Your Family's Carbon Footprint

Purdue Climate Change Research Center
Type Category
Instructional Materials
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.



Students investigate how much greenhouse gas (carbon dioxide and methane) their family releases into the atmosphere each year and relate it to climate change. They use the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Personal Emissions Calculator to estimate the pounds of greenhouse gases emitted by each student’s family. Students use the calculator to examine potential ways to reduce greenhouse emissions. They calculate the average emissions for their class and answer further questions about reducing the emissions. Finally, they are asked to create a brochure to inform others about greenhouse emissions and answer reflection questions.  

Your Family’s Carbon Footprint follows a modified 5E lesson plan format with sections entitled Engage, Explore and Explain, Extend Your Thinking, Apply What You Have Learned, and Reflection on What You Have Learned.  The activity should take at least two 45-minute class periods, depending upon the creation of a brochure. Computer access is necessary for part of the lesson.

The teacher must open separate windows for the teacher guide and the activity at Scroll down to locate “Your Family’s Carbon Footprint.”

Intended Audience

Educational Level
  • Grade 6
  • Grade 7
  • Grade 8
  • Middle School
Access Restrictions

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

Performance Expectations

MS-ESS3-3 Apply scientific principles to design a method for monitoring and minimizing a human impact on the environment.

Clarification Statement: Examples of the design process include examining human environmental impacts, assessing the kinds of solutions that are feasible, and designing and evaluating solutions that could reduce that impact. Examples of human impacts can include water usage (such as the withdrawal of water from streams and aquifers or the construction of dams and levees), land usage (such as urban development, agriculture, or the removal of wetlands), and pollution (such as of the air, water, or land).

Assessment Boundary: none

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

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
1.The carbon footprint activity uses the EPA Personal Emissions Calculator to calculate the amount of carbon dioxide and methane each student’s family produces and then suggests ways to reduce the amount, such as recycling or adjusting the thermostat in their home. Waste products are treated as sources of methane and the calculator converts this to the equivalent of pounds of carbon dioxide, everything else in the calculator is linked to carbon dioxide. The tool provides a method for students to monitor and minimize human impact on the environment. The Explore and Explain section of the PDF provides information on the production of various greenhouse gases and establishes a link between human activity and impact on the environment. 2.The activity does not address the first part of the Performance Expectation about applying scientific principles to design a method for monitoring human impact on the environment. Teachers may ask students for suggestions on how to update the Personal Emissions Calculator to reflect more current sources of carbon dioxide. Students could ask questions, conduct research and analyze data on other sources such as energy consumption of cell phones and other technology. Teachers may want to send a letter home to parents explaining the lesson, since parents have to help students determine the cost of their home’s electricity, how many miles they drive in a week, and their recycling activities before the students can use the calculator. Sharing this information with the class may bring up some equity issues, so the teacher may need to adjust the discussion.

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 investigate the phenomena of the creation of greenhouse gas emissions when they enter information about their family’s consumption of energy and recycling practices into the EPA calculator, which then generates the pounds of carbon dioxide and methane produced. Students compare their family’s footprint to the US average and investigate ways to reduce emissions. They calculate statistics for their class and create a graph showing emissions in categories such as transportation and waste disposal.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

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

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
The lesson focuses on the consumption of natural resources, especially fossil fuels, at the family level. Students connect the use of resources to the production of greenhouse gas emissions and the negative impacts on Earth. The lesson addresses activities and technologies that can reduce this impact. The topic of an increasing human population could be addressed using resources such as

Crosscutting Concepts

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

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
The lesson addresses the relationship between human consumption of energy and the amount of greenhouse gas emissions. Students do not predict the results of consumption of resources on greenhouse emissions, but the teacher could ask them to predict before answering questions 9-11. The lesson briefly addresses natural systems in the introduction and the impact of human activity on the levels of greenhouse gases in the reflection questions. The cause and effect relationship is examined when they look at what happens when they do the activities that can decrease their emissions.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: The focus of “Your Family’s Carbon Footprint” is to support students in making sense of phenomena and designing solutions to problems as they analyze the creation of greenhouse gases by their family and discuss ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It addresses the Disciplinary Core Idea of increased use of natural resources per capita, and the negative impacts on Earth as well as activities and technologies available to reduce the impact when students answer the questions in the “Extend Your Thinking” section. Students use the Science and Engineering Practice of analyzing and interpreting data to provide evidence for the phenomena of greenhouse gas emissions when they compare their family’s contribution to the US average and when they explore ways to reduce the amount. The Crosscutting Concept of cause and effect relationships used to predict phenomena in natural or designed systems is included when they look at what happens when they do the activities that can decrease their emissions. The lesson should be enhanced to include student questions and gathering of additional data related to the phenomenon of greenhouse gas emissions and the problem they create to motivate sense-making and problem solving.

  • Instructional Supports: The lesson uses scientifically accurate and grade-appropriate information to support students’ three-dimensional learning. The lesson provides three questions addressing students’ prior knowledge of human impact on greenhouse gas emissions. Students build on their prior knowledge by determining their family’s contribution to greenhouse gases and exploring ways to reduce their contributions through the use of the EPA calculator. The students are involved in an authentic and meaningful scenario that reflects the practice of science and engineering as experienced in the real world through the use of the EPA calculator. The results connect to the students' home and community. Students express their initial thoughts on human activity and greenhouse gas emissions, then clarify these further through data collection and analysis of the EPA calculator information. They represent their understanding in a graph and in a brochure. Teachers will need to provide opportunities for students to respond to peer and teacher feedback. This could be added to the lesson as part of the assessment of the brochures, including a rubric that both the teacher and students could use in providing feedback on the brochures. Since the activity does not provide any guidance for differentiation, teachers would have to provide alternatives for students who are English language learners, have special needs, or read well below the grade level. Teachers might want to review or have examples for calculating the averages. Teachers should remind students they are creating bar graphs not line graphs. The teacher may need to adjust the discussion when sharing family information with the class as it may bring up some equity issues. The teacher can provide extensions for students with high interest or who have already met the performance expectations to develop deeper understanding of the practices, disciplinary core ideas, and crosscutting concepts. For example, they can investigate possible engineering designs to reduce greenhouse emissions in the home and suggest options for new designs.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: The lesson provides limited monitoring of student progress in making sense of phenomena and determining solutions to problems. An assessment is provided in the Teacher’s Guide, but the five questions address only limited portions of the content. The student copy of the activity provides questions for students to answer and tables with space for students to enter data. The teachers can use students’ responses to the questions and activity as formative assessment, but no rubrics or scoring guidelines are provided since much of the data is based on personal experiences. The teacher should design a rubric for the brochure and the reflection questions following the guidelines provided in the activity. The teacher should be aware that students may not be able to access family data and that students may misrepresent their family’s data when information is shared. The reporting of individual data should be anonymous to reduce issues of equity.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: The lesson requires no technical interactivity, although they need to use the EPA Personal Emissions Calculator online.