Fossil Fuels


Fossil Fuels introduces students to the three nonrenewable sources of energy that people use. Students will be able to identify traits and qualities about coal, oil, and natural gas. They will also be able to describe the pros and cons of using these sources of energy.

You can look at the “Options for Lesson” section for ideas for additional things to do or alternative activities for the lesson. One suggestion is to invite a representative from a utility company or an environmentalist to speak with the class about using fossil fuels as energy.

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What our Fossil Fuels lesson plan includes

Lesson Objectives and Overview: Fossil Fuels teaches students how these energy sources form and where to find them. Students will discover both the pros and cons for using these sources of energy. They will also be able to define terms that relate to fossil fuels. This lesson is for students in 4th grade, 5th grade, and 6th grade.

Classroom Procedure

Every lesson plan provides you with a classroom procedure page that outlines a step-by-step guide to follow. You do not have to follow the guide exactly. The guide helps you organize the lesson and details when to hand out worksheets. It also lists information in the yellow box that you might find useful. You will find the lesson objectives, state standards, and number of class sessions the lesson should take to complete in this area. In addition, it describes the supplies you will need as well as what and how you need to prepare beforehand. For this lesson, you will need to supply construction paper or poster boards and markers or colored pencils. You will also need to make sure students have internet access or access to other resources for their research.

Options for Lesson

The classroom procedure page contains an “Options for Lesson” section that may prove useful to you if have time for more activities or want some alternative ideas. A few suggestions relate specifically to the activity worksheet. Instead of having students work in pairs, they can work alone or in groups. You could assign them more than one fossil fuel to compare. Alternatively, you could assign each student a single perspective for the activity, having them present either the benefits or the disadvantages of using these energy sources. Another idea is to hold a vote in which students vote for the best, most creative, funniest, and most persuasive posters. You could also invite a representative from a utility company or an environmentalist (or both!) to come speak to the class. Finally, you could assign students specific renewable energy sources to research and present to the class.

Teacher Notes

The paragraph on the teacher notes page provides a little additional guidance or explanation for the lesson. In this case, it reminds you that while students may have heard of fossil fuels, they may not fully understand what they are or where to find them. Use the blank lines on this page to write down any other ideas you have that relate to the lesson.


What Are Fossil Fuels?

The Fossil Fuels lesson plan includes four pages of content. The first section describes the role plants play when it comes to different types of fuel. Students will relate receiving energy from food and plants to the oil and gas in a car. Without oil and gas, cars would not have the energy necessary to move just like humans couldn’t move or survive without energy from food and water. The same is true of a house. A house needs energy to keep its inhabitants warm and provide light.

The fuel in homes or cars, or business and other places, often comes from oil, natural gas, and coal. These fuels provide energy in a different way than plants do to humans and took many millions of years to develop. Because they are so old, scientists call them fossil fuels. In fact, dead plants and animals play a huge role in the development of these fossil fuels. This is because the energy they absorbed throughout life stayed with them after they died. They decayed slowly and eventually ended up under layers and layers of dirt. The high temperatures and extreme pressure on those remains transformed them into fossil fuels.


Students will first learn about the fossil fuel coal. Coal is the most abundant fossil fuel in the United States. It is a burnable rock made from carbonized plant matter, or dead and decaying plants from millions and millions of years ago. Of all the fossil fuels, people have used coal the most often and for the longest amount of time. In fact, humans have used coal for hundreds and possibly thousands of years. One of its earliest uses was in steam engines in trains. Today, we use coal at power plants to produce electricity.

Scientists classify coal based on the amount of carbon within the rock and the heat energy it can produce. There are four types: anthracite, bituminous, subbituminous, and lignite. Anthracite has 86–97% carbon and has the highest heating value. It accounts for under 1% of all the coal mined in the United States. Bituminous contains 45–86% carbon and is between 100 million and 300 million years old. Most of the coal in the U.S. is bituminous coal.

Subbituminous coal has 35–45% carbon in it. Most coal of this type is about 100 million years old. The heating value is lower than bituminous coal, and it accounts for nearly half of the coal people mine in America. Most of it is in the state of Wyoming. The last type is lignite, which has 25–35% carbon and the lowest energy content. Scientists consider it a “young” coal that has not been subjected to the extreme heat and pressure of older rocks. It’s crumbly and contains a lot of moisture. People use it to generate electricity, but some people convert it to a synthetic natural gas.

Students will then learn why coal can be problematic as an energy source, one reason being its contributions to air pollution. They will also learn about strip mining and how the process has affected large areas of the Appalachian Mountains. Overall, coal generates about 30% of the electricity the U.S. produces as of 2017.


Next, students will learn all about oil. As of 2017, oil generates only about 0.6% of the electricity the U.S. produces. However, 70% of all the oil we consume is for transportation. Crude oil is also formed from plants and animals that lived millions of years ago, except it exists in liquid form. Most oil deposits began forming either at the bottom of the ocean’s surface in tiny spaces within sedimentary rocks, or in tar or oil sands.

Students will learn that people can’t use crude oil as it is found because it needs to be refined. The lesson explains how this process works and what products result from the refining process. Humans have known about crude oil for hundreds of years, but we didn’t start using it consistently until the mid-1800s, when we started using to make kerosene for oil lamps. The top three oil producers in the world are Saudi Arabia, the United States, and Russia. The top three consumers are the United States, China, and Japan.

Similarly to using coal, using oil has its downsides as well. When it burns, it emits dangerous greenhouse gases, which contribute to global warming and acid rain. Car exhaust releases gases into the air that can lead to diseases like cancer and asthma.

Natural Gas

Finally, students will discover the uses of natural gas as a fossil fuel. Natural gas is flammable and consists largely of methane and hydrocarbons. It naturally forms underground in a similar way to the other nonrenewable fuels like coal and oil: from decayed plants and animals. The gasses move into large cracks and spaces between layers of overlying rock.

It is odorless, colorless, and tasteless in its natural state. However, distributors of this fossil fuel add mercaptan, which smells like sulfur, to it as a safety device. This helps them detect when natural gas leaks into the atmosphere. When people find a source of natural gas, they drill down to access it, and it flows up through pipes. Then they store it in underground tanks. It may surprise students to learn that when they chill the gas, it turns into a liquid.

Once again, there are cons to using natural gas as a source of energy. It can negatively affect the environment and pollute sources of water. The process of fracking, which requires a large amount of water, produces large amounts of waste water. It can actually cause small earthquakes in the areas that use the fracking process.

Key Terms

Here is a list of the vocabulary words students will learn in this lesson plan:

  • Photosynthesis—the process by which plants get energy from the sun
  • Fossil fuels—the sources of energy people use that took millions of years to develop and process (oil, natural gas, coal)
  • Coal—a combustible black or brown rock that comes from carbonized plant matter from millions of years ago
  • Nonrenewable energy—an energy source that took millions of years to form and cannot be used again
  • Strip mining—the removal of soil and rock above coal deposits
  • Natural gas—a flammable gas that consists largely of methane and other hydrocarbons
  • Mercaptan—a chemical that smells like sulfur, or rotten eggs, and that helps detect natural gas leaks in the atmosphere


The Fossil Fuels lesson plan contains three worksheets: an activity worksheet, a practice worksheet, and a homework assignment. Each one will help students solidify their grasp of the lesson material. You can refer to the classroom procedure page to know when to hand out each one to the students.


You will assign pairs of students one of the fossil fuels to research. Students will work with a partner to create two posters, one describing the benefits of using that resource and one describing the disadvantages. The worksheet explains step by step what to do for each poster. Students can use the blank boxes at the bottom of the page to create a rough draft of each poster.


The practice worksheet has two sections. The first part requires students to look at 10 terms and determine whether they refer to coal (C), oil (O), or natural gas (N). It is possible for a statement to describe multiple resources. They will then use the blank box to describe how that term relates to the fuel they chose. The second section requires students to write which type of coal the description relates to. There are five descriptions in this section.


For the homework assignment, students will first look at 10 statements and decide whether they describe coal (C), oil (O), or natural gas (N). Then they will answer 12 questions that relate to the content they learned during the lesson. You may or may not allow them to use the content pages for reference.

Worksheet Answer Keys

The last two pages of the lesson plan are answer keys for the practice and homework worksheets. The answer key for the practice worksheet shows the correct answers in red. Students’ explanations in the first section may vary from the sample answers. The correct answers are also in red for the homework answer key. If you choose to administer the lesson pages to your students via PDF, you will need to save a new file that omits these pages. Otherwise, you can simply print out the applicable pages and keep these as reference for yourself when grading assignments.

Additional information


4th Grade, 5th Grade, 6th Grade


Science, Video

State Educational Standards

LB.ELA-Literacy.SL.4.1.c, LB.ELA-Literacy.SL.4.5, LB.ELA-Literacy.SL.5.1.c, LB.ELA-Literacy.SL.5.5, LB.ELA-Literacy.RST.6.4, LB.ELA-Literacy.RST.6.7, LB.ELA-Literacy.RST.6.10

Lessons are aligned to meet the education objectives and goals of most states. For more information on your state objectives, contact your local Board of Education or Department of Education in your state.

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Lisa M.

Fossil Fuels

I found these lessons very interactive for my students. I was able to modify the lesson for my grade 2 scientist. Thanks for making this resource available to us all.

Crystal S.

Fossil Fuels

Great article! Had specific information that was easily understandable.

Allison L.

Excellent Quality Print and Go Resource

I was desperate for resources I could adapt to an online learning environment. This gave me some great ideas, and is something I will use in my non-virtual classroom when this topic comes up next year!

Angela W.

Fossil Fuels

This was a great packet! Will be coming back to see what else you have that will fit into my plans.

Cheryl P.

Fossil Fuels

The lesson was a wonderful way to introduce how fossil fuels originated! The students enjoyed collaborating on the poster and exploring the types of fossil fuels damaging the environment.