Understanding Air - Climate Change and Combustion

Type Category
Instructional Materials
Activity , Data , Lesson/Lesson Plan , Model
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 lesson, students learn about the components of air, and the chemical reactions that release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.  They use LEGO bricks to model conservation of mass during combustion, and explore the connection between carbon dioxide, climate change and environmental health.  The lesson has strong connections to ecology and earth science standards in addition to chemistry, and is particularly strong as an introduction to using models.

Intended Audience

Educator and learner
Educational Level
  • Grade 8
  • Grade 7
  • Grade 6
  • Middle School
Access Restrictions

Free access - The right to view and/or download material without financial, registration, or excessive advertising barriers.

Performance Expectations

MS-PS1-5 Develop and use a model to describe how the total number of atoms does not change in a chemical reaction and thus mass is conserved.

Clarification Statement: Emphasis is on law of conservation of matter and on physical models or drawings, including digital forms, that represent atoms.

Assessment Boundary: Assessment does not include the use of atomic masses, balancing symbolic equations, or intermolecular forces.

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

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
Students use Lego bricks to model the atoms in a combustion reaction, to show how carbon dioxide and water are formed when fossil fuels are burned. Because students do not develop the model, this lesson works toward the Performance Expectation but is not suitable as an assessment. The lesson also has strong connections to Earth Science PE MS-ESS-3-5 and to Life Science PE MS- LS-2-4, and thus could be very useful when bundling, in an interdisciplinary science class.

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 use a model to describe what happens to atoms and molecules during a combustion reaction. Students also use a graphical model to describe what has been happening to carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere over time. A model of a car and window is used to explain the greenhouse effect. An extension activity offers a carbon cycle model and a carbon sequestration model for students to use to explain some ways that people are attempting to solve the climate change carbon dioxide problem. Students do not develop their own models, which is why the lesson is not suitable as an assessment for the entire Performance Expectation, but it does offer the students a chance for guided practice with a variety of different types of models. The lesson would therefore work best as an introductory lesson for the concept of modeling, as it walks students through using different types of models, and how to use models to explain and/or predict phenomena.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
The idea of burning fossil fuels in order to release and use their energy is implied, but not spelled out. The teacher could pose the question: If burning fossil fuels releases greenhouse gases, then why do we do it? What benefit do we get?

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

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
Students are led through a model to show that all the atoms in the reactants are present in the products, with no extras. The lesson then moves on to the properties of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The idea of atoms regrouping is explicit, though the concept of different properties is implied. A teacher could point out that although carbon dioxide and water are made of the same atoms as the propane and oxygen, carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas while oxygen is not. Propane is a poisonous and flammable gas, while water is a drinkable liquid.

Crosscutting Concepts

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this crosscutting concept.

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
The purpose of the first part of the lesson is for students to use a model to study how the combustion reaction works. Students later also use a graph as a model of data, in order to track changes in global carbon dioxide levels. An extension is offered, in which students use a carbon cycle model and a sequestration interactive model to study where carbon travels and how humans may be able to capture it.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: The lesson blends the practice, cross-cutting concepts and core ideas about modeling, energy and chemical reactions. Connections to an ESS standard about climate change (MS-ESS-3-5), and an LS standard about changes to components in an ecosystem (MS- LS-2-4), strengthen this lesson. Although the lesson includes several phenomena, they do not lead the lesson. A teacher will need to rearrange the order of events, perhaps starting with the Mauna Loa data graph, which can be very striking for students who have not seen it before, and which can lead to interesting student questions and purpose for “further research” (i.e. the other components of the lesson).

  • Instructional Supports: Video clips and actual data support students’ connection of the learning to reality. During the segment of the lesson about human health implications, students could be divided into groups and/or encouraged to choose a health concern relevant to their own interests or families. This lesson lacks opportunities for students to make sense of their ideas and to share their ideas; much of the lesson involves the teacher showing things to students, then moving on after a brief discussion or a question. Follow-up lessons should be chosen that allow students to generate their own models of molecules and of a variety of chemical reactions. During this lesson, a teacher should encourage students to share their evolving ideas about climate change and greenhouse gases as the lesson progresses. The lesson offers a suggestion for extension, but not alternatives for differentiation. A teacher might offer research extensions into the environmental health issues presented, or scaffold the lesson by having students work in groups.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: Opportunities for formative assessment exist, though many are not pointed out in the lesson plan. Prompts are vague about discussion points, and about what student outcomes are desired by the end of the lesson. To strengthen the role of all three dimensions in formative assessment, consider asking students how models helped them to understand the content. Ideas for summative assessment are not part of this lesson plan. Since this lesson is an introduction rather than a culmination, this is not a serious flaw.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: Although responses are not tailored, the interactives provide information likely to be of interest to students. They are intuitive to use, and appears stable. They run on Flash, which may be an issue for tablet users. The interactives are part of a lesson extension, and if not used, there is no technological interactivity in the lesson.