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Learning Activity
Title: Compost in a Milk Carton
Grade: 3
Designers: Environmental Education

Learning Activity Title   Compost in a Milk Carton 
Learning Activity Annotation   In this environmental education activity, students will create a miniature compost pile using a milk carton and observe what happens to the contents over a four-week period. At the same time, the students will make one classroom bin and compare the decomposition of biodegradable items (used in individual bins) and non-biodegradable items (used in the classroom bin.) The class will also discuss whether or not creating a backyard compost pile would decrease solid waste, conserve resources, and help protect the environment.

This activity takes two days for the initial set-up and four weeks for observations. It is geared for third grade students.  Completion of a student question sheet will assess and measure mastery of the content standard.

This Learning Activity Template is differentiated for (Optional):    
Category of Activity   Inquiry/Guided Inquiry 
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    Alternate E-mail address (Optional)   staff@eeingeorgia.org 
    Additional Authors (Optional)   Monica Kilpatrick Castro 
    Focus Standards
    Focus Standards   S3L2 Students will recognize the effects of pollution and humans on the environment.

    b. Identify ways to protect the environment.
    1. Conservation of resources
    2. Recycling of materials
    Complementary Standards (Optional)
    Complementary Standards (Optional)   S3CS8 Students will understand important features of the process of scientific inquiry.

    Students will apply the following to inquiry learning practices:

    a. Scientific investigations may take many different forms, including observing what things are like or what is happening somewhere, collecting specimens for analysis, and doing experiments.
    b. Clear and active communication is an essential part of doing science. It enables scientists to inform others about their work, expose their ideas to criticism by other scientists, and stay informed about scientific discoveries around the world.
    c. Scientists use technology to increase their power to observe things and to measure and compare things accurately.
    d. Science involves many different kinds of work and engages men and women of all ages and backgrounds. 
    Complementary Standards (Optional)   S3CS1 Students will be aware of the importance of curiosity, honesty, openness, and skepticism in science and will exhibit these traits in their own efforts to understand how the world works.

    a. Keep records of investigations and observations and do not alter the records later.
    b. Offer reasons for findings and consider reasons suggested by others.
    c. Take responsibility for understanding the importance of being safety conscious. 
    National and/or Local Standards (Optional)
    National and/or Local Standards (Optional)   North American Association for Environmental Education Guidelines for Excellence: Learner Guidelines (K-12)
    PreK-4: Strand 1 (B, G); Strand 2 (2.1A, B); Strand 3 (3.2B, C) 
    Balanced Assessment
    Assessment Method/Type   Constructed Response 
    Assessment Title   Milk Carton Compost Bin Student Worksheet 
    Description/Directions   Use this worksheet (which is also listed in step eight) at the end of the lesson to help assess students' knowledge. (Copyright free clip art is from Microsoft Office Online.) The answer key can be used as an example of acceptable responses for the student question sheet.  
    Attachment Title (Optional)   Milk Carton Compost Bin Student Worksheet with Teacher Answer Key 
    Attachment Description (Optional)   This is an assessment with six questions that challenges students to recall and apply information addressed in the lesson.  
    Attachment(s) (Optional)    
    Web Resource Title (Optional)    
    Web Resource Description (Optional)    
    Web Resources (Optional)    
    Student Work with Teacher Commentary
    Procedures, Directions, and Resources
    Duration   1 hour on Day 1 
    Directions and Procedures   Day 1:

    1.  Lead a discussion introducing (or reviewing) terms such as solid waste, biodegradable, non-biodegradable, organic, inorganic, compost, decomposition, and recycling with the students.  For definitions, visit the online EPA Terms of the Environment Glossary - http://www.epa.gov/OCEPAterms/.   Discuss whether or not composting is a form of recycling (yes, it is -- nature's way of recycling organic material) and challenge the students to consider how composting is an environmentally friendly alternative to landfilling or incinerating biodegradable waste.  Be sure to reinforce the fact that by composting, less land is needed for landfills (or less air pollution is produced by incinerating waste) thus we, as humans, are helping to protect the environment when we compost. 
    Note:  When organic waste in landfills decomposes, it produces methane (a greenhouse gas) and liquid 'leachate' that could contaminate land and water if the landfill leaked.  

    2. Explain to students that using a pint-sized milk carton, they will each be making a small model of a compost bin and depositing biodegradable items into it over the next several days. They will also participate in making a compost bin for the entire class in which they will deposit non-biodegradable items. Through class discussion, ask students what they think will happen over time in each of the bins. Ask students to predict what the differences will be between the two compost bins at the end of the project. Record students' ideas on the chalk board or flip chart. Save these predictions to compare to the results at the end of the lesson.

    3. Distribute the cartons, tape, and scissors to each of the students. Using tape, have students close off the pour spout of the carton, turn the container on its side, and cut a flap large enough so they can reach inside to stir with a spoon (teacher could cut cartons prior to the lesson to save time.)
    4. Have students collect small pieces of organic material both outside (such as leaves, bark, pine straw) and at home (such as fruit or vegetable food scraps). This could also be done as a scavenger hunt, in which students collect the items around the school campus. Be sure to avoid meat scraps, dairy items, fats, and oils which slow down decomposition and cause odors. For such a small compost pile, all material should be no longer than one inch and as thin as possible. Students or parents can cut items that are too large or use a food processor to make pieces smaller. Students should collect enough material to fill 3/4 of their milk carton.  
    Student Handout (Optional)   Not available 
    Attachment Title (Optional)    
    Attachment Description (Optional)    
    Attachment(s) (Optional)   Not available 
    Web Resource Title (Optional)    
    Web Resource Description (Optional)    
    Web Resources (Optional)    

    Duration   1 hour and 15 minutes on Day 2; 5-10 minutes per day for 4 weeks, plus 15 minutes for observation sentences at the end of each week 
    Directions and Procedures   Day 2

    5. With the students, review the materials they brought in to make sure there are no non-biodegradable items in the mix. Have the students drain any excess water from unusually wet items and using a spoon, spread a thin layer (approx. 1/2 inch) of organic material over the bottom of the container. Using a spoon, cover the organic matter with a fine sprinkle of soil (approx. 1/4 inch). Students should continue adding the organic material and soil (using the amounts listed above) in rotation until the contents come to within one inch of the container. Have the students use their spoons to thoroughly stir the contents of their bin.

    6. In addition to the individual compost bins, the class should create one bin and deposit non-biodegradable materials such as aluminum foil, plastic, smooth glass, rocks, etc. following the same procedures as the individual bins. This bin should also be stirred daily. At the end of the four week period, students can then compare the differences between their individual bins and the one created without biodegradable materials.

    Ongoing for 4 Weeks

    7. Students should stir their bins daily, and if they seem to be drying out, moisten each with a few tablespoons of water. Do not add any new organic material. At the end of each week, students should write a few sentences about what they observed in their compost bin that week using the attached observation log. After four weeks, each carton should contain crumbly brown soil. Use this for potting plants or vegetables, or sprinkle it around the tops of houseplants for extra nutrition.  
    Student Handout (Optional)   Not available 
    Attachment Title (Optional)   Compost Bin Observation Log  
    Attachment Description (Optional)   This is a simple worksheet that can be used for students to record their weekly observations. Clip art is from Microsoft Office Online. 
    Attachment(s) (Optional)    
    Web Resource Title (Optional)    
    Web Resource Description (Optional)    
    Web Resources (Optional)    
    Duration   30-45 minutes at the end of week 4 
    Directions and Procedures   At End of Week 4

    8. For activity wrap-up, lead the students in a discussion of their observations (referring to their observation logs) and compare them to their predictions of what would happen at the beginning of the lesson. Ask the students to consider how the decomposed matter could be used and whether or not composting could be helpful to the environment.  Be sure that students have the enduring understanding that composting (also known as organics recycling) is a way humans can conserve resources and help protect the environment by creating something useful from organic waste, saving landfill space, and preventing possible land, water, or air pollution.  Students should complete the attached worksheet either during the classroom or as homework. 
    Student Handout (Optional)   Not available 
    Attachment Title (Optional)   Compost Bin Student Worksheet  
    Attachment Description (Optional)   Use this worksheet at the end of the lesson to help assess students' knowledge.  
    Attachment(s) (Optional)    
    Web Resource Title (Optional)    
    Web Resource Description (Optional)    
    Web Resources (Optional)    
    Additional Resources

    Materials and Equipment
    Materials and Equipment   1. one pint-size cardboard milk carton per student, plus one for the class compost bin
    2. organic matter such as leaves, grass clippings, weeds, bark, fruit, or vegetable scraps (no meat, dairy, fats or oils), enough to fill each milk carton 3/4 full
    3. soil (potting soil or soil collected from a garden or wooded area) - enough to fill each milk carton approx. 1/2 full
    4. masking tape
    5. one spoon per student
    6. one pair of scissors per student
    7. inorganic material such as plastic, foil, glass (no sharp edges or easily breakable items!), rocks - enough to fill one compost bin 3/4 full
    8. copies of student observation sheet, student worksheet and teacher answer sheet (see attachments)
    Technology Connection/Integration (Optional)    
    What 21st Century technology was used in this Learning Activity?    

    Differentiation for Content, Product and Process
    Readiness (Recommended)    
    Learning Profile (Recommended)    
    Student Interests (Recommended)   1) After creating "mini" compost cartons, the class could create a schoolyard compost bin and possibly collect appropriate food scraps from the cafeteria.
    2) Worms could also be added to either the mini-compost bins or the larger one. Worms will help aerate the soil and contribute to decomposition. Students could do a comparison of bins with and without the worms.  (Use red wiggler worms.)
    3) A result of decomposition is the release of heat. Students could place a thermometer in the center of the compost pile and record daily temperature changes.
    Attachment Title (Optional)    
    Attachment Description (Optional)    
    Attachments (Optional)   Not available 
    Web Resource Title (Optional)   Georgia Composting Web Resources  
    Web Resource Description (Optional)   These Web resources include directions for making all kinds of bins and information on managing landscape refuse. 
    Web Resources (Optional)  

    UGA's Composting and Mulching: A Guide to Managing Organic Landscape Refuse -

    Worms in my Kitchen (Fernbank Science Center) -

    Composting at Home in Georgia -

    Additional Resources