Science Concepts—Carbon Capture

Summary: This topic guide focuses on photosynthesis to help students to understand the role that plants play in carbon storage. Through photosynthesis, plants absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen. Animals, in contrast, breathe in oxygen, and breathe out carbon dioxide. Since the Industrial Revolution, humans have been adding more carbon into the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels, and this imbalance in the carbon cycle has led to changes in the Earth’s climate. The role that plants naturally play in carbon uptake is becoming increasingly important as humans look for ways to deal with increasing amounts of carbon in the atmosphere.

Concepts to teach:


  1. Through photosynthesis, plants take in carbon dioxide from the air
  2. Most of a tree’s mass is made up of carbon
  3. Plants play an important role in capturing, storing, and releasing carbon

Standards: NGSS Performance Expectations

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

Specific Objectives
Students will be able to:

  1. Explain how plants put on mass by obtaining carbon from the air through photosynthesis.
  2. Describe the role plants play in storing carbon
  3. Identify ways carbon can be released from plant material

Activity Links and Resources:


  • Use Van Helmont’s question as an assessment to elicit ideas about how plants put on mass.
  • Suggest a redesign of Van Helmont’s experiment that includes an understanding of photosynthesis.