Beacon Lesson Plan Library

Formation of Fossil Fuels

Carol Houck


Students investigate the process of fossil fuel formation.


The student knows that most of the energy used today is derived from burning stored energy collected by organisms millions of years ago (e.g., nonrenewable fossil fuels).

The student knows that some resources are renewable and others are nonrenewable.

The student knows that accurate record keeping, openness, and replication are essential to maintaining an investigator's credibility with other scientists and society.

The student understands and distinguishes multiple purposes for creating works of art.


-Large mural paper
-Meter sticks
-Resource materials


A discussion of how fossil fuels are created and the cycle leading to their development may be necessary prior to this activity.


-Students will understand the process of fossil fuel formation.
-Students will know that oil today was produced millions of years ago.
-Students will compare and contrast various fossil fuels.
-Students will use artistic interpretation to aid in concept development.

1. Organize the class into groups of eight. Establish class rules relating to the use of resources and art materials and establish a timeline for project completion.

2. Students research the origin of oil and natural gas in order to gather an understanding of the stages of fossil fuel creation over a period of time. The following questions should be addressed.
a. What is oil?
b. What is natural gas?
c. Compare and contrast oil and natural gas.
d. How does oil form?
e. How does natural gas form?
f. How is oil collected from the ground?
g. How is natural gas collected from the ground?

3. The class assignment is to produce a mural depicting the life cycle of a fossil fuel. Explain the assessment criteria. A rubric has been prepared to assist in this process.

4. Students create murals. Monitor students' progress, answer questions, and assist where needed.

5. After the murals are completed, have groups share them. Each member of the group should be responsible for part of the presentation.

6. Assess student understanding of concept material.


The mural may be used for student assessment. The Group Self-Assessment rubric may assist in the assessment process (see attached file).

Utilize the self-assessment and students' journals to assess understanding. Students should produce an explanation that includes some of the following points:
Energy from the sun (nuclear energy to electromagnetic energy conversion) was captured by plants millions of years ago (electromagnetic energy to chemical energy conversion). Some of these plants were eaten by the animals, and the plant energy was transferred to them (plant chemical energy to animal chemical energy conversion). Eventually the plants and animals died and became buried beneath the sediments. These buried plants and animals eventually became today's fossil fuels and contain the energy from the sun trapped millions of years ago. Burning the fossil fuel releases the energy as heat (chemical energy to heat energy conversion) which may be used to turn a steam turbine generator (heat energy to mechanical energy conversion). A turning generator will produce a magnetic field, which in turn generates an electric field, and pushes electrical energy to our house (mechanical energy to electrical energy conversion). Electical energy may be used to power our lights (electrical energy to electromagnetic conversion) and run our appliances at home (electrical energy to mechanical energy conversion). Fossil fuels may also be refined and used to power our cars, trains, and airplanes (chemical energy to mechanical energy conversion). In all cases, each transformation produces a small amount of heat, and the total amount of usable energy decreases after each transformation (First Law of Thermodynamics). Once a car burns the gas, the energy is used as mechanical transportation, and the rest is lost as heat from the engine. The energy trapped millions of years ago serves our needs, and is no longer usable.

The following questions may be used to assess student understanding.

1. Oil is a nonrenewable resource. Why is it non-renewable?
a. Oil is hard to find.
b. Oil is being produced at the same rate as it is being used.
c. Oil was produced millions of years ago and is not produced today.
d. These are all valid explanations for this nonrenewable resource.

(answer c: Oil was produced millions of years ago.)

2. Natural gas is often found with oil. Why does this occur?
a. Natural gas is made of oil.
b. Oil is made of natural gas.
c. Natural gas was made millions of years ago as was oil.
d. Natural gas is produced today and is stored with the oil.

(answer c: Natural gas is also a fossil fuel produced millions of years ago.)

3. How might the global amount of oil be protected?
a. conservation
b. waste reduction
c. recycling
d all of these will save oil

(answer d: These are all oil saving techniques.)

Create a flowchart, timeline, or other graphic organizer to depict your knowledge of the process of the formation of fossil fuels.

Write a short story that describes the life of a drop of oil. Include details about how oil is formed, and follow the oil drop through its entire life until it is ultimately consumed by you.


In each energy transformation, some energy is lost to the system. Energy can be measured in British Thermal Units (BTUs). Students might research the amount of BTUs flowing into each phase of the system, the BTU outflow to the next phase, and the BTU loss out of the system.

Students can investigate the concept of the “Law of Conservation of Mass and Energy” and the associated concept of entropy.

Students might investigate the energy efficiency of various kinds of vehicles. Students should find out how much energy is lost to heat and how much energy is actually used by the vehicle for transportation.

Attached Files

The Group Self-Assessment rubric for the activity.     File Extension: pdf

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