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Decomposing Culture (lesson)


Crane with fish in its beak, 221–206 BCE. China. Bronze. Qin Shihuang Terracotta Warriors and Horses Museum, Shaanxi.


Students will classify organic and inorganic objects and create a hypothesis about what will happen to each object in different environmental contexts.

50 minutes
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Common Core Standards:
CCSS.ELA-Literacy. RST.6-8.9 Compare and contrast the information gained from experiments, simulations, video, or multimedia sources with that gained from reading a text on the same topic. WHST.6-8.1 Write arguments focused on discipline-specific content. WHST.6-8.2 Write informative/explanatory texts, including the narration of historical events, scientific procedures/ experiments, or technical processes. WHST.6-8.4 Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience. 

Content Standards (California):
Science: 6b. Students know different natural energy and material resources, including air, soil, rocks, minerals, petroleum, fresh water, wildlife, and forests, and know how to classify them as renewable or nonrenewable. 6c. Students know the natural origin of the materials used to make common objects. 7a. Develop a hypothesis 7b. Select and use appropriate tools and technology to perform tests, collect data, and display data. 7c. Construct appropriate graphs from data and develop qualitative statements about the relationships between variables. 7d. Communicate the steps and results from an investigation in written reports and oral presentations. 7g. Interpret events by sequence and time from natural phenomena. 7h. Identify changes in natural phenomena over time.

Introduction (10 min.)
Free-write Prompt:

  • “Have you (or has someone you know) ever misplaced or lost something for a long time? How had it changed when you found it again? Did it look different? Did it mean something diff erent to you than it once did? How did you feel after you found it?”
  • Ask students to share their responses, commenting on the ways that time and different conditions (dust, rain, animals, etc.) may make things change over time.

Vocabulary Extension
Hypothesis = an educated prediction or explanation that can be tested in an experiment
Organic material = substances that come from human, animal, or plant sources
Inorganic material = substances that come from non-living materials
Decay = to break down or decrease in quantity or quality
Decomposer = organisms that break down dead or decaying organisms or objects

Pre-Lab Concept Attainment

  • Tell students that over the next few days they are going to conduct an experiment to study what happens to diff erent types of objects over time. First they must classify diff erent types of objects in diff erent ways.
  • Write the word “organic” on the board. Display a series of organic materials to students (examples: paper, cardboard, piece of bread, wood sculpture, piece of cotton fabric, etc.). Inform students that all of these items are made of “organic” materials, and ask them to list properties of organic materials based on the items they see in front of them.
  • Write student descriptions on the board, and selectively narrow down a class definition that applies for all organic materials. Repeat the process for the word “inorganic,” using items such as a penny, a plastic pen, a clay flowerpot, a glass bottle, etc. Again, write student descriptions on the board, and selectively narrow down a class definition that applies for all inorganic materials.
  • Assess student understanding by holding up additional objects and having a show of hands. How many of you think this object is made of organic materials? How many of you think this object is made of inorganic materials? Provide feedback to students to solidify concept attainment of organic and inorganic materials.

Class Activity (30 minutes)

  • Divide class into groups of 3-4. Have each group select 1 organic and 1 inorganic material they want to use in their experiment and categorize them accurately on their Lab Worksheet (see Appendix II). Groups will need 3 of each organic and inorganic material that they choose, one for each of the 3 different test environments.
  • Tell students that today they are going to be storing their objects in diff erent places and predict what will happen to those objects over the next few days. They will test by “storing” their object buried underground, leave it in the open air outside, and leave it in the open air inside.
  • Have groups write hypotheses using the chart on their Lab Worksheet to predict what will happen to their items in each of the conditions.
  • Bury/store the items in the appropriate places and leave as undisturbed as possible (except for natural phenomena) over the next few days, and ideally over a weekend.

This curriculum was designed by World Savvy in partnership with the Asian Art Museum.

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