The materials in everyday products come from many different renewable and nonrenewable sources. In this lesson, students apply geographic knowledge and critical thinking skills to consider where materials come from. By examining objects from their own backpacks or the classroom garbage can, students piece together the objects' "life stories" and discuss implications for disposal and biodegradation. Watching the animated "Electronic Gadgets" video prompts students to think about the materials in a video game player, and the animated "Orange Juice" video leads students to think about the life cycle of bottled juice. Both videos lead to a discussion of how changes in their own behavior can reduce waste and pollution.
This lesson can stand alone, or you can follow it with the companion lesson, Biodegradation.
- Identify basic components in an everyday product
- Classify materials as biotic and abiotic
- Identify disposal options for each material in the product: composting or reusing/recycling
- Define a product life cycle as the hidden "life story" behind an everyday item
- Identify basic stages in a product's life cycle: obtaining raw materials, processing, transportation, consumption, disposal
Grade Level: 3–4
- One class period (55 minutes)
- For each student:
- Handout as described in step #2 of the lesson plan (optional)
- Paper for additional writing/note taking
- Classroom garbage can with garbage, or garbage brought from home (see note in "Before the Lesson")
- Rubber gloves
- Old newspaper
- Product Life Cycle Chart(PDF) to display on the board or one per student
Before the Lesson
If the lesson will be taught at the beginning of the day, you may want to bring garbage from home, save garbage from the previous day, or ask colleagues to share their garbage for use in the lesson. (Note: For safety, only you—the teacher—should remove items from the garbage can.) Instead of using garbage for the lesson, you could provide everyday items, such as a water bottle or cell phone, or ask students to choose items from their backpacks.
1. (Estimated time, step 1: 10 minutes) Seat students in a circle. Spread several sheets of newspaper on the floor in the center of the circle. Tell students that they are going to see what's inside the classroom garbage can. Wearing rubber gloves, remove objects from the garbage can and place them on the newspaper, as students identify the items.
Optional: Instead of using the garbage can, you can provide everyday items, such as a water bottle or cell phone, or ask students to choose items from their backpacks.
Choosing one item (such as a banana peel, juice box, or snack wrapper), tell students they have a challenge: to tell this product's life story. Ask students to brainstorm answers to these questions:
- Where was this item "born"?
- What materials is it made from?
- Where did those materials come from?
- What will happen with this object now that we are done with it?
2. (Estimated time, steps 2–4: 10 minutes) Divide the class into pairs or groups, explaining to students that they will now try to add more details to the story. Post the Product Life Cycle Chart (PDF) on the wall, or distribute individual copies of the chart to students. Help students plug in the information for one object. (Let students know that they can skip the fourth column if they are not yet familiar with the terms biotic and abiotic. They will be coming back to this chart later in the lesson.)
3. In pairs or groups, have students generate as much information as they can about the item in 60 seconds. (It may be helpful for students to know that the United States is approximately 3,000 miles across, and it is approximately 7,800 miles from Taipei, Taiwan, to New York City.) Display responses.
4. Students probably won't have much information to fill in the chart. If this is the case, ask students:
- Why is this chart so hard to fill out?
- Why don't we know much about our things?
- Why might it be important to know where things come from or how they're made?
5. (Estimated time, steps 5–6: 10 minutes) Show the Electronic Gadgets Video all the way through.
6. Lead students in a discussion.
- What information was new to you (and to Oliver)?
- What did we find out about the raw materials in the video game?
- What did we find out about where they came from?
- What would happen to the game if Oliver threw it out after he was done using it?
- Why will the video game last so long if Oliver throws it out?
7. (Estimated time, step 7: 5 minutes) Present the following science. Refer to the chart as you read.
Optional: To make this section more interactive, have students prepare oversize vocabulary cards with the words life cycle, raw materials, biotic, abiotic, and decompose.)
- The items we use each day have a hidden life story; this is called a "product life cycle."
- The main stages in the life cycle of a product include getting the raw materials, making the item, getting it to the store or user, using the item, and disposing of it.
- Biotic materials were once alive; they include wood, paper, cotton, and wool. These materials can biodegrade (decompose). Insects and other decomposing organisms can turn these materials back into basic elements (carbon, nitrogen) that other living things can use as food and nutrients.
- Abiotic materials were never alive; they include metals, glass, minerals, and plastics. These materials cannot biodegrade. They can break into very small pieces, but they cannot be used as food by living organisms.
- Explain that biotic and abiotic materials are neither "good" nor "bad," but each can cause problems if not disposed of properly. Abiotic materials will not decompose. If toxic, they can contaminate water and soil. In large quantities, biotic materials can also cause pollution. For instance, chicken waste or cow manure from factory farms can leach excessive nitrogen into rivers and lakes, damaging ecosystems and endangering human health.
8. (Estimated time, steps 8–10: 10 minutes) Now tell students that they are going to watch a video about orange juice. In the video, a boy named Ben will learn that orange juice can have two very different life stories. Tell them to watch closely to see what the life stories are.
9. Play the Orange Juice Video. After watching the video, discuss the following questions:
- Why did Ben think the bottled juice was better? What did he forget to think about?
- What did Ben learn about how juice is made?
- What was the "life story" (or "life cycle") behind the bottled orange juice? What about the fresh-squeezed orange juice?
10. (Estimated time: steps 11–12: 10 minutes) Ask students to think of other comparable food items and compare their life cycles. Emphasize that packaged foods aren't "bad," but knowing the full life cycle of a product can help them make better choices. Some possible examples are tap water vs. bottled water; baked potato vs. French fries; corn on the cob vs. tortilla chips; tomato vs. ketchup.
11. Discussion or writing prompts:
- Is it important to know the story of an object's life before you throw it away? Is it important to know if the materials from which it is made are biotic or abiotic? Why or why not?
- Is it a good decision to keep something rather than throwing it away? If something is broken and can no longer be used, how can we dispose of it?
- Extension: Explain that some cities and towns will recycle "e-waste," like cell phones and computers. Students can research if their city or school has an e-waste or cell phone collection program.
Check for Understanding
- Reexamine the contents of the garbage can. Which objects are biotic and which are abiotic? For further testing, ask students to get up and label things around the room as biotic, abiotic, or mixed. Can they identify the best disposal option for different items, based on this knowledge?
- Give students the basic life cycle stages out of order and have them place the stages in order.
- Review some ads for popular products. What information about the product's life story is in the ad? What information is left out? Why is this?
Lesson developed in collaboration with Creative Change Educational Solutions.