Classroom Materials

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Classroom Materials

Selected by CLEANThe materials below were developed by teachers and professional educators associated with the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center with input from our scientists. The materials are designed to engage students in learning about science and engineering challenges associated with producing sustainable biofuels. All materials are aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and designed to fit within the curriculum of standard K-16 science courses.

Materials include investigations, shorter stand-alone activities and readings, as well as longer integrated units. Use the sort and search features to find materials that meet your needs. Alternatively you can browse a list of our materials sorted by NGSS Performance Expectation or browse the NGSS performance expectations for each activity.

To download the activity: Click on the title of the activity or the "read more" link to navigate to a new page, where you will see a "download" link

In these field investigations, students explore the effects of biofuel crop production on invertebrate diversity and the effects those organisms have on pollination rates and weed seed predation.

Grade Level Kindergarten through Undergraduate (K-16); Nonformal learning
Subjects Biology, Environmental Science, Agriculture
Resource Type Investigation
Concepts/Skills biodiversity, arthropods, ecosystem services, population and community ecology, data analysis, scientific argumentation, sustainability
Time Required Three to five 50-minute class periods.

"In the middle of Wisconsin’s lush farmland, there is an experiment going on. Two hundred quarter-acre plots are neatly laid out, separated by grassy lanes. Poplar saplings grow in one plot. Corn in another. A patch of miscanthus grass, taller than a person, stands between a plot of switchgrass and a patch of 'weeds.' What is going on here?" In this story, students follow the investigations of GLBRC agronomists, who design large-scale biofuel crop experiments on farms. Students learn about the unique challenges and interesting discoveries that come from conducting experiments in the field.  Research stories give students a window into the work of professional scientists and engineers.

Grade Level Middle School and High School (Grades 6-12)
Subjects Biology, Agriculture, Environmental Science
Resource Type Research Story
Concepts/Skills nature of science, literacy, agronomy, biomass, biofuels agriculture
Time Required 20-50 minutes depending on time spent in class discussion.

A four page handout that discusses the difficulties in creating cellulosic ethanol. Appropriate for high school and college students.

Video: What is cellulose and how is it used to make ethanol?

PDF: Why is it so difficult to create cellulosic ethanol?

In this activity, raffia ribbon is used to create a visual representation of the differing root depths in biofuel crops and prairie plants. The wall hanging can be used to promote discussion about plants’ ability to sequester carbon and contribute to soil carbon.

Grade Level Middle school through Undergraduate (Grades 6-16); Nonformal learning
Subjects Biology, Environmental Science, Agriculture
Resource Type Stand-alone activity
Concepts/Skills carbon cycle, carbon sequestration, photosynthesis, structure and function, modeling, annual vs perennial, plant community ecology
Time Required One or two 50-minute class periods

The Biofuels vs Fossil Fuels unit has students explore the similarities and differences between fossil fuels and biofuels. In the process, students investigate the carbon-transforming processes of combustion, photosynthesis, fermentation and respiration. They apply their knowledge of these processes to the global carbon cycle to examine how use of fossil fuels and biofuels have different effects on atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and consequently global climate change. Students use their understanding of the global carbon cycle to study the claim that biofuels, such as ethanol made from plant material, can help reduce the rate of increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide. In addition, students examine the environmental impact of biofuels agriculture.

Grade Level Middle School and High School (Grades 6-12)
Subjects Biology, Environmental Science, Earth Science, Chemistry, Agriculture
Resource Type Unit
Concepts/Skills forms of energy, energy transformations, carbon cycle, sustainability, photosynthesis, combustion, fermentation, respiration, data analysis, scientific argumentation, modeling, investigation
Time Required Fifteen 50-minute class periods or about 3 weeks

What is the difference between biofuels and fossil fuels? Why are researchers at GLBRC investigating making biofuels from corn stalks, grasses and other inedible plant material? This short interactive presentation introduces why GLBRC is researching making biofuels from non-food crops and traces the key steps in the production of biofuels from different plant materials. The presentation also explores the differences between biofuels and fossil fuels' role in the carbon cycle.

See the classroom version of this story for instructions on how to use this story to introduce students biofuels and launch further study of the topic.

This activity examines how soil microbes, such as bacteria and fungi, are involved in carbon cycling. Students design experiments to explore the relationship between microbial respiration rates and soil variables such as temperature, habitat, soil type, and agricultural management choices. Four methods for measuring CO2 released from soil are provided, one in the field (CO2 probe), and three in the lab (CO2 probe, bromothymol blue (BTB) and acid-base titration).

Grade Level Middle School through Undergraduate (Grades 6-16)
Subjects Biology, Agriculture, Environmental Studies
Resource Type Investigation
Concepts/Skills deomposition, respiration, carbon sequestration, climate change, microbial ecology, soils, carbon cycle, data analysis, scientific argumentation
Time Required Varies by technique and experimental design. Two to seven 50-minute class periods spread out over a one to two week period.

Can perennial biomass crops compete with king corn? In this “data nugget” activity, students analyze and interpret data on the biomass production of different bioenergy crops grown on Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) experimental farms in Wisconsin and Michigan. Students read a brief summary of the GLBRC research questions and experimental design. They then are given the task of interpreting real GLBRC biomass data to answer the research questions about how perennial biomass crops, such as switchgrass and prairies, compare to corn.

Grade Level High School (Grades 9-12)
Subjects Environmental Science, Biology, Agriculture, Earth Science
Resource Type Stand-alone activity
Concepts/Skills Biomass, biofuels agriculture, climate, soils, data analysis, scientific argumentation, nature of science
Time Required One or two 50-minute class periods.

This is one of our most popular and adaptable activities for use in outreach events and classrooms. It is a basic experiment that allows students to observe the process of fermentation and the challenge of producing ethanol from cellulosic sources.

Grade Level Elementary through High School (K-12)
Subjects Biology, Agriculture, Environmental Science
Resource Type Stand-Alone Activity, Investigation
Concepts/Skills fermentation, respiration, renewable energy, biofuels, biomolecules, data analysis, scientific argumentation
Time Required 30-60 minutes prep time, depending on event/group size. 10 minute set-up, observe for 15 minutes or up to 1.5 hours.

This short (30-50 minute) activity helps students visualize and model a commonly published diagram of global carbon pools and fluxes. Students create a scaled 3-D visual of global carbon pools and net fluxes between pools with anthropogenic influences. The relative sizes of the pools can be modeled with stacks of poker chips, rolled columns of printer paper or similar. The fluxes can be represented by bingo chips, pennies or similar. Supplemental discussion questions guide students through considering the forms of carbon in pools, key carbon transforming processes associated with fluxes, and the implications for climate change.

Grade Level Middle school through Undergraduate (Grades 6-16); Nonformal learning
Subjects Biology, Environmental Science, Earth Science
Resource Type Stand-Alone Activity
Concepts/Skills carbon cycle, climate change, modeling, photosynthesis, respiration, combustion
Time Required One 50-minute class period including discussion

Human energy use and biofuels and their role in managing global climate change are urgent current socio-scientific issues facing our society. The Next Generation Science Standards recommend that students learn about these about issues. However, the story is complex and students will need multiple opportunities to work through it. The materials provided here provide a way to launch a study of biofuels. We recommend that you tell the story of biofuels and post a story wall in your classroom. The included online Prezi presentation version can serve as an introduction and review of the story.

Grade Level Middle School through Undergraduate (Grades 5-16)
Subjects Biology, Environmental Science, Earth Science, Agriculture, Biotechnology
Resource Type Stand-Alone Activity
Concepts/Skills carbon cycle, biofuel, fossil fuel, sustainability, photosynthesis, combustion, fermentation, respiration, enzymes, biomolecules, sustainability
Time Required 15-50 minutes

In this flexible lab sequence, students convert cellulosic biomass sources, such as sawdust, straw, or cardboard into sugars and then ethanol. As biomass samples are pretreated, enzymatically digested, and fermented, students use glucose meters and ethanol probes to measure the key products of this chemical conversion. In the process, students can test predictions about which biomass sources and treatment methods will be most effective for producing ethanol.

Grade Level High School through Undergraduate (9-16)
Subjects Chemistry, Environmental Science, Biology Agriculture, Engineering
Resource Type Investigation
Concepts/Skills fermentation, respiration, enzymes, biomolecules, organic chemistry, chemical reactions, biofuels, forms of energy, data analysis, scientific argumentation
Time Required Five to seven 50-minute class periods over 5-14 days (can be adapted to short times)

Students analyze data detailing global energy sources and sinks (uses) and construct a diagram to show the relative scale and the connections between them. Discussions of scale, historical, socio-environmental and geographic variation in this data and implications for future energy use are included.

Grade Level High School through Undergraduate (9-16); Nonformal learning
Subjects Biology, Chemistry, Earth Science, Physical Science, Engineering, Mathematics
Resource Type Stand-Alone Activity
Concepts/Skills forms of energy, energy transformations, data analysis and interpretation
Time Required One to two 50-minute class periods

This high school-level lab demonstration and inquiry activity introduces students to the process of fermenting cellulosic biomass into ethanol, along with the challenges researchers face in this area.

Grade Level High School through Undergraduate (9-16)
Subjects Biology, Environmental Science, Agriculture, Engineering, Biotechnology
Resource Type Investigation
Concepts/Skills fermentation, respiration, enzymes, biomolecules, organic chemistry, chemical reactions, biofuels, forms of energy, data analysis, scientific argumentation
Time Required Variable: Three to Five 50-minute class periods

This field investigation serves to strengthen student understanding of the ability of plants to sequester carbon above and below ground. Students will measure above ground biomass by harvesting small samples, and root growth using ingrown root-cores. These activities are adaptable to school-yard plots, existing agricultural plots or natural areas.

Grade Level Middle School through Undergraduate (Grades 6-16)
Subjects Environmental Science, Biology, Agriculture
Resource Type Investigation
Concepts/Skills carbon cycle, biomass, bioenergy, photosynthesis, carbon sequestration, climate change, data analysis, scientific argumentation
Time Required Three 50-minute classroom periods minimum plus wait time for plant growth.

This mini fermenter can be used to conduct small-scale fermentation investigations or demonstrations similar to research done by GLBRC scientists. The design allows for students to use simple techniques and classroom-grade probes to collect data during fermentation on a range of variables, such as ethanol concentration, CO2 production, temperature and pH. The complete mini fermenter can be built with readily-available supplies for approximately $20 (detailed supplies list included with instructions).

Grade Level High School through Undergraduate (Grades 9-16)
Subjects Biology, Biotechnology, Environmental Science, Agriculture, Engineering, Microbiology
Resource Type Investigation
Concepts/Skills fermentation, respiration, data analysis
Time Required Approximately 2 hours to construct.

Students collect samples that they predict will contain communities of cellulose-degrading microbes and test for the ability of microrganisms in their samples to break down pure cellulose (filter paper). In the process, groups collect evidence to test predictions about which environmental microbial samples will be the most effective for degrading cellulose. By comparing results across groups, students can begin to uncover patterns and develop explanations about the types of environments that support cellulose-degrading microbes. This lab method is nearly identical to that used by GLBRC researchers and student results could help scientists discover new enzymes for efficient biofuel production.

Grade Level Middle School through Undergraduate (6-16)
Subjects Biology, Agriculture, Engineering, Biotechnology, Environmental Science, Microbiology
Resource Type Investigation
Concepts/Skills decomposition, respiration, biomolecules, enzymes, microbial ecology, data analysis, scientific argumentation
Time Required Five to seven 50-minute class periods over 12-18 days (can be adapted to shorter times)

Students investigate locations they believe harbor cellulose-digesting microbes, collect samples, isolate them on selective media, and screen them for cellulase activity.

Grade Level Middle School through Undergraduate (6-16)
Subjects Agriculture, Engineering
Resource Type Investigation
Concepts/Skills decomposition, respiration, biomolecules, enzymes, microbial ecology, data analysis, scientific argumentation
Time Required Five to seven 50-minute class periods over 12-18 days (can be adapted to short times)

The ability to explain the processes by which plants capture, store and use energy for growth and development is fundamental to understanding bioenergy. In this set of lessons, students investigate how plants harness and use different sources of energy during germination and growth. Students ask questions and make predictions about the sources of energy that plants use. They then plan and carry out investigations using Wisconsin Fast Plants® to collect evidence to test predictions and construct scientific arguments.

Grade Levels Middle and High School (grades 6-12)
Subjects Biology, Environmental Science, Agriculture
Resource Type Investigation
Concepts/Skills photosynthesis, respiration, growth and development, forms of energy, modeling, analyzing data, scientific argumentation
Time Required 7-12 class periods (can be adapted to shorter times)

In this board game, players take on the role of bioenergy crop farmers trying to earn a living while trying to be good environmental stewards.

Grade Level Middle School through Undergraduate (Grades 6-16); Nonformal learning
Subjects Biology, Environmental Science, Earth Science, Agriculture, Economics, Social Studies, Engineering
Resource Type Stand-Alone Activities
Concepts/Skills sustainability, biodiversity, carbon cycle, energy, water quality, photosynthesis, climate change, ecosystem services, sustainable agriculture, annual vs perennial, economics
Time Required Two to five 50-minute class periods

Fields of Fuel is a free, online, multiplayer game designed to allow players to explore the complex sustainability challenges associated with growing bioenergy crops. The game is primarily designed for use in high school and undergraduate environmental studies, ecology, economics and natural resources classes, but the game can be played in a variety of formal and informal settings.

Grade Level Middle School through Undergraduate (Grades 6-16); Nonformal learning
Subjects Biology, Environmental Science, Earth Science, Agriculture, Engineering, Economics, Social Studies
Resource Type Stand-Alone Activity
Concepts/Skills sustainability, biodiversity, carbon cycle, energy, net energy, life cycle assessment, systems modeling, photosynthesis, carbon sequestration, agriculture, ecology, climate change, supply and demand, water quality, perennial vs annual, ecosystem services, data analysis, scientific argumentation
Time Required One or more 50-minute class periods

This activity asks students to begin to consider the life cycle energy and carbon dioxide emission costs of gasoline, corn ethanol and cellulosic ethanol.

Grade Level Middle School through Undergraduate (Grades 6-16)
Subjects Environmental Science, Agriculture, Engineering
Resource Type Stand-Alone Activity
Concepts/Skills life cycle assessment, sustainability, forms of energy, carbon cycle, systems, modeling, photosynthesis, respiration, combustion, fermentation
Time Required Two or three 50-minute class periods

"Someone or something has been attacking the waxworm larvae in local corn and grass fields. GLBRC Entomology detectives want to find out who is responsible and thank them for their service..." This short reading and accompanying worksheet offers a window into how GLBRC scientists are investigating the insect populations in different crops and the services they provide to farmers. Research stories give students a window into the work of professional scientists and engineers.

Grade Level Middle through High School (Grades 6-12)
Subjects Environmental Science, Biology, Agriculture
Resource Type Research Story
Concepts/Skills literacy, biodiversity, ecosystem services, nature of science
Time Required 20-50 minutes depending on time spent in class discussion.

This activity allows students to compare the net energy and/or net greenhouse gases (GHG) emitted during the life cycle production of ethanol from switchgrass, diverse prairie and corn stover.

Grade Level High School through Undergraduate (9-16)
Subjects Biology, Physics, Math, Environmental Science, Engineering, Agriculture
Resource Type Stand-Alone Activity
Concepts/Skills sustainability, life cycle analysis, greenhouse gases, systems modeling, forms of energy, net energy, carbon cycle, climate change, data analysis, scientific argumentation, photosynthesis, respiration, combustion, fermentation
Time Required Variable: Five to six 50-minute class periods, fewer if only energy scenarios are completed

"Which came first—the engineer or the scientist? Scientists find out why things happen. Engineers solve problems to make particular things happen." In this story, students learn about the interplay between science and engineering in fermentation research—from the discovery of pasteurization in the 1800s to current efforts to produce efficient biofuels with biotechnology. Research stories give students a window into the work of professional scientists and engineers.

Grade Level Middle School and High School (Grades 6-12)
Subjects Biology, Biotechnology, Agriculture, Environmental Science, Microbiology, Engineering
Resource Type Research Story
Concepts/Skills nature of science and engineering, fermentation, engineering, literacy, genetic engineering
Time Required 20-50 minutes depending on time spent in class discussion.