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Tobacco and Organisms

By Kathryn M. Hopkins


  • Hands-on Activity
  • Inquiry Lab
  • Group / Cooperative Learning
  • Authentic Assessment


  • Life Science
  • Biology

What Question Does This Activity Help Students Answer?

  • "What Effect Does Tobacco Have On Organisms?"


Notes For Teacher:

This activity can be used with middle school life science students or with high school biology students. It can be used in an interdisciplinary, theme-based setting or as a stand-alone science lesson. Since it is done in cooperative learning groups, it also has been used successfully with mainstreamed special needs students. This activity requires a large amount of patience from the teacher, it is one which allows the students a great deal of freedom and makes a big mess.

Required of Students:

Students need good group skills. This is not a lesson which can be done before students have been exposed to team-building activities.

Preparation Time Needed:

If the lesson is done with an interdisciplinary team, the preparatory activites take about a week. If the lesson is to be a stand-alone science lesson, the students need a class period to analyze the directions and brainstorm. Getting the materials organized to do the lab takes one prep period and a trip to the store.

Class Time Needed:

A week of 45 - 55 minute periods is ideal for completion of the lab, but it can be completed in two periods, if necessary. If the lab is part of an interdisciplinary activity, at least another week is necessary for follow up.



The students receive a letter from an imaginary company asking students to do research about the effects of tobacco on organisms; the premise of the letter is that stockholders of the company have asked for a review of the company's holdings, especially those in the tobacco industry.

(When the lesson is part of interdisciplinary instruction, the theme is responsible citizenship and the essential question is "How Can I Make A Difference?". The teams do research into the tobacco industry, write position papers, play The Stock Market Game and assume roles for a mock stockholders' meeting which is the culminating activity and performance assessment.)

Students work in teams to design and carry out experiments which will show the effects of
tobacco / nicotine on organisms. They write reports which are submitted to "The Company" and prepare oral reports which are presented to the class by each team and which are videotaped.

Students use a peer review process to analyze the experiments and presentations. Finally, each student chooses the appropriate journal entries, lab reports, experimental design diagrams, videotape, etc., to be included in the portfolio.

Materials Needed:

  • A large supply of jars, beakers, petri dishes or other containers
  • Indicators ( phenol red, bromothymol blue) Microscopes and slides
  • Radish seeds
  • Yeast
  • Small fish
  • Brine shrimp
  • Funnels and filter paper
  • Large plastic syringes (e.g. B - D Plastipak from Carolina Biological)
  • A piece of tubing to fit each syringe in which to place a cigarette
  • Cigarettes
  • Chewing tobacco


  • Students meet in their cooperative learning groups to analyze the letter, take notes in their journals about what is expected of them and brainstorm how to do the research.

  • Each team prepares an experimental design diagram which is submitted to the teacher for approval, along with a list of materials needed for their work. These designs are returned with suggestions about how to proceed and requirements for the journal entries, lab reports and portfolio submissions.

  • Teams pick up their materials and begin doing the procedures which they have written in their experimental design diagrams. Tasks are assigned to all team members. Depending on the time frame, students may do one set of experiments or several.

  • The cigarettes are "smoked" ( in a fume hood or outdoors) with the syringes and the smoke is bubbled slowly into a container of water which is then capped and set aside to be used when needed. If chewing tobacco is used, a small amount is soaked in water and filtered and the liquid is stored in a capped container. Students should use gloves when handling the tobacco products and syringes. Some students have soaked the filters from smoked cigarettes in water or placed cotton in the syringe and then soaked the cotton in water to use in their experiments.

  • The students apply the tobacco water in some way to the organism(s) they have chosen and devise some way to quantify the results. Seeds can be soaked and germinated. Blood vessels in fish tails can be observed. Gill beats can be counted. Brine shrimp heartbeats can be counted. Yeast cell reproductive rates can be observed. ( Incidentally, the fish always recover and go home with students so there is no trauma from the organisms succumbing.)

  • Students must set up controls, record all procedures and results, do data tables and graphs and make journal entries. Teams must maintain a log of jobs accomplished and by whom they were done.

  • The teacher must "lead" the students towards the procedures which will work while letting them use their own ingenuity. There are always some students who want to use mice or dogs or see if some organisms will get cancer. Asking leading questions and reminding students of time constraints will steer them towards very simple organisms. It is essential to allow the students to make mistakes, but to "rescue" them with well-placed suggestions for alternative solutions.

Method of Evaluation:

Teams must prepare an oral report of their findings and their conclusions which is presented to the class and videotaped. Each student must prepare a written report with hypotheses, procedures, data tables, graphs and conclusions for the portfolio. Performance points are earned for quality of work done in the laboratory.

Extension / Reinforcement:

Students use a peer review process of presentations / findings. They then can write a five paragraph position paper on tobacco sales and advertising.

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