Segment 3

This video segment summarizes how fossil fuels are made, provides a comparison of how long it takes to store energy in coal, oil and natural gas (millions of years), and discusses how fast we’re using them (hundreds of years.)  Richard Alley travels through the bayous of Louisiana to see how fossil fuels are formed and why they are ultimately unsustainable.

Annotated Script
Interactive version: panels 22-28
Downloadable PDF: pages 11-13

  • Students will be able to describe how carbon moves through the Earth System, that most of the carbon is stored in rocks and fossil fuels, and how burning fossil fuels affects the composition of the atmosphere.
  • Students will be able to describe how different types of fossil fuels are created; that these conditions are very rare and require very long periods of time.
  • Students will be able to describe the impact of burning fossil fuels on the atmosphere.

Also see ETOM program 3 segment titled America’s Energy Past for other activities related to fossil fuels.

Content (ETOM video and Suggested Activities) in this segment integrates the following Disciplinary Core Ideas (related Performance Expectations follow); the Suggested Activities that follow utilize at least one science and engineering practice

Middle SchoolMatter and Energy FlowCycles of Matter and EnergyEarth Materials and SystemsNatural ResourcesHuman ImpactsGlobal Climate Change

High School    Matter and Energy FlowCycles of Matter and EnergyEarth Materials and SystemsNatural ResourcesHuman ImpactsWeather and Climate

Organization for Matter and Energy Flow in Organisms

  • Plants, algae (including phytoplankton), and many microorganisms use the energy from light to make sugars (food) from carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and water through the process of photosynthesis, which also releases oxygen. These sugars can be used immediately or stored for growth or later use. (MS-LS1-6)
  • The process of photosynthesis converts light energy to stored chemical energy by converting carbon dioxide plus water into sugars plus released oxygen. (HS-LS1-5)

Cycle of Matter and Energy Transfer in Ecosystems

  • Food webs are models that demonstrate how matter and energy is transferred between producers, consumers, and decomposers as the three groups interact within an ecosystem. Transfers of matter into and out of the physical environment occur at every level. Decomposers recycle nutrients from dead plant or animal matter back to the soil in terrestrial environments or to the water in aquatic environments. The atoms that make up the organisms in an ecosystem are cycled repeatedly between the living and non-living parts of the ecosystem. (MS-LS2-3)
  • Photosynthesis and cellular respiration are important components of the carbon cycle, in which carbon is exchanged among the biosphere, atmosphere, oceans, and geosphere through chemical, physical, geological, and biological processes. (HS-LS2-5)

Earth’s Materials and Systems

  • All Earth processes are the result of energy flowing and matter cycling within and among the planet’s systems. This energy is derived from the Sun and the Earth’s hot interior. The energy that flows and matter that cycles produce chemical and physical changes in Earth’s materials and living organisms. (MS-ESS2-1)
  • The geological record shows that changes to global and regional climate can be caused by interactions among changes in the Sun’s energy output or Earth’s orbit, tectonic events, ocean circulation, volcanic activity, glaciers, vegetation, and human activities. These changes can occur on a variety of time scales from sudden (e.g., volcanic ash clouds) to intermediate (Ice Ages) to very long-term tectonic cycles. (HS-ESS2-4)

Natural Resources

  • Humans depend on Earth’s land, ocean, atmosphere, and biosphere for many different resources. Minerals, fresh water, and biosphere resources are limited, and many are not renewable or replaceable over human lifetimes. These resources are distributed unevenly around the planet as a result of past geologic processes. (MS-ESS3-1)
  • All forms of energy production and other resource extraction have associated economic, social, environmental, and geopolitical costs and risks as well as benefits. New technologies and social regulations can change the balance of these factors. (HS-ESS3-2)

Human Impacts on Earth Systems

  • Typically as human populations and per-capita consumption of natural resources increase, so do the negative impacts on Earth unless the activities and technologies involved are engineered otherwise. (MSESS3-3),(MS-ESS3-4)
  • The sustainability of human societies and the biodiversity that supports them requires responsible management of natural resources. (HS-ESS3-3)

Weather and Climate

  • Changes in the atmosphere due to human activity have increased carbon dioxide concentrations and thus affect climate. (HS-ESS2-4, HS-ESS2-6)

Global Climate Change

  • Human activities, such as the release of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels, are major factors in the current rise in Earth’s mean surface temperature (global warming). Reducing the level of climate change and reducing human vulnerability to whatever climate changes do occur depend on the understanding of climate science, engineering capabilities, and other kinds of knowledge, such as understanding of human behavior and on applying that knowledge wisely in decisions and activities. (MS-ESS3-5)

Algae/plants, anaerobic, carbon, coal, combustion , decomposition, diatoms, fossil fuel, natural gas, oil (petroleum), photosynthesis, non-renewable

This video segment introduces students to the process by which fossil fuels are formed, the rate at which they are being consumed by society and the consequences of their burning on Earth’s atmosphere. The ENGAGE/EXPLAIN/EXPLORE sections below provide one scenario by which you might introduce this video segment to your students; the suggested activities that follow will enable you to build on the content addressed in the video segment.
Prior to watching the video segment, ask students to define the phrase “fossil fuels” and ask them to list the energy sources that are categorized as fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas). On the board, ask the class to brainstorm the features of fossil fuels without commenting on right or wrong answers (e.g., contain carbon, non-renewable, release CO2 and water when they undergo combustion, etc.)
Show the ETOM video segment and then revisit the list of features on the board. As a class, edit this list by adding features learned from the video segment and deleting misconceptions that were cleared up by the video. 
Either while they watch the video or afterwards, invite students to create a written or graphic timeline for an organism (e.g., algae) being converted into fossil fuel types; require them to describe the conditions necessary for the formation of fossil fuels. This activity will enable them to depict what they learned in the video:  that algae get converted into oil and natural gas under the right conditions and that woody plants get converted into coal and natural gas.

1) CONCEPT: Specific processes are required to create fossil fuels from dead organisms and these conditions are very rare.

ACTIVITY: Oil Formation in the Deep Sea Animation/Interactive (Note: Adobe Flash Player is required for viewing)

This animation summarizes how oil and gas form in sedimentary ocean basins. The process starts with dead phyto- and zoo-plankton (organic plant and animal material, respectively) being deposited with sediment. It describes the process of sapropel, kerogen and hydrocarbon formation.

Appropriate for use with middle and high school students, the website offers numerous links to resources such as a “misconception quiz” and other related animations. Proper scientific vocabulary is used and defined.

ACTIVITY: Fossil Energy Study Guides

This in-depth set of readings reviews the formation, exploration, extraction, refinement, and use of coal, oil, and natural gas. Using scientifically correct but understandable language, students learn how traditional energy resources are being re-envisioned to decrease environmental impacts.

Developed for middle school students, this would also be appropriate for high school students. It could also be used as a resource for jigsaw research projects.

2) Concept: Carbon moves through the Earth System; most carbon is stored in rocks and fossil fuels, and burning fossil fuels affects the composition of the atmosphere.

ACTIVITY: Carbon Cycle Game

In this activity, students physically move through the carbon cycle. A poster represents each reservoir with a map of that reservoir on Earth and information about reservoir size and residence time. Students roll a die, flip a coin, or pull a slip of paper to determine if they stay in the reservoir or move out of it. The movements between reservoirs (fluxes) are well defined and explained.

Several versions of this game are provided and can be easily modified for student groups depending on age of students, literacy, and mobility.

ACTIVITY: Understanding the Carbon Cycle

In this "jigsaw" exercise, each student is assigned one of five geochemical processes in the carbon cycle to research, fully understand, and then explain to others in groups of five. At the end of class all students will know about each of the five processes, and thus develop an integrated understanding of the entire carbon cycle.

While this activity was written for use at the college level, it can be modified for use with high school students and can even middle school students. It emphasizes understanding through writing. The activity sheet is easily modified so it can be used in a variety of settings and classes.

ACTIVY: Carbon Cycle Animation (Note: Adobe Flash Player is required for viewing)

This interactive animation focuses on the carbon cycle by integrating short videos, images and concise text that clarify the details of the cycle.

This is a well constructed interactive appropriate for middle and high school classes. By clicking on various parts of the cycle, the user can either view a short video (under 30 seconds) about the topic, or view a static diagram with more information. There are additional links to associated lessons at the site to lessons, especially about oceans and cycles. The animation includes long-term contributions to the carbon cycle and how changes in carbon dioxide are recorded.

3) CONCEPT: Fossil fuels are non-renewable and thus will eventually run out.

ACTIVITY: What will be left of Earth’s non-renewable energy sources?

This interactive online tool allows students the opportunity to explore the availability of a variety of chemical elements used as raw materials (e.g., titanium) in manufacturing, including coal, oil and gas. Students can choose to examine the availability of over 25 resources over the next 100 years (2011-2111) at either static production rates or increasing production rates. By moving the cursor over any one of the resources, students are provided with text that explains the range of the bar graph.

This interactive is a simple yet clear visual aid that would be appropriate for use with middle and high school students. Sources for the information are not provided so this may be a good starting point for research.

ACTIVITY: Global Resources Stock Check

This graphic shows the estimated remaining world supplies of non-renewable resources in a “clock” format. Starting at 2012, the image shows how long different resources will last without changes to how we use, reuse, reduce our use, and/or recycle the resources. Fossil fuel resources are shown in blue. Timings of other possible environmental events are predicted.

The information used to create this graphic is provided as a PDF. This graphic would be useful incorporated into other lessons or used as a discussion starter for high school students.

4) CONCEPT: CO2 resulting from combustion of old carbon stores (fossil fuels) is contributing to the rise in atmospheric CO2 we are observing.

Video: Coal vs. Banana: A two-minute explanation of the carbon cycle

This short video from NASA distinguishes between young and fast carbon and old and slow carbon. Additional information about the fast carbon cycle and the slow carbon cycle can be found by visiting:

Making the distinction between “old” versus “new” carbon could be used to introduce students to the topic of biomass as an energy source: see ETOM program 2, segment 2 (Grow your Own). Students could conduct research and investigate the common claim that biomass is carbon neutral, meaning that the CO2 released when biomass is used for energy is absorbed at about the same rate by the plant materials grown to replace them.

Students could visit EPA’s Power Profiler to determine how much of their electricity is generated from non-renewable fossil fuels.
Then they could calculate their carbon footprint to get a sense of the extent to which their actions contribute to the burning of fossil fuels and the emissions of “old” carbon in the form of CO2.
ACTIVITY: How big is your Carbon Footprint? (Yes, this tool is from the “Cool California” project, but it should work anywhere in the USA.)
The carbon footprint is a concept that enables students to examine how their choices have short- and long-term impacts on the environment. This tool helps students inventory current individual and family habits that generate carbon dioxide. By having students create alternative scenarios, they can see how making small changes in their diet, driving and travel habits, thermostat settings and choices in appliances affect the amounts of carbon dioxide they contribute to the atmosphere.
Appropriate for middle and high school students with a focus on algebra and statistics skills. Students should interview their parents/guardians prior to completing the carbon/energy calculator so they can answer the questions accurately.

Alignment to Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)

Content in this segment integrates the Disciplinary Core Ideas cited above to the most directly relevant NGSS Performance Expectations:


From Molecules to Organisms

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.

Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics

MS-LS2-3. Develop a model to describe the cycling of matter and flow of energy among living and nonliving parts of an ecosystem.

Earth’s Systems

MS-ESS2-1. Develop a model to describe the cycling of Earth’s materials and the flow of energy that drives this process.

Earth and Human Activity

MS-ESS3-1. Construct a scientific explanation based on evidence for how the uneven distributions of Earth’s mineral, energy, and groundwater resources are the result of past and current geoscience processes.

MS-ESS3-4. Construct an argument supported by evidence for how increases in human population and per-capita consumption of natural resources impact Earth’s systems.

MS-ESS3-5. Ask questions to clarify evidence of the factors that have caused the rise in global temperatures over the past century.


From Molecules to Organisms

HS-LS1-5. Use a model to illustrate how photosynthesis transforms light energy into stored chemical energy.

Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics

HS-LS2-3. Construct and revise an explanation based on evidence for the cycling of matter and flow of energy in aerobic and anaerobic conditions.

HS-LS2-5. Develop a model to illustrate the role of photosynthesis and cellular respiration in the cycling of carbon among the biosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere, and geosphere.

Earth’s Systems

HS-ESS2-6. Develop a quantitative model to describe the cycling of carbon among the hydrosphere, atmosphere, geosphere, and biosphere.

Earth and Human Activity

HS-ESS3-2. Evaluate competing design solutions for developing, managing, and utilizing energy and mineral resources based on cost-benefit ratios.*

HS-ESS3-3. Create a computational simulation to illustrate the relationships among management of natural resources, the sustainability of human populations, and biodiversity.

Student-Parent Interview Questions:

  1. Do we own or rent our home?
  2. Is our home considered a single-family home, a townhouse, an apartment or condominium?
  3. How big is our house in square feet?
  4. What is our zipcode?
  5. How many floors is our home?
  6. How many people live in our home?
  7. What type of foundation does our home have?
  8. When was our home built?
  9. What kind of windows do we have? (double or single pane)
  10. What type of heating do we have? (gas or electric; forced air, radiant, boiler, baseboard)
  11. How old is our furnace?
  12. Is our furnace high efficiency?
  13. How much attic insulation do we have?
  14. What temperature is our thermostat set at in the summer? In the winter?
  15. Do we have air conditioning?
  16. How old is the air conditioner?
  17. What type of water heater do we have?
  18. How old is the water heater?
  19. Do we have a pool?
  20. Is the pool heated? What type of system heats the pool?
  21. Have we replaced our showerheads with low-flow showerheads?
  22. Which of the following best describes our clothes washer?
    1. Front loader, less than 10 years old
    2. Top loader, less than 10 years old.
    3. Any style, more than 10 years old
    4. We don’t have a clothes washer
  23. How many refrigerators do we have?
  24. How old are the refrigerators?
  25. How many of our light bulbs are energy efficient such as CFLs or LEDs?
  26. How important are the following:
    1. Lower energy bills
    2. A greener, low carbon home
    3. Comfortable home
    4. Healthy home
  27. Are we willing to do any of the following?
    1. Make investments in our home
    2. Make changes in our habits/lifestyles
    3. Collaborate with friends and neighbors
  28. What company provides
    1. Our electricity?
    2. Our natural gas?
  29. How much is our energy bill each month?
  30. How many flights do we take per year that are:
    1. Under 2 hours
    2. 2-6 hours
    3. more than 6 hours
  31. How many of our meals per week include:
    1. Beef
    2. Pork
    3. Chicken, turkey and other poultry
    4. Fish
    5. Milk, yogurt, cheese, and eggs
    6. Bread, cereal, rice and other grains
    7. Fruit and vegetables
    8. Sweets and sugar drinks
  32. What are the year, make, and model of your car?
  33. How many miles per gallon does that car get?
  34. How many miles per year is that car driven?


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