Digging Into Nutrients
6 - 8
In this lesson, students will gain background knowledge of the nutrient requirements of plants, how those nutrients are obtained by the plant, what farmers must do if the nutrients are not available in soils, and current issues related to agricultural production. Grades 6-8
Two, 40-minute sessions
For each group:
- Why Must We Replace Nutrients Back Into the Soil? reading handout #1
- Crop Rotation, Green Manure, and Nitrogen- Fixing Plants reading handout #2
- Manure and Composting reading handout #3
- Fertilizers reading handout #4
For each student:
- Reading handouts 1, 2, 3, and 4 (1 copy per group)
- "What's in a Plant?" reading handout (1 per student)
- "Digging Into Nutrients" student notes (1 per student)
nutrient: a substance that provides nourishment essential for growth and the maintenance of life
Background Agricultural Connections
This lesson is part of a series called, Too Much? Too Little? created to introduce middle school students to the connection between soil nutrients and the food they eat. The lessons consist of a series of demonstrations and hands-on experiments that show that plants require nutrients in certain quantities. The lesson series allows students to investigate soil properties, learn how to properly prepare fertilizer nutrient solutions, identify deficiencies in plant nutrients using a key, and much more. Other related lessons include:
Plant Parts and Functions: Anatomy and physiology of a plant.
- Digging Into Nutrients: How plants obtain nutrients from the soil.
The Right Solution: How fertilizer solution is properly calculated and applied. Can We Have Too Much of a Good Thing?: Effects of applying too much or too little fertilizer. The Right Diet for Your Plants: Read fertilizer labels and choose the best fertilizer. Let's Vote On It: How soil nutrients effect local communities and economies. It's a Dirty Job: How earthworms benefit soil.
There are many ways to maintain or improve the quality of soil in order to provide the nutrients needed for successful plant growth. Soils, and even water, differ in the types and amounts of nutrients they store. Farmers know that production of healthy food and fiber crops depends upon good land stewardship. They use the latest science and technology to farm their land and protect natural resources.
- Assess the prior knowledge of your students and stimulate thinking by asking the following questions:
- "What process does a plant use to convert energy from the sun into a useable form of energy for plant growth?"
- "Why and how are nutrients replaced in soil where plants are grown?"
- "What organic and inorganic nutrients (fertilizers) are used for plant growth?"
Explore and Explain
- Tell students that they will be reading about plants, the nutrients they need to grow, and how they obtain them. Students will identify the main points of an assigned reading and share that information with other students.
- Distribute the What’s in a Plant? reading and Digging Into Nutrients student notes to each student. Instruct the class to silently read What’s in a Plant?
- As a class, identify five key points from the What’s in a Plant? reading and instruct each student to record these key points in the appropriate place on their worksheet. Explain that students should follow this procedure for reading and writing key points for the next step of the lesson.
- Divide students into groups of four. Pass out one packet of reading materials to each group. Each packet should contain one copy of the following readings:
- Reading #1: Why Must We Replace Nutrients Back Into the Soil?
- Reading #2: Crop Rotation, Green Manures, and Nitrogen-Fixing Plants
- Reading #3: Manure and Composting
- Reading #4: Fertilizers
- Use the “jigsaw” cooperative learning approach for the readings.
- Once in groups of four, have students number themselves 1, 2, 3,
- Student number one will read Reading #1; student number two will read Reading #2 and so forth.
- After students have finished reading the material, like numbers will meet and discuss what they have read, becoming experts on their readings. Each group of experts will record five key points about their reading on their Digging into Nutrients worksheet.
- Students will meet back with their original groups where each expert will explain to the rest of the group the general idea of his/her reading and some important key points. The rest of the team will take appropriate notes on their Digging into Nutrients worksheet.
- Each student should end up with five different sets of key points about plants (the one completed as a class and the four they completed as a group).
- Have a class discussion and ask students to provide examples of how they can use these key points about plant nutrients in their lives. Ideas include: establish a home garden and teach their family or neighbor about plant nutrients, start a compost bin, or start a school garden and teach younger students about plant nutrients.
- After like numbered students have finished reading and discussing their article, have them design a poster that they will use to report back to the entire class at the conclusion of this activity.
- This lesson employs group work that incorporates opportunities for students to exchange, write, present ideas, and ask questions.
- Have students quickly scan articles for new words they’d like to have defined prior to reading. These words could be added to a classroom word wall or to student science journals.
Invite a farmer to explain to your class how plants in the field get their required nutrients. Your local county Farm Bureau may have some names of farmers who are using different fertilizer techniques. Master Gardeners, contacted through the University Cooperative Extension, may also be willing to speak on this topic.
After conducting these activities, review and summarize the following key points:
- We all depend on plants for survival. All the food we eat and the oxygen we breath can be traced back to plants.
- Plants convert convert energy from the sun using the process called photosynthesis.
- Plants grow in the soil. Soil must be managed and conserved to maintain the nutrients it needs to grow healthy plants.
- Crop rotation, composting, organic fertilizers, and inorganic fertilizers are all methods used to preserve and maintain soil nutrients.
This lesson was updated in 2013 with funding from California Foundation for Agriculture in the Classroom and a grant from the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s Fertilizer Research and Education Program. The Fertilizer Research and Education Program (FREP) funds and facilitates research to advance the environmentally safe and agronomically sound use and handling of fertilizer materials. FREP serves growers, agricultural supply and service professionals, extension personnel, public agencies, consultants, and other interested parties. FREP is a part of the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA), Division of Inspections Services.
Editor: Shaney Emerson
Executive Director: Judy Culbertson
Illustrator: Toni Smith
Layout and Design: Nina Danner
Copy Editor: Leah Rosasco
Recommended Companion Resources
- Nutrients for Life eLessons
- Troubled Waters
- Soil! Get the Inside Scoop
- Topsoil Tour
- Living Soil Film
- Phosphate Mining Video
- Photosynthesis video
- Potash Mining Video
- The Chloroplast video
- The Real Reason Leaves Change Color in the Fall
- Timelapse: Photosynthesis Seen from Space
- Soil Health Education Resources
- Soil Life
- Soil Science Society of America
California Foundation for Agriculture in the Classroom
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