Roots, Shoots, and Wood

Roots, Shoots, and Wood


Kathleen M. Vandiver
Community Outreach and Education Director
Center for Environmental Health Sciences
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139 USA

Lesson Feedback


The topic of photosynthesis is a fundamental concept in biology, chemistry, and earth science. Educational studies have found that despite classroom presentations, most students retain their naïve idea that a plant’s mass is mostly derived from the soil, and not from the air. To call students’ attention to this misconception, at the beginning of this lesson we will provide a surprising experimental result so that students will confront their mental mistake. Next, we will help students better envision photosynthesis by modeling where the atoms come from in this important process that produces food for the planet. This lesson can be completed in 50-60 minutes, with the students working on in-class activities during 20-25 minutes of the lesson. As a prerequisite, students need an introductory lesson on photosynthesis, something that includes the overall chemical equation. If students have already studied the intracellular photosynthetic process in detail, this video can still be very helpful because students often miss the big picture about photosynthesis. Materials needed include red, white and black LEGO bricks (described in downloadable hand-out) or strips of red, white and black paper plus paper clips (directions provided in downloadable hand-out). In addition to class discussions, the major in-class activity of this video involves the students’ modeling with LEGO® bricks or colored paper where the atoms come from in photosynthesis.

Download Class Hand-outs for this video lesson

Read “Materials…” to decide which activity to select. Choose Bricks or Paper. Download the appropriate set of guides.

  • Materials for the “Roots, Shoots and Wood” Activity (See "For Teachers" Tab)

Bricks-- the recommended activity with the video. These “Cards” are instructions to be printed-- one for every student group---and SAVED for future use with the bricks. Only Card A and the Check Mat/ Layout mat are needed for the activity on the Blossoms video. (Cards B and C are additional, optional lessons.)

The following 2 items have been updated November 2010

  • Poster: “Plant Cells and Molecules” size 8.5 X11 here. (See "For Teachers" Tab)
  • Poster: “Plants from Thin Air?” size 8.5 X11 here. (See "For Teachers" Tab)

The following 4 items have been updated January 2010

  • Card A: Making Glucose Molecules: / Brick Photosynthesis Directions (See "For Teachers" Tab)
  • Check Mat/ Layout Mat (See "For Teachers" Tab)
  • Card B: Making Starch Molecules / Brick Starch Directions (See "For Teachers" Tab)
  • Card C: Making Cellulose Molecules / Brick Cellulose Directions (See "For Teachers" Tab)

Paper—the alternative activity with the video. These are instructions to be printed --one for every student group---and SAVED for future use with the paper atoms:

  • Instructions for Modeling Photosynthesis with Paper Atoms (See "For Teachers" Tab)
  • Instructions for Building Starch and Cellulose with Paper Atoms: An additional activity with glucose molecules (See "For Teachers" Tab)

Instructor Biography

Kathleen Vandiver received her Masters degree in education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a Ph.D. in cell biology from Tufts Medical School. She worked as a research biologist and as a secondary school science teacher before coming to MIT as an Outreach Director.

Additional Online Resources

Wikipedia pages on the following topcs: