction to these key themes, students generate essential questions and proceed through nine lessons and a range of engaging activities to find answers.   

Students will conduct hands-on investigations, participate in simulations, carry out a field investigation, conduct a survey, view and respond to video presentations, carry out research using a variety of sources, share information and ideas and create a media project to inform a community audience.  The underlying goal is to have students accurately informed on climate issues relating to carbon and feeling empowered to make a difference.

Along the way specific attention is paid to a number of core topics and concepts including, carbon as building block of matter, the structure of carbon compounds, the carbon cycle, energy transfer, greenhouse gases, climate change and our ecological footprint.

General Assessment

What skills does this resource explicitly teach?

  • organizational skills
  • inquiry skills (predict, investigate, explain)
  • multi-media presentation
  • calculate ecological footprints
  • handling data


  • includes a wide range of interesting and engaging activities
  • includes a well supported action experience for students
  • learning (some activities) take place outside the classroom
  • addresses important concepts through an inquiry approach
  • includes comprehensive background information for teachers
  • excellent support for student investigations & research
  • all required materials are included

Recommendation of how and where to use it

While individual lessons and activities can be used effectively to address specific science outcomes (grades 5 and 6) finding time to complete the entire unit is recommended in order to achieve the goal of well-informed students regarding the importance of carbon in their environment and its role in climate change. Here are some optional links to 'footprint' calculators' required in Lesson 5 -   Greenhouse Gas and Ecological footprint

Relevant Curriculum Units

The following tool will allow you to explore the relevant curriculum matches for this resource. To start, select a province listed below.

Themes Addressed

  • Air, Atmosphere & Climate (1)

    • Climate Change
  • Citizenship (1)

    • Ecological Footprint
  • Energy (1)

    • Energy Use

Sustainability Education Principles

Principle Rating Explanation
Consideration of Alternative Perspectives Very Good

In this inquiry students explore scientific principles, models and data.  They raise and then investigate questions.  They reach conclusions based on observation and research with the goal of understanding the relationship between energy use, greenhouse gases and climate change.  Differing points of view are less applicable to this approach.

Consideration of Alternative Perspectives:
  • Satisfactory: absence of bias towards any one point of view
  • Good: students consider different points of view regarding issues, problems discussed
  • Very good: based on the consideration of different views, students form opinions and  take an informed position
Multiple Dimensions of Problems & Solutions Satisfactory

The ecological footprint and media analysis activities provide significant opportunities to address the environmental, social and economic dimensions of the relationship among carbon, energy and climate change. 

Multiple Dimensions of Problems & Solutions:

Effectively addresses the environmental, economic and social dimensions of the issue(s) being explored.

  • Satisfactory: resource supports the examination of  these dimensions
  • Good:  resource explicitly examines the interplay of these dimensions
  • Very Good:  a systems-thinking approach is encouraged to examine these three dimensions
Respects Complexity Very Good

This is a strength of the resource. 

Respects Complexity:

The complexity of the problems/issues being discussed is respected.

Acting on Learning Good

After investigating the connection between energy use, CO2 emissions and climate change, students work cooperatively to create a multi-media campaign based on their analysis that will educate a wider audience with the goal of bringing about positive change.  This project is well supported by the resource.

Acting on Learning:

Learning moves from understanding  issues  to working towards positive change — in personal lifestyle, in school, in the community,  or for the planet

  • Satisfactory: action opportunities are included as extensions 
  • Good: action opportunities are core components of the resource
  • Very Good: action opportunities for students are well supported and intended to result in observable, positive change
Values Education Very Good

Students are required to discuss and express both verbally (peer discussion) and in writing (literacy projects) their feelings about, and understanding of, what they are learning and experiencing throughout the unit. 

Values Education:

Students are explicitly provided with opportunities to identify, clarify and express their own beliefs/values.

Empathy & Respect for Humans Poor/Not considered

Some attention is paid to the plight of poorer countries in the ecological footprint exercise.  This activity certainly provides opportunity to discuss equity and promote empathy.

Empathy & Respect for Humans: Empathy and respect are fostered for diverse groups of humans (including different genders, ethnic groups, sexual preferences, etc.).
Personal Affinity with Earth Good

Lesson 5 and its ecological footprint activity in particular will foster stewardship and an appreciation for the natural world

Personal Affinity with Earth:

Encourages a personal affinity with -the natural world.  

  • Satisfactory: connection is made to the natural world
  • Good: fosters appreciation/concern for the natural world
  • Very Good: fosters stewardship though practical and respectful experiences out-of-doors 
Locally-Focused Learning Very Good

Lesson 4 features a field trip to a local forest during which students measure carbon capture and release first-hand.  Other hands-on activities in this lesson and others, do a good job in connecting students to carbon and its importance in their everyday world.  Students also take action to bring an important message about what they have learned into their community.

Locally-Focused Learning:

Includes learning experiences that take advantage of issues/elements within the local community. 

  • Satisfactory: learning is made relevant to the lives of the learners
  • Good: learning is made relevant and has a local focus
  • Very Good: learning is made relevant, local and takes place ‘outside’ , in the community 
Past, Present & Future Very Good

The lessons in total do a good job of addressing this criterion. 

Past, Present & Future: Promotes an understanding of the past, a sense of the present, and a positive vision for the future.

Pedagogical Approaches

Principle Rating Explanation
Open-Ended Instruction Very Good

The resource adopts and supports an inquiry model.  Students investigate, analyze and come to their own conclusions.  The teacher's role is clearly defined as that of a facilitator.

Open-Ended Instruction :

Lessons are structured so that multiple/complex answers are possible; students are not steered toward one 'right' answer.

Integrated Learning Satisfactory

The lesson is primarily focused on science outcomes. There are activities that connect to outcomes in mathematics and social studies and each lesson includes suggestions and / or activities to address literacy.

Integrated Learning:

Learning brings together content and skills  from more than one  subject area

  • Satisfactory: content from a number of different  subject areas is readily identifiable
  • Good:  resource is appropriate for use in more than one subject area
  • Very Good:  the lines between subjects are blurred 
Inquiry Learning Very Good

The resource has an inquiry focus.  Early on, students must develop essential questions to investigate concerning carbon as a chemical component, carbon as a source of electricity and the consequences that come from using carbon to produce energy.  These investigations are supported through the activities.

Inquiry Learning:

Learning is directed by questions, problems, or challenges that students work to address.   

  • Satisfactory: Students are provided with questions/problems to solve and some direction on how to arrive at solutions.
  • Good: students, assisted by the teacher clarify the question(s) to ask and the process to follow to arrive at solutions.  Sometimes referred to as Guided Inquiry
  • Very Good:  students generate the questions and assume much of the responsibility for how to solve them.  . Sometimes referred to as self-directed learning.


Differentiated Instruction Good

A wide range of activity types (video instruction, demonstration, hands-on learning, simulation, game formats, experimentation/hypothesis testing, peer discussion, research & analysis, journaling) will address the needs of different learning styles.  Some attention has been paid to more gifted learners in Lesson 3.

Differentiated Instruction:

Activities address a range of student learning styles, abilities and readiness.

  • Satisfactory:  includes a variety of instructional approaches
  • Good: addresses  the needs of visual, auditory &  kinesthetic learners
  • Very Good: also includes strategies for learners with difficulties
Experiential Learning Good

There are a number of hands-on investigations (science labs, field work, survey research) sprinkled throughout the resource.

Experiential Learning:

Authentic learning experiences are provided

  • Satisfactory: learning takes place through ‘hands-on’ experience or simulation
  • Good: learning involves direct experience in a ‘real world context’
  • Very good: learning involves ‘real world experiences’ taking place’ beyond the school walls.
Cooperative Learning Satisfactory
Cooperative Learning:

Group and cooperative learning strategies are a priority.

  • Satisfactory:  students work in groups
  • Good: cooperative learning skills are explicitly taught and practiced
  • Very Good: cooperative learning skills are explicitly taught, practiced and assessed
Assessment & Evaluation Good

Although rubrics are not included, lessons offer specific suggestions for both formative and summative evaluation.

Assessment & Evaluation: Tools are provided that help students and teachers to capture formative and summative information about students' learning and performance. These tools may include reflection questions, checklists, rubrics, etc.
Peer Teaching Good

Some of the student to student teaching is incidental.  The multi-media action in Lesson 6 places responsibility for teaching a community audience, directly on the students.  In Lesson 7 each student shares their "essential question" and the results of their inquiry with their classmates.

Peer Teaching:

Provides opportunities for students to actively present their knowledge and skills to peers and/or act as teachers and mentors.

  • Satisfactory: incidental teaching that arises from cooperative learning, presentations, etc.
  • Good or Very Good: an opportunity is intentionally created to empower students to teach other students/community members. The audience is somehow reliant on the students' teaching (students are not simply ‘presenting')
Case Studies Satisfactory

Lesson 5 requires students analyze and graph experimental data from actual studies in an effort to demonstrate rising CO2 levels over time.  Elements of the ecological footprint activity also rely on actual data.

Case Studies:

Relevant case studies are included.  Case studies are thorough descriptions of real events from real situations that students use to explore  concepts in an authentic context.

Locus of Control Very Good

The resource emphasizes and supports student-driven investigation.  The teacher's role is clearly defined as that of facilitator. 

Locus of Control: Meaningful opportunities are provided for students to choose elements of program content, the medium in which they wish to work, and/or to go deeper into a chosen issue.