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ork on alternative conceptions of tree growth has extensively documented
how students of nearly all developmental and educational levels share
the “persistent intuitive conception ... that plants get their food from their
environment, specifically from the soil; and that roots are the organs of feeding” Life science
(Driver et al. 2005, p. 30; Parker and Carr 1989). Soil acts as an anchor for the
plant’s roots and provides the plant with water and small amounts of nutrients,
but the soil itself is not the source of the carbon that adds mass to the organism. GRADE LEVEL
The mass of a tree, for example, is primarily carbon, which comes from carbon Middle school
dioxide used during photosynthesis.
We found that our students did not understand that plant matter comes
mostly from air and water and were not able to explain how photosynthesis BIG IDEA/UNIT
contributes directly to plant mass.
Students may have learned that the chemical reactions of photosynthesis pro-
duce sugar and release oxygen, which supports all animal life. Students may not
realize the importance of sugar, which plants use for energy and build into more ESSENTIAL PRE-EXISTING
complex molecules such as starch and cellulose.
Instead of teaching the concept of photosynthesis outside of its context and in Measurement skills,
isolation, we wanted our students to learn about the photosynthetic process in photosynthesis reactants
order to answer the question, “Where does a tree get its mass?” and products, prealgebraic

Three or four class periods


Check for fire ants, bees,
and other insects before you
bring students outside. Find
out if any of your students
have allergic reactions to
bites, stings, trees, acorns,
or anything they might
come into contact with
during this entire lesson.

J u l y 2 0 18 41
Expectations and the Next Generation Engage: What is the mass of the tree outside
Science Standards our school? (50-minute class period)
We began by asking students to estimate the mass
Our idea of modeling for this activity is consistent
of the tree outside the school. Their guesses ranged
with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)
from about 907 kg (2,000 lbs) to about 4,536 kg (10,000
definition of models as helpful tools for representing
lbs). Within the groups, we heard students compare
ideas and explanations. Tools in this activity include
the tree size to objects such as a two-ton truck to help
diagrams, drawings, mathematical representations,
them estimate the mass. Students recorded their
and computer simulations. In this particular activ-
group’s guess on index cards and posted them on
ity, we focused on using modeling to help students
a histogram on the whiteboard to show the distri-
understand and apply the concept of photosynthesis
bution of estimates (see Figure 1). We reminded stu-
and to support conceptual change about how mass
dents to include units. Students were able to visual-
accumulates in a typical schoolyard tree.
ize the range of guesses and judge where their own
estimation fell on the graph.
The activity Next, students measured the circumference and
height of a living tree and used the measurements to
Safety note: Determine a safe area for students to mea-
calculate the tree’s mass. We chose a hardwood tree
sure the tree. Check for fire ants, bees, and other in-
(e.g., oak, maple, popular, beech, walnut) that was
sects before you bring students outside. Find out if
safely accessible to students, easy to measure (no
any of your students have allergic reactions to bites,
limbs in the way), with a visible tree top. We opted
stings, trees, acorns, or anything they might come into
to have students measure using the U.S. Customary
contact with during this entire lesson. Have students
System, which is the system of measurement com-
work in heterogeneous lab groups of three or four.
Instruct students to stay in the designated area with
their groups. Follow NSTA’s guidelines for field trip
safety at
| FIGURE 2: Students measuring the
diameter of a tree
| FIGURE 1: Original estimates of the tree
mass by student groups


monly used in the United States (feet and inches),

because the Forestry Service uses this system (Av- Tree measurement techniques
ery and Burkhart 2015). However, teachers can have
students use metric units and do the conversions to (a) Clinometer. For detailed instructions on how to
the U.S. measurements as an additional activity. We use a clinometers, see Resources.
staggered the lab groups measuring the tree by hav-
ing the other lab groups sketch the tree in their inter-
active lab notebooks.
The height of the tree was measured using a cli-
nometer (see Sidebar at right). We had students use
a tape measure to determine the circumference of the
tree at 1.4 m (4.5 ft.) above the ground (Figure 2), re-
ferred to in the forestry field as diameter at breast height
(DBH). Mass was calculated using the chart in Figure
3, which required knowing the diameter and height
of the tree. Because students measured the circumfer- (b) An Alti track can be used to determine the
ence and not the diameter, they needed to use a for- height of the tree.
mula (D = C/π) to derive the diameter of the tree.
We provided each lab group with a calculator and
worked with individual groups that needed help
with their calculations. (This is a good time to get
help from students’ math teacher.) We explained to
the class that they might need to round the diameter
and the height to use the chart and provide an ex-
ample. To use the provided chart (Figure 3), the tree
must have a DBH between 30 cm (12 in.) and 41 cm (c) How to measure a tree height with a student-
(16 in). While you can measure many different trees, made clinometer. Line the top of the tree up with
find one that students can easily measure at DBH. the clinometer pointing at a 45° angle. Determine
We measured an oak tree with a straight trunk that the distance to the tree (y) and the height of the

| FIGURE 3: Mass (tons) of hardwood trees

investigator (z) and add to get the height of the
by diameter at breast height (DBH) and
tree height
DBH in Tree height in feet
inches 60 70 80 90 100 110
12 0.33 0.53 0.73 0.93 — —
13 0.48 0.68 0.88 1.08 — —
14 0.64 0.84 1.04 1.24 — —
15 0.81 1.01 1.21 1.41 1.62 —
16 0.99 1.19 1.39 1.59 1.79 1.99

Note: The equation on which Table 1 is based accounts

for 88% of the variation in market tree mass. Reprinted
with permission from Patterson and Doruska 2008.

J u l y 2 0 18 43
the material to grow into a tree like this?” We had
students first write their thoughts in their interactive
notebooks, share with their lab group, and then en-
gaged in a class discussion. Many students thought
the tree got its mass from the soil. Students also
gave sources of a tree’s mass as nutrients, water, and
sunlight. One student even explained how the tree
“eats” the soil to grow. We did not correct students at
this point, but made comments such as “interesting”
and “How do you know that is true?”
Next, students participated in activities in or-
der to understand the role of photosynthesis in a
tree’s growth. We gave each lab group an acorn and
they generated a list of resources the acorns would
need to grow (e.g., water, soil, nutrients, air, sun-
was accessible to students. We demonstrated how
light). (Safety reminder: Students who are allergic
to use the measuring tape and discussed measure-
to tree nuts should not handle the acorns and all
ment error once students calculated their tree mass.
students should wash their hands after handling
Students needed guidance on pulling the measuring
acorns.) The list was revisited during the next class
tape taut around the trunk.
session, when students began verbal and visual
Students wrote their measurements and calcu-
diagramming of the process of photosynthesis. We
lations on index cards, which were posted on the
introduced the chemical equation for photosynthe-
whiteboard. The original histogram was still on the
sis, building upon what they listed as needed by an
whiteboard for easy comparison. We found that the
acorn to grow. We emphasized the plant process of
measurements were now more closely grouped than
photosynthesis and the parts of the plants (leaves,
their previous guesses. Students were then able to
chloroplasts, phloem, roots, xylem) involved with
compare their original estimates with what they
building the mass of a tree. There were discussions
found. Students discussed in their groups and then
about how a tree uses energy and the storage of ex-
groups shared out with the class. At this point, we
cess products.
also talked about measurement errors and why there
Sample questions we used were:
is still a range of answers. The reasons for the range
of answers could be measurement error, rounding er- • What parts of the plant are involved with each
rors, misreading measurement tape, or measuring at resource?
someplace different than DBH. This discussion was
• Why is each resource needed by the plant?
done through brainstorming and asking students to
support their hypotheses. • How is each resource processed by the plant?

• What would happen to the plant if it didn’t

have one of the resources?
After estimating the mass of the tree, students were
ready for the deeper question: “Where does a tree These questions helped students clarify what they
get its mass?” For emphasis, we showed students an did know and also pushed some students to further
acorn, a branch, a cross-section of a tree trunk, and research using the books or computer. Each student
a picture of the measured tree. If needed, you can drew his or her own diagram. We asked students to
substitute pictures for the actual objects. We restated show how each material flowed through the plant.
the question as, “Where did an acorn like this get At the end of this part of the lesson, students chose


one diagram to represent their group’s work (see

Figure 4). We emphasized they should select the
| FIGURE 4: A group’s more developed model
most complete and accurate diagram, not necessar- of photosynthesis
ily the best artistic representation.

Students watched the video Where Does a Tree Get Its
Mass From? (Veritasium 2012). The video examines
the question from a historical point of view, showing
early experiments about where plants get their mass.
We gave students (with their lab groups) time to re-
view and revise their photosynthesis diagrams and
formatively assessed students’ diagrams to check for
understanding. The video and discussion will take
about 20 minutes.

Extend: Leaf photosynthesis (50 minutes)

During the final activity, students explored a com-
puter model of a leaf (Concord Consortium 2017).
We like to use this model because it is open access,
aligned to the NGSS, and allows students to ma-
nipulate inputs for photosynthesis. Students can
manipulate the virtual model without signing in. We
preprinted the worksheet associated with the activ-
ity so that students could write their answers and
sketch the pictures of the leaf showing the inputs
and outputs of photosynthesis. The worksheets can they manipulated the different reactants involved in
be printed by pushing the print button at the top left photosynthesis, they estimated the rate/amount of
of the page; we slightly modified the sheet with fur- the production of sugars. Students completed the
ther directions about sketching the models. activity by writing their answers and sketching the
This computational model helped support stu- leaf diagrams when the activity asked them to take a
dents’ understanding of photosynthesis from the snapshot. We later had students attach the answers
micro level (leaf) to the macro level (tree) by directly and sketches in their interactive science notebooks
asking students the probing question: How does a (see Figure 6). We reviewed the activity and had a
tiny seedling grow into a tall tree with a mass of sev- discussion about the common idea that the mass of
eral tons? The use of the computer model also helped the tree comes from the soil, which is wrong. The
students transition from the physical activity of mea- mass of the tree comes from the wood (cellulose).
suring the mass of a tree to the abstract activity of Carbon from the air rather than nutrients from the
visualizing the causal mechanisms involved with soil is the primary contributor to the building of cel-
photosynthesis. Students were able to adjust the fol- lulose. We gave students time to review and revise
lowing inputs: (a) light radiating from the Sun (yel- their diagrams if needed. We noticed that it was
low arrowheads in Figure 5), (b) water supplied to helpful toward the beginning of the activity to iden-
the stem (blue circles), and (c) carbon dioxide (CO2) tify the symbols used for water, Sun, carbon dioxide,
molecules in the atmosphere (orange and black). As and sugar in the models to clarify any confusion.

J u l y 2 0 18 45
| FIGURE 5: Photosynthesis computational | FIGURE 6: Photosynthesis computational
model (Concord Consortium 2017) model drawn by a student (Concord
Consortium 2017)

However, our results show how persistent the idea is

Effectiveness of the unit that plants get their food from the soil (Driver et al.
We had students write summarizing paragraphs (in 2005; Parker and Carr 1989). The data showed that
their interactive notebooks) in response to the fol- 19% of students held on to their original ideas. This
lowing questions: reinforces the idea that we need to continue to empha-
size the conceptual understanding of photosynthesis
• Where does a tree get its mass?
and not emphasize the formula when we study plants
• What does a tree (plant) need to grow? and ecosystems during the school year. •
• Why did your lab group pick the diagram of REFERENCES
photosynthesis? Avery, T.E., and H.E. Burkhart. 2015. Forest measurements.
Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.
• What are the diagram’s strengths and Concord Consortium. 2017.
weaknesses in showing the relationship activities/1008
between photosynthesis and the mass of a tree? Driver, R., P. Rushworth, A. Squires, and V. Wood-Robinson,
eds. 2005. Making sense of secondary science: Research
into children’s ideas. New York: Routledge.
Conclusion and implications National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and
Council of Chief State School Officers (NGAC and CCSSO).
Although students understood the basic needs of 2010. Common core state standards. Washington, DC:
plants, we realized from the pretest that students did NGAC and CCSSO.
not understand how plants convert the raw materials National Research Council (NRC). 2012. A framework for K–12
provided by the ecosystem into the complex materi- science education: Practices, crosscutting concepts, and
core ideas. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
als. At the end of the unit, 81% of students were able
NGSS Lead States. 2013. Next Generation Science Standards:
to accurately explain how a tree gets its mass. All stu- For states, by states. Washington, DC: National Academies
dents understood that photosynthesis involves taking Press.
in carbon dioxide and water and producing glucose. standards.


Parker, M.A., and M.D. Carr. 1989. Photosynthesis—Can our RESOURCES

pupils see the wood for the trees? Journal of Biological How to make and use a student clinometer—www.
Education 23 (1): 4144.
Patterson, D.W., and P.F. Doruska. 2008. Landowner’s guide activity.pdf,
to determining weight of standing hardwood trees great-trees/using-a-clinometer-to-measure-height
(FSA5021) Little Rock: University of Arkansas Cooperative Rubric and lesson plan—
Extension Service.
Veritasium. 2012. Where do trees get their mass from? www.

Anthony Petrosino, Michele Mann (, and Sarah Jenevein are in the Department of Curriculum
and Instruction at the University of Texas at Austin in Austin, Texas.

Connecting to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States 2013)

• The chart below makes one set of connections between the instruction outlined in this article and the NGSS. Other valid
connections are likely; however, space restrictions prevent us from listing all possibilities.
• The materials, lessons, and activities outlined in the article are just one step toward reaching the performance expectation
listed below.

MS-LS1-6 From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes

Performance Expectation
MS-LS1-6. Construct a scientific explanation based on evidence for the role of photosynthesis in the cycling of matter and flow of
energy into and out of organisms.


Science and Engineering Practice

Developing and Using Models Students develop visual models to explain how
photosynthesis increases tree mass.

Disciplinary Core Idea

PS3.D: Energy in Chemical Processes and Everyday Life Students create a visual model of the process of
The chemical reaction by which plants produce complex food photosynthesis. Students also manipulate a computer model
molecules (sugars) requires an energy input (i.e., from sunlight) to determine how varying the reactants of photosynthesis
to occur. In this reaction, carbon dioxide and water combine affects the products of photosynthesis.
to form carbon-based organic molecules and release oxygen
(secondary to MS-LS1-6).

Crosscutting Concept

Energy and Matter Students use a computer model to adjust light, water, and
carbon dioxide to determine their effect on the products of

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