What Do Plants Need to Grow?

NGSS Nerd (Julia Cannon)
Type Category
Instructional Materials
Tutorial , Experiment/Lab Activity , Lesson/Lesson Plan
This resource, vetted by NSTA curators, is provided to teachers along with suggested modifications to make it more in line with the vision of the NGSS. While not considered to be “fully aligned,” the resources and expert recommendations provide teachers with concrete examples and expert guidance using the EQuIP rubric to adapted existing resources. Read more here.



In this activity, the class will set up an investigation to determine which materials plants need for growth. One of five plants has an appropriate amount of water, light, soil and air. Each of the other four has had one of these eliminated. Students will collect the height and descriptive data about the plants 3 times over 2 weeks, to come to the conclusion that plants must have sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide, and that while soil does help a plant to grow better, a plant can survive without soil.

Intended Audience

Educational Level
  • Grade 3
  • Grade 4
  • Grade 5
  • Upper Elementary
Access Restrictions

Available for purchase - The right to view, keep, and/or download material upon payment of a one-time fee.

Performance Expectations

5-LS1-1 Support an argument that plants get the materials they need for growth chiefly from air and water.

Clarification Statement: Emphasis is on the idea that plant matter comes mostly from air and water, not from the soil.

Assessment Boundary: none

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this performance expectation.

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
This activity was designed to meet this performance expectation by conducting an investigation that would provide evidence from direct student observation to support student claims about which factors are required for plant growth. The lesson includes an assessment sheet that allows the student to agree or disagree with a given statement, and support their claim with evidence from their investigation. The terms independent and dependent variable are introduced and assessed on a worksheet, but these are more properly assessed in the middle school grade band. It may be more accurate and grade-appropriate to use 'prediction' instead of 'hypothesis' in this lesson.

Science and Engineering Practices

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this science and engineering practice.

Comments about Including the Science and Engineering Practice
Students gather data from a classroom experiment to support arguments about the needs of plants. As described, the investigation is done as a demonstration with one class set of plants that all students use for observation and recording data. It would be even more effective and allow students to engage more fully in this practice if there was a set of plants for each group of students. Cost or space constraints may not allow for group experimentation, but it would be beneficial where possible. A similar set up could be created for germinating seeds simultaneously or as a follow-up extension. Students could also be encouraged to ask their own questions for further inquiry following the investigation, and could then extend the lesson by designing their own investigations.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
Students conduct an investigation and make qualitative and quantitative observations about the different plants. By noting that the plants that did not have water, were not exposed to light, or were in an airtight container did not thrive, they realize that these are necessary for plant growth. This can help students to see that although plants derive some nutrients from the soil, they do not need soil for growth (some just in the short term, and others not at all). The observation period could be extended for an additional period of time to collect more data and see if any changes occur compared to the initial period. If students could also do a long term investigation as an extension that showed a large increase in plant mass with a minimal amount of mass loss in the soil, that would be another experience helping them to understand this core idea.

Crosscutting Concepts

This resource was not designed to build towards this crosscutting concept, but can be used to build towards it using the suggestions provided below.

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
The teacher should stress that the variables being tested can be seen as components of a system. Students may have difficulty recognizing air as matter and understanding the transportation of gases and liquids into or out of a system. They will likely be able to see water transported within systems in the sealed container. Students might benefit from extension investigations involving measuring the mass of plants before and after inputs. They might weigh a plant with no soil, then after a period of time with the roots in the water in a sealed system, they could weigh the plant again to see that it had gained mass by taking up the water even though the system's mass remained the same. If they weighed the water and the plant before and after a period of observation in an open system, they would find that some mass was lost due to evaporation and transpiration. With some discussion of conservation of mass, they could infer that the missing mass was now in the atmosphere but not lost.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: This activity provides opportunities to support three dimensional learning for students to make sense of a phenomena. Students are engaged in observation and argumentation as they investigate what is most essential to plant growth. They are asked to create graphs and support claims with relevant evidence as they make sense of plants' needs.

  • Instructional Supports: Students are investigating a meaningful scenario about a familiar organism and have an opportunity to make predictions and justify their ideas in written form. It would be beneficial to incorporate student discourse into the lessons by giving individuals of groups the chance to discuss or present their findings. This can be done formatively during the lesson sequence, or a final share-out could provide a chance for clarification and/or summative assessment. Teacher supports include a few options for differentiation, well-designed worksheets, and an 11 minute video demonstrating the set-up process. In addition to giving the students direction on what to do, the worksheets also explain how to do the task (e.g. directions on how to scale the y-axis of the graph and how to support a claim with evidence). In addition to extending the lesson to investigate student questions, the teacher could also get seeds to explore the variables which affect germination. These could be according to student or teacher design, or from another source of guidance, as in growing Wisconsin Fast Plants. This website provides several relevant and detailed investigations: http://www.fastplants.org

  • Monitoring Student Progress: Student recording sheets provide evidence of effective observations. Students record and analyze data in a six page lab packet. Answer keys and a sample graph are included. Having students extend the lesson by planning and conducting their own follow up investigation would provide further opportunities for assessment.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: This resource does not have a technologically interactive component, but there is a link to a video to assist in teacher preparation of the experiment.