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Activity Guide
The One Degree Factor: Car Quest


  • Assess the auto fleet on site and encourage teachers to conduct the Web Quests (Step 6) as post-trip follow- up.
  • Combine surveys from various classes to create a broader community assessment.


Assess the environmental impacts of a fleet of cars and then research and prepare a report about greener transportation choices.


Students will:

  • Learn that different types of cars emit different amounts of greenhouse gas and car choice has a significant impact on the environment.
  • Recognize that greener choices do exist when it comes to what you choose to drive.


Science, Social Studies, Mathematics


airborne pollutant, climate change, consumer, emissions, fuel-efficient, global warming, greenhouse gas or heat-trapping gas, trade-off


Four sessions and time for Web research



This activity supports the following National Academy of Sciences Science Education Standards (Grades 5-8):

  • Unifying Concepts and Processes—Form and function
  • Standard A: Science as Inquiry—Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry
  • Standard A: Science as Inquiry—Understandings about scientific inquiry
  • Standard E: Science and Technology—Abilities of technological design
  • Standard E: Science and Technology—Understandings about science and technology
  • Content F: Science in Personal and Social Perspectives—Science and technology in society


According to many scientists who study the effects of consumer actions on the environment, no purchase we make has a bigger effect than our choice of car. After all, our choices about which car we drive can mean the difference of thousands of pounds of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere-a significant amount of airborne pollutants-and the amount of strain we place on nonrenewable resources. These, in turn, influence global climate change, air quality, and resource availability.

Unfortunately, there are no cars available today that are perfectly clean. Although we might be able to walk, bike, or use public transportation to get around, most of us rely on cars for at least some of our transportation needs. And many people simply enjoy driving. Regardless of whether they are old enough to drive, most of your students are probably thinking about the kinds of cars they would like to have-weighing different factors such as speed, looks, cost, comfort, and safety. But how many of your students also weigh environmental factors when they think about their dream cars? How many are even aware of the effects that different kinds of cars can have on the environment?

In this activity, your students will determine the environmental effects of cars-real cars in a parking lot, a fleet consisting of all of their dream cars, or a fleet of your choosing. They will compute how many tons of heat-trapping gases are produced each year, how much it costs to fuel the cars, and so on. Then they will research and prepare reports on “greener” transportation alternatives.


1. Familiarize yourself with the Web sites recommended for student research (see Step 4 under WHAT TO DO and the Web Quest Group Task cards). Decide what fleet of cars you would like students to evaluate — the cars parked outside in the parking lot, a fleet of the students’ own dream cars, or a fleet of your own creation (see “Choosing the Fleet” below).

2. Make enough copies of the Vehicle Fleet Environmental Impact Summary chart for each pair of students and create a large version that can be filled in by the entire class (see Step 5 under WHAT TO DO).

3. Make one copy of the Web Quest Group Tasks cards and cut out each of the cards so that you can distribute one task topic to each of four student groups.

Choosing the Fleet

This activity is written to evaluate the fleet of cars in your institution’s parking lot. But you should feel free to adapt it so that students evaluate their dream car fleet or a fleet you have made up. If you have students evaluate their dream car fleet, you may not see as much variety in the cars they evaluate, and it will be less of a hands-on experience, but they may be more interested in their research. If the students evaluate a fleet you have come up with, they will have less of a hands-on experience, but you will be able to be very clear and specific about years, models, and so on — considerations that may not be obvious when students look at cars firsthand.


1. Discuss “dream cars.” Ask the students if they have ever thought about what kind of car they would most like to own. What cars do they have in mind? Has anyone considered a lifestyle without a car? What factors have influenced their choices? Has anybody considered environmental factors when selecting a dream car? Why or why not?

(Note: If students do not have any ideas, you might give them a few minutes to browse some major carmakers’ Web sites. Also, if any students in your group hope never to own a car, suggest that they might someday need to rent a car for a special trip or other purpose. Those students can also browse the Web briefly for ideas about the kind of car they would want in the short term.)

Explain to the students that this activity will enable them to learn more about the environmental effects of the cars that people drive.

2. Organize the group for a fleet survey. Tell the students that they will be going outside and taking an inventory of the cars parked in the lot. Divide the students into teams of two, and give each team a copy of the Vehicle Fleet Environmental Impact Summary . Explain that you will be assigning each team a different section of the lot, and they will record the make (for example, Honda), model (for example, Accord), type (sedan, SUV, small pick-up, sports car, and so on), and, if possible, year of the vehicles in their section. In other words, they will be filling in only the first three columns of their chart for now, keeping a tally in column one of the total number of vehicles of each type they find (see Sample Vehicle Fleet Environmental Impact Summary ). Later they will be researching the information for the final columns.

(Note: If the students cannot tell the year of a vehicle by looking at it, they should either make an estimate or put the current year.)

Before you head outside, review some basic parking lot safety tips. Tell the students to be attentive to the movement of cars in and out of spaces and to assume that drivers probably do not see them unless the drivers indicate otherwise. Explain that most drivers will not expect to find students walking in and around the cars. Assign two students the task of warning people going out to their cars and two students warning people at the entrance of the parking area that there are students carrying out research in the lot.

3. Begin the fleet survey. Head outside and gather your group around as you assign their study areas. Divide the parking lot into as many equal areas as needed so that each team of two students is responsible for surveying approximately the same number of cars. Then have students fill in the first three columns of their chart.

4. Investigate the fleet’s environmental effects. Once back inside, have the students use the Internet to investigate the environmental effects of the vehicles in their section of the parking lot and complete the data in the remaining columns of their chart. Tell the students that as they visit the Web sites that have this data, they may need more information about the vehicles in their area than they actually know. Tell them that if they do not know whether the car they saw was an automatic or manual transmission, they should use data for an automatic. If they do not know what type of engine it had, they should use the smallest size (usually V-4 or V-6).

Environmental information (particularly regarding mileage, annual fuel costs, and greenhouse gas emissions) for most cars can be found at the Department of Energy’s Web site on fuel economy ( www.fueleconomy.gov ). Greenhouse gases emitted are listed in tons per year, assuming that the average car is driven 15,000 miles per year. (If your students are not familiar with the term “greenhouse gas,” use the information in Change Is in the Air to lead a short discussion, making sure that students understand the connections between greenhouse gases and global warming. You might explain to them that, while the Department of Energy Web site uses the term “greenhouse gas,” the students may also see the gas referred to as “heat-trapping gas” in other publications.) Airborne pollutants are listed with a rating system and may have several scores, so students should determine an approximate average.

Safety information is available from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s “Buying a Safer Car” Web site (www.nhtsa.dot.gov/NCAP). This information assigns stars in various categories, so students should determine an approximate average for their vehicles.

5. Interpret the fleet data. After each team has completed its “Vehicle Fleet Environmental Impact Summary,” have the teams pool their data onto a single large chart. Invite the first team to enter its data, using tally marks instead of numerals in Column 1. Then, as other teams add their data, they can simply add another tally mark beside any vehicle that they also researched. Once all the data have been recorded, have the students determine the total number of cars and overall averages for each column. Ask the students to review the chart and share any observations or interpretations they have made. If the students do not address them on their own, you might ask the following questions:

  • Which cars have the highest and lowest safety ratings?
  • Are the more fuel-efficient cars any more or less safe than the cars with less fuel efficiency?
  • How important do you think the car’s safety rating is in weighing the pros and cons of different car choices? Would different individuals be likely to value safety differently? (Encourage the students to think about different user groups such as parents, people who use their car for long commutes, and so on.)
  • Which types of vehicles have the greatest environmental impacts?
  • What are some of the trade-offs a buyer has to weigh when deciding which car to buy (for example, fuel cost, safety, and emissions)?
  • Does this kind of research help consumers make more informed decisions? Do the students think that in the future they will do this much research to find out about a car they intend to buy? Other products?
  • Did this research affect anyone’s thoughts about their dream cars? How? Encourage the students to calculate the environmental impacts of their dream cars. Do they seem like good or bad choices from an environmental standpoint?

Source: Department of Energy’s Web site on fuel economy, www.fueleconomy.gov . Average fuel cost based on 45% highway driving, 55% city driving, 15000 annual miles and an average per-gallon fuel price determined by the Environmental Protection Agency for the type of fuel used by the vehicle.

The students might note that few consumers have the time to thoroughly research each purchase they make. But by knowing where to look for information and gathering as much data as possible, consumers can make better and more informed decisions. For products as expensive and with as large an environmental effect as a car, it is important to gather as much information as possible before making a decision.

You may also want to have students run through some calculations to compare the environmental effects of different fleets. For example, have the students calculate the total annual amount of greenhouse gas emissions and consumption of nonrenewable fuel for the entire parking lot fleet, assuming each parking lot vehicle is driven 15,000 miles per year. Does this number seem high? Is it hard to visualize? Now have them make the same calculation assuming an entire fleet of very fuel-efficient cars, and again for an entire fleet of their dream cars. How do the numbers compare? Do the students start to see how the collective effects of our car choices can really add up?

6. Conduct Web quests. Now that the students have sharpened their skills as car shoppers, tell them that they will have a chance to investigate some of the options they might have for purchasing “cleaner” cars when they are ready to hit the dealers’ lots. And, if the students are given hand-me-down cars and do not get the chance to shop for one, they will learn about some ways that they can improve that car’s fuel efficiency. Finally, for those students who are more interested in other modes of transportation, they will get the chance to investigate what other ways of getting around are available in your community.

Divide the students into four groups and have each group conduct a Web quest to answer a different question. (You can either let the students divide themselves according to the topics that most interest them, or you can randomly assign students to groups.) Each group will focus on one of the following topics:

a. Hybrid Cars: What are hybrid cars? How do they work? Why are they so fuel-efficient? Are they available for purchase in your community?

b. Alternative Fuels: What are “alternative” fuels? What materials are used as alternative fuels?

c. Increasing Fuel Efficiency: How can people increase the fuel efficiency of the cars they already own? How much savings (in tons of greenhouse gases emitted as well as in dollars) could one person get from making these changes?

d. Non-Car Transportation: What are some of the non-car transportation options in your community? Do they use less fuel per person than cars?

Give each group the appropriate sheet from the Web Quest Group Tasks pages. Students can write answers to their group questions, create a poster that contains both written answers to their questions and visual aids such as pictures and diagrams, or prepare a PowerPoint presentation that summarizes their results. If some of the groups choose to develop a PowerPoint, the presentation should include four or five slides that address the group questions. No matter which format the groups choose, they should all cite the Web sites or other resources that they consulted.

7. Discuss findings. After each group has presented its findings, discuss the pros and cons of that particular approach to reducing greenhouse gas and other pollutant emissions. How effective is it? How expensive is it? How feasible is it? Does it seem like a reasonable option for most people?

In conclusion, ask students to recall their dream car. Has this activity changed their priorities with regard to cars and other transportation options? Do they think they will consider a car’s environmental impact if they go car shopping? Will they think about making other choices to get around? If so, in what kinds of situations will they choose other options? Will some students try not to own a car in the future? Why or why not?


Remind the students that, at the start of the lesson, they had to think of their dream car. Have them write down that type of car. Below this, have them answer the following questions:

  • Would you still want this type of car? Why or why not?
  • What are the environmental benefits or problems with your dream car?
  • What might be a different car that would give you the same benefits of your dream car but would be a better choice environmentally? How do you know?

Needs Improvement—One or more elements from the assignment are missing. The student fails to incorporate evidence from the class activities to support his or her position. Arguments are not presented logically or rationally.

Satisfactory—The student is able to logically present why he or she would or would not want the same vehicle now. Using information from class, benefits or problems with the student’s dream car are identified. A rational alternative is presented and supported with solid argumentation.

Excellent—The student presents convincing arguments why he or she would or would not want the same vehicle. Benefits or problems are backed up with data and sources that were identified and used in the class. The student’s rationale reveals critical reflection.


  • Develop and carry out a plan to help educate the drivers of the parking lot vehicles about reducing the environmental effects of their cars.
  • Research the availability of “green” cars (including hybrids) at car dealerships in your community. How many green cars have been purchased since the cars have become available? When, if at all, do dealers expect to have those cars available in the future if they do not have them now?
  • While most forms of public transportation are more efficient than having each passenger drive a car, many buses and other public transportation vehicles are responsible for large amounts of pollution and fuel use. But more environmentally friendly mass transportation alternatives are available, and growing numbers of cities are beginning to turn to “clean” buses, light rail, and other greener options in public transportation. Challenge students to compare the environmental effects of the use of school buses to carpooling in personal vehicles. Also have students research the next generation of public transportation options.
  • Research and report on connections between greenhouse gas emissions and global warming and the significance of global climate change. Discuss or debate the degree to which global warming should influence one’s choice of car.


The Department of Energy provides information on gas mileage, greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution ratings, and safety information for new and used cars and trucks. www.fueleconomy.gov

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s “Buying a Safer Car” supplies consumers with safety information, including frontal and side crash test results, to aid them in their vehicle purchase decisions. www.nhtsa.dot.gov/NCAP

Consumer Reports provides expert advice and information that guides consumers to the best new and used vehicles on the market. www.consumerreports.org

The Environmental Defense Fund’s “Tailpipe Tally” is a simple interactive tool that calculates fuel consumption, fuel cost, and vehicle emissions for any vehicle built from 1978 to the present. www.environmentaldefense.org/tool_pop.cfm?tool=tailpipe

The National 4-H Council’s Going Places, Making Choices is a curriculum produced for high school students, focusing on the history of transportation, natural resources, land use and energy use, climate change, and community action. www.4hgpmc.com

The Public Transportation Partnership for Tomorrow provides information on who uses public transportation, who provides it, and what the benefits of public transportation are. It also reports on various transportation issues and links to local public transportation information by state. www.publictransportation.org

The American Public Transportation Association provides statistics and online documents about energy consumption, environmental benefits, history, and various other public transportation-related issues. www.apta.com


Global climate change is an environmental issue that has generated international attention from the media, governments, scientists, and others. Many believe that, partly because of human activities (especially the burning of fossil fuels), Earth’s climate is changing. And many individuals have been left wondering what role they play in the problem and the solutions. The following is a quick overview to help put the issue into perspective.

Carbon dioxide is a gas that occurs naturally in Earth’s atmosphere. Its heat-trapping properties help keep the planet warm enough to sustain life. The problem is that the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is increasing dramatically because of human activities. Emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases from the burning of fossil fuels-coal, oil, and gas-build up in the atmosphere and blanket Earth, trapping heat and causing global warming.1 Ever since the Industrial Revolution began in the second half of the eighteenth century,2 levels of carbon dioxide have been rising. That is because the gas is a by-product of burning fossil fuels, which have been burned in increasing amounts since the Industrial Revolution began. Fossil fuels have become our main source of energy-powering our factories, food production, forms of transportation, and most of our electricity-generating plants.3

As levels of carbon dioxide have increased, the atmosphere has gotten warmer. Scientists are now monitoring the environmental damage already being caused by global warming and gauging its future impact on life on Earth. Coral reefs and arctic species such as polar bears are already suffering the effects of global warming. Scientists agree that sea levels will rise as glaciers and arctic ice continue to melt and that there will be extreme changes in weather patterns. They predict that crucial habitats will rapidly be altered or disappear, leaving species little time to adapt to the changing temperatures and landscape, which could cause some species to die out.4

Scientists think that individuals can help reduce levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by shifting their consumer habits. Buying products that are energy-efficient and locally produced or that are not heavily processed and packaged can help reduce the energy needed to produce, transport, and use the products. Buying fewer products and driving less, whenever we have a choice, can also help. But individual efforts need to be coupled with concerted efforts by governments and businesses around the world to significantly reduce emissions of carbon dioxide.

1 WWF. 2004. “What Is Global Warming?” www.panda.org/about_wwf/what_we_do/climate_change/problems/index.cfm

2 The History Guide. “The Origins of the Industrial Revolution in England.” www.historyguide.org/intellect/lecture17a.html

3 Energy Information Administration. 2004. “Energy Kids Page, www.eia.doe.gov/kids/

4 WWF. 2004. “Climate Change.” www.worldwildlife.org/climate . See also WWF. 2004. “Corals.” www.worldwildlife.org/coral/index.cfm


Activity adapted from Smart Consumers—An Educator’s Guide to Exploring Consumer Issues and the Environment, a resource of World Wildlife Fund’s Windows on the Wild biodiversity education program. For more information on WOW please visit www.worldwildlife.org/windows .

Note to Teachers: This lesson and others relating to National Geographic’s Strange Days on Planet Earth can be found online at www.pbs.org/strangedays/

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