National Agricultural Literacy Curriculum Matrix
Corn an A-maizing Plant: Food, Fuel, and Plastic
3 - 5
Students will examine the growth, composition, history, and uses of corn through a close reading activity, discussion of renewable and non-renewable resources, and hands-on exploration of bioplastics made from corn.
- Corn/Corn-Free Products Image
- Corn/Corn-Free Product List
- Corn: A Golden Treasure handout
- United States Map
- A Brief History of Corn handout
- A Golden Nugget PowerPoint
- Renewable vs. Nonrenewable cards
- 10 Styrofoam packing peanuts*
- 10 biodegradable packing peanuts*
- 2 sandwich-size resealable bags
- Physical and Chemical Change PowerPoint
- Sandwich-size resealable bags, 1 per group
- Cornstarch, 1 tablespoon per group
- Corn oil, 2 drops per group
- Water, 1 tablespoon per group
- Food coloring, 2 drops per group
- Tablespoons, 1 per group
- Bioplastic activity sheet
*These items are included in the Packing Peanuts Kit, which is available for purchase.
Essential Files (maps, charts, pictures, or documents)
- Renewable vs. Nonrenewable Cards
- A Golden Nugget PowerPoint
- Corn: A Golden Treasure Handout
- Corn/Corn-Free Products Image
- Corn/Corn-Free Products List
- United States Map
- A Brief History of Corn Handout
- Physical and Chemical Change PowerPoint
- Bioplastic Activity Sheet
Corn Belt: the area of the United States where corn is the predominant crop grown
biodegradable: capable of being broken down through the actions of living organisms and natural processes over time
bioplastics: a group of plastics made from biological materials like plant starches, cellulose, oils, or protein
bushel: for corn, a unit of weight equal to 56 pounds
by-products: in agriculture, secondary products produced from the main product of a crop or animal; for example, cornstarch is a by-product of corn
compostable: capable of breaking down through the actions of living organisms in specific conditions to a defined outcome; generally, the conditions are moist, warm, and aerobic, and the end product is non-toxic compost that can enhance soil and support plant growth
endosperm: tissue formed within a seed that contains energy (starch) and protein for the germinating seed
germ: the living embryo of the corn kernel that contains the essential genetic information, enzymes, vitamins, and minerals for the kernel to grow into a corn plant
nonrenewable resources: limited natural resources that cannot be replaced or reproduced within a generation and cannot be managed for renewal. Examples: oil, soil, mineral resources (lead, iron, cobalt, zinc, etc.)
pericarp: the outer, protective covering of the corn kernel
recyclable: capable of being recycled
renewable resources: natural resources that can be replaced naturally or by human efforts at a sustainable rate. Examples: forests, fish, wildlife, agriculture, plants, animals
Did you know? (Ag Facts)
- In 2015, US corn growers produced an average of 168 bushels per acre.2
- An average ear of corn has 800 kernels, and there are approximately 72,000 kernels in one bushel of corn.3
- One bushel of corn provides: 31.5 lbs of starch or 33 lbs of sweetener or 2.8 gallons of ethanol.3
Background Agricultural Connections
Interest Approach – Engagement
- Provide each student with the Corn/Corn-Free Product List and project the photograph of the corn and corn-free products on the classroom screen. Explain that every item on the list is shown in the photograph. Ask the students to circle each item on the list that they think contains corn.
- After the students have finished circling the items, tell them that only one of the items does not contain corn. Ask the students to tell you which item they think does not contain corn.
- Reveal to the class that the only item on the list that does not contain corn is the pasta. It contains wheat flour, not corn flour. Refer to the list below to explain what form of corn each remaining item contains.
Aspirin – cornstarch Baking Powder – cornstarch Batteries – cornstarch (insulation) Bubble Gum – corn syrup Coke – corn syrup Corn Tortillas – corn flour Crayons – corn oil Crunch Berries – corn syrup Diaper – cornstarch Gain Detergent – cornstarch Matches – cornstarch (match head) Pasta – does not contain corn Shoelaces – cornstarch (for smooth tying) Snickers Bar – corn syrup
- Show students the Corn: A Golden Treasure handout. Explain that corn is not only used in food products but also in many non-food items we use every day.
Activity 1: A Brief History of Corn
- Provide each student with a copy of the A Brief History of Corn handout. Have students do a close reading of the text. For more information about the close reading strategy, refer to the resource guide Supporting Students in Close Reading.
- Using the map of the United States, have students identify and highlight the states that are part of the Corn Belt—Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska, Minnesota, Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan, South Dakota, Kansas, Missouri, Kentucky, and Ohio. Explain to the students that the warm, rainy summers and deep, fertile soils in this region of the United States are particularly well suited for growing corn.
- Use the A Golden Nugget PowerPoint to discuss the different types of corn plants and their uses, the structure of a corn kernel, and the functions of each part of the kernel.
- Discussion Questions: Who used corn in ancient times? What are some of the ways corn is used today? Where is most of the corn grown in the United States? How have the uses of corn changed over time? What are the parts of the corn kernel called, and how are these parts useful?
Activity 2: Renewable vs. Nonrenewable Resources
- Write the word “Resources” on the center of the white board. Discuss what kinds of resources are essential to our everyday lives. We use many resources to provide our basic needs—food, water, shelter, and clothing.
- Write the word “Nonrenewable” on one side of the board and “Renewable” on the other side. Discuss the definitions of each word.
- Nonrenewable resources are made naturally by the earth but do not renew themselves fast enough for people to count on having the resource for an indefinite period time. Some resources are considered nonrenewable because access to the resource is limited. For example, glass and metal are nonrenewable resources. The elements and minerals used to make glass and metal are found in the structure of the earth's crust, but we are limited to what we can access through mining.
- Renewable resources are either naturally reproduced at a sustainable rate or they can be produced in agriculture at a rate equivalent to the demand or need. For example, corn can be used for ethanol fuel, and a new crop of corn can be grown and harvested each year. Corn is a renewable resource.
- Divide the students into ten groups and give each group one of the Renewable vs. Nonrenewable cards. Each of these cards represents something that we use in our day-to-day activities. Ask each group to read their card and determine if the resource is renewable or nonrenewable. Once they have decided, they should place their card on the appropriate side of the board.
- Nonrenewable: gasoline, plastic, glass, metal
- Renewable: energy from the wind, energy from the sun, biodiesel, paper, food, and clothing
- Discuss the placement of the cards as a class. Emphasize that renewable resources are often grown or produced by farmers in a relatively short amount of time. Most nonrenewable resources are produced naturally by or in the earth. They can take thousands of years to form.
- Pick up or point to the “Plastic” card, which should be on the nonrenewable side of the board. Transition to the next activity by telling students that there is a method of making plastic that can be renewable.
Activity 3: Making Bioplastic
- Introduce the word “bioplastic” by writing it on the board and breaking it into two parts. “Bio” means that it comes from a living thing. “Bioplastic” is plastic that comes from a living thing.
- Place ten Styrofoam packing peanuts and ten biodegradable packing peanuts into two separate sandwich-size resealable bags. Add one cup of water to each bag, seal tight, and shake. The biodegradable peanuts will dissolve in less than ten seconds, while the Styrofoam will remain unchanged. Refer to the Physical and Chemical Change PowerPoint to discuss the physical change that takes place when the biodegradable packing peanuts dissolve in water.
- Explain to the students that the biodegradable packing peanuts are made of over 99% cornstarch and a small amount of food grade oil. The Styrofoam packing peanuts are made from petroleum. As a class, discuss the pros and cons of the two types of packing peanuts.
- Explain to the students that they will be making another type of bioplastic out of materials that come from the corn plant. Divide the class into groups of 4-5 students. Give each group cornstarch, corn oil, water, and food coloring.
- To make the bioplastic, have the students combine 1 tablespoon of cornstarch, 2 drops of corn oil, 1 tablespoon of water, and 2 drops of food coloring in a resealable sandwich-size bag.
- Instruct students to seal the bag and mix the ingredients by rubbing the outside of the bag with their fingers until the ingredients are thoroughly combined.
- Open the bag slightly, making sure it can vent, and place it into a microwave oven on high for 20-25 seconds.
- Carefully remove the bag from the microwave, and let it cool for a few minutes. While it is still warm, allow the students to form their plastic into a ball. Refer to the Physical and Chemical Change PowerPoint to discuss the chemical change that occurs when the bioplastic is made.
- Ask the students to complete the Making Bioplastic activity sheet and then discuss their observations as a class.
Concept Elaboration and Evaluation
- After conducting these activities, review and summarize the following key concepts:
- Corn is a versatile crop used for human consumption, livestock feed, and a wide range of industrial products, including bioplastics.
- Renewable resources can be replaced naturally or by human efforts at a sustainable rate.
- Bioplastics are made from renewable, biological materials produced on farms.
- To promote critical thinking, ask students, "Is corn plastic better than plastic made from petroleum-based products?" Allow students to offer their ideas. Consider showing the D News segment, The Shocking Truth About Biodegradable Plastics to stimulate thought.
Refer to the information found in the Background Agricultural Connections section of the lesson to help guide this discussion. Be sure students recognize that while corn plastic is made from a renewable resource, there are still pros and cons to its use. Point out to students that scientists will be needed to help discover new and improved solutions to challenges surrounding the use of natural resources, the best methods of recycling, and the reduction of waste in our landfills and oceans.
Watch the 3-minute "How Stuff Works" video clip about Corn Plastic.
Learn more about how petroleum-based plastic is made and recycled by watching the video From Oil to Plastic.
Make corn Johnnycakes in your classroom. The batter is simple to prepare and cooks quickly on an electric griddle.
Read Issue 5 of Ag Today titled Agriculture in Society. This reader can be printed or accessed digitally. Students will learn the term sustainability and what that means to farmers who need to produce 60% more food with the same amount of land in order to feed a growing world population. Learn what byproducts are and how they are used, how food packaging has decreased waste, and how farmers use technology such as various tools, robots, and hand-held devices to improve their efficiency.
Suggested Companion Resources
- Get Popping! (Activity)
- A True Book: Corn (Book)
- Carlos and the Cornfield (Book)
- Corn (Book)
- Corn in the Story of Agriculture (Book)
- Corn is Maize: The Gift of the Indians (Book)
- Eating the Plates (Book)
- Four Seasons of Corn: A Winnebago Tradition (Book)
- If You Lived In Colonial Times (Book)
- Step into the Inca World (Book)
- Tomatoes, Potatoes, Corn & Beans (Book)
- Crazy About Corn (Kit)
- Farming in a Glove (Corn Seeds) (Kit)
- Grains and Legumes of the World (Kit)
- Living Necklace Kits (Kit)
- Packing Peanuts (Kit)
- Three Sisters Seed Packet (Kit)
- Corn and Soybean Processing and Utilization Poster (Poster, Map, Infographic)
- America's Heartland: Nebraska Corn Farm (Multimedia)
- Better Paper, Plastics with Starch (Multimedia)
- How It's Made: Corn Tortillas (Multimedia)
- How Stuff Works: Corn Plastic (Multimedia)
- How Stuff Works: Popcorn (Multimedia)
- Into the Outdoors: A-maize-ing Corn (Multimedia)
- National Geographic Kids: Making Stuff videos (Multimedia)
- Popped Secret: The Mysterious Origin of Corn (Multimedia)
- Those Amazing Kernels of Corn! (Multimedia)
- Ag Today (Booklets & Readers)
- In The Three Sisters Garden (Teacher Reference)
Agricultural Literacy Outcomes
Plants and Animals for Food, Fiber & Energy
- Distinguish between renewable and non-renewable resources used in the production of food, feed, fuel, fiber and shelter (T2.3-5.b)
Education Content Standards
3-5-ETS1: Engineering Design
3-5-ETS1-2Generate and compare multiple possible solutions to a problem based on how well each is likely to meet the criteria and constraints of the problem.
Common Core Connections
Mathematics: Practice Standards
CCSS.MATH.PRACTICE.MP1Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them. Students start by explaining to themselves the meaning of a problem and looking for entry points to its solution. They analyze givens, constraints, relationships, and goals. They make conjectures about the form and meaning of the solution and plan a solution pathway rather than simply jumping into a solution attempt. They consider analogous problems, and try special cases and simpler forms of the original problem in order to gain insight into its solution. They monitor and evaluate their progress and change course if necessary. Students check their answers to problems using a different method, and they continually ask themselves, “Does this make sense?” They can understand the approaches of others to solving complex problems and identify correspondences between different approaches.