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Photosynthesis, Cellular Respiration and Plant Growth

This minds-on, hands-on activity begins with the driving question of how a tiny seed grows into a giant sequoia tree.

To address this question, students first consider what types of molecules and atoms are in plants. Next, they analyze data from an experiment on changes in plant biomass in the light vs. dark. Then, they conduct an experiment to evaluate changes in CO2 concentration in the air around plants in the light vs. dark.

Students interpret these data to develop an increasingly accurate and evidence-based model of the contributions of photosynthesis and cellular respiration to changes in plant biomass.

This activity counteracts several common misconceptions about plant growth, photosynthesis, and cellular respiration. (NGSS)

Download Student Handout: PDF format or Word format

Download Teacher Preparation Notes: PDF format or Word format

We invite comments on this hands-on activity, including suggestions for other teachers who are planning to use the activity, any questions you have related to the activity, or a brief description of any problem you might have encountered. If you would prefer to send your comments or questions in a private message, please write Ingrid Waldron at



iwaldron's picture

2022 revision

The Student Handout has been reorganized and revised to promote student engagement, thinking and understanding. Students develop an increasingly accurate, evidence-based model of plant growth. This reorganized Student Handout will also be more practical for classroom use.


PS: A cheaper alternative to the clear plastic container recommended on page 5 of the Teacher Preparation Notes is: 

Dart ClearSeal(R) Hinged-Lid Plastic Containers, 3 Compartments, 9H x 9 1/2W x 3D, 100 Containers Per Bag, Pack Of 2 Bags

iwaldron's picture

2019 revision

The Student Handout has been reorganized and multiple questions have been revised to promote better student understanding of important concepts. The Teacher Preparation Notes have been revised, with improved directions for growing the seedlings, alternative ways of doing the experiment that will be less expensive, and various other improvements and clarifications.

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