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Art & Science: Decomposition


Grade Range
Active Time
120 minutes
Total Time
120 minutes
Key Concepts
decomposition, light
works with google science journal app


art and science paper fading investigation

© 2017 California Academy of Sciences

Which material best protects construction paper from fading? Set up an investigation to find out how effective different materials are at blocking sunlight! Then, use your results to inform an artistic composition.

Activities Blending Art & Science

This activity sequence is one of several that focus on the thinking skills connecting artists and scientists, and was originally piloted with upper elementary students who had little prior experience setting up their own investigations. As such, the below procedure is quite guided. If you've already been working on helping your students make systematic investigations, consider introducing them to more advanced aspects of the scientific practice of Planning and Carrying Out Investigations (see NSTA Summary), such as controlling variables, determining how measurements will be recorded, and deciding how much evidence needs to be collected by the class to back up claims.

Part 1. Light Investigation: How do different amounts of light affect paper?
In this activity, students will discuss the role of conservators in protecting objects in museums. They measure the light levels in their classroom and test if construction paper is affected differently if placed in different locations for a week.

Teacher tip: Let the construction paper sheets remain in their spots for at least one week to allow sunlight to fade the material. We recommend selecting a single color to make comparison easy, and to keep a vivid copy in a dark drawer!

Part 2. Decomposition Investigation: How can we use other materials to protect paper from fading?
Now that students have discovered that light fades paper, they will set up an investigation to find out how effective different materials are at blocking sunlight and protecting a piece of construction paper from fading.

Teacher tip: Let the construction paper sheets remain in their spots for at least one week before uncovering the results.

Part 3. Art Composition
Students will analyze the results of their decomposition investigation from last week. Then, they will use the knowledge they gained about the materials to create an artistic composition of their own!

gsj what material will block sun exposure best?
  • Colored construction paper (the cheaper the better, for faster fading)
  • Miscellaneous materials for testing light blockage, such as foil, plastic wrap, waved paper, tissue paper, and card stock
  • Scissors and tape
  • Science Journal app by the Making & Science team at Google, to optimize placement of papers for quick fading and to plan subsequent investigations
  • Images of decomposition in nature and art Powerpoint
  • Student worksheets or science notebooks

Teacher Tip: For the investigation in Part 2, it's ideal to cut the materials into two-inch squares to save time during the activity. For the art activity in Part 3, allow students to cut materials into their desired shapes and sizes.

Part 1: Light Investigation (25 min)
  1. Introduce the theme, vocabulary word, skill, and career of the day as follows:
    » Theme: Decomposition
    » Vocabulary: Decomposition.
    The breakdown of materials, either by living organisms such as bacteria, insects, and fungus, or by non-living means such as heat or light
    » Skill: Investigation. An active and systematic process to discover the answer to a question or the solution to a problem
    » Career: Conservator. A person whose job is to preserve objects within a museum. At natural history museums, conservators work with dead specimens. At fine arts museums, conservators work with paintings, three-dimensional objects, arts on paper, and textiles.
  2. Give students time to record these concepts in their notebooks using their own words and/or drawings. Ask students to predict if the skill of investigation is used by artists, scientists, or both.
  3. Point out that different parts of the classroom get different amounts of light. If we were a conservator about to hang art on a museum wall, we would wonder whether different amounts of lighting would affect artwork. Our question: How do different amounts of light affect paper?
  4. Explain that the class will set up a simple test over the coming week, laying out or posting a single sheet of colored construction paper in 5 different areas that receive different amounts of light.
  5. Using the Science Journal app, have students measure the light levels in several different locations. Using these data, allow the class to pick 5 locations that they feel would lead to some interesting comparisons based on light level.
Part 2: Decomposition Investigation (40 min)
  1. Review the results of last week's investigation. What do students notice? (That light fades paper! But how?)
  2. Using a powerpoint of images, introduce the concept of decomposition and ask students for examples of things they have noticed breaking down, fading, or otherwise changing over time. Talk about processes that can cause materials to break down. Explain that organisms such as fungus, bacteria, and insects are often involved. However, non-living things such as light and heat can also cause decomposition by breaking down chemicals in the material.
  3. Showing the images of artworks that have been damaged over time, discuss the role of conservators in maintaining and protecting art and specimens from damage. Explain how, among other threats to materials, conservators must protect them against light, which can cause or accelerate fading and other damage.
  4. Now that we know that light fades paper, tell your young conservators that they will be doing an investigation to find out how well different materials block light. They will conduct tests on construction paper and attempt to prevent the paper from fading. Introduce the materials that will be tested. Ask students: Which ones do they think will be best at blocking light, and why? Which materials will allow light through and fade the paper? Have students record their predictions in their notebooks.
  5. Give students time to set up the investigation. Each student should place pieces of each testing material on their sheet of construction paper. Have them trace outlines around each piece of testing material and, most importantly, label each one.

    Teacher tip: We recommend attaching the pieces to the construction paper by using loops of tape underneath the materials. Using glue will make it difficult to remove the materials later, and putting the tape around the edges of the materials could interfere with the natural fading process.

  6. Hang the construction paper in the window, facing out, or somewhere else with plenty of sun exposure. You might ask your students to figure out the best place to hang the sheets based on what they've noticed about sunny spots in the classroom or hall. You can use the Science Journal app to optimize the effect by selecting a location with the highest ambient light levels!

Ideas for Student Reflection:

  • How did you use the skill of investigation in today's activity?
  • How might this skill might be useful for artists and for scientists? Revisit the predictions they made at the beginning about who might use the skill and discuss how their thinking about this might have changed.
  • What might a conservator do at an art museum? At a science museum?
Part 3. Investigation Results + Art Composition (60 min)

Review Results from Last Week

  1. Have students look back at their notebook pages from the decomposition investigation to refresh their memories about the predictions that they made.
  2. Give students the construction paper that has been exposed to sunlight and let them remove the materials. Encourage them to compare their pages to their neighbor's sheets and discuss what they notice.
  3. Have the whole class discuss the results, first focusing on general observations. You can use the I notice, I wonder prompts to guide the discussion.
  4. Next have students work in small groups to rate each material based on how well it protected the paper from sun exposure. Use the rating system outlined in the notebook: 1 = did not block the sun, 2 = somewhat blocked the sun, 3 = mostly blocked the sun, and 4 = blocked the sun completely. Be sure that they understand that the lightest sections represent the areas with the least blockage, while the dark areas are those that were most protected from the light.
  5. After each group has rated their materials, compile the class ratings on the board. As a class, review the ratings and discuss any differences in how groups rated the materials. If appropriate for your grade level, have students calculate an average score for each material based using the ratings of all the individual groups.
  6. Discuss the results with students. Ask them if any of the results surprised them. Ask them to explain why they think certain materials were better at blocking the light than other materials. Did the setup of the investigation play a role? What would they investigate next?

Art Composition

  1. Introduce the theme, vocabulary word, skill, and career of the day as follows:

    » Theme: Discovery
    » Vocabulary: Composition. The way pieces or elements are put together or arranged
    » Skill: Creativity. The ability to generate original, imaginative ideas
    » Career: Designer. Designers consider how people interact with an object, and then try to make that interaction better.

  2. Give students time to record these concepts in their notebooks using their own words and/or drawings. Ask students to predict if this skill used by artists, scientists, or both.
  3. Understanding the properties of materials is important not just for scientists, conservators, and architects; designers also need to be familiar with the materials they use. Tell students that now that they have learned so much about how these materials affect the paper, they will use that knowledge to create an abstract composition that deliberately manipulates the fading process. They will have access to the same materials and a new piece of fresh construction paper. They can cut the materials into any shapes and sizes and place them on the paper in any arrangement.
  4. Encourage students to think first about how they want the construction paper to look after it has faded and the materials are removed. What shapes do they want to create? What shades of color do they want? How might these shapes and colors fit together within the whole composition? Once students have a clear idea of their desired end product, have them figure out how to use the available materials to create that effect. They should remember that the areas that are not covered will fade the most.
  5. Give students time to make their compositions. Place their works in an area with plenty of sun exposure, where they will be left for several days.

Ideas for Student Reflection

  • Reflect on the skill of creativity and ask students how they used this skill in today's activity.
  • Ask students how the skill might be useful for designers and for scientists. Revisit the predictions they made at the beginning about who might use the skill and discuss how their thinking about this might have changed.
  • Designers use their creativity to imagine the things they want to make, but to make their ideas real, they must understand how their materials work. If you were a designer, how would you use the materials from today's activity to create something that would protect a work of art from being damaged by light?
gsj decomposition investigation light level

Visit a local museum gallery to study lighting and make recommendations for how to optimize the space to best conserve natural history or art specimens.

Have students design their own investigations based on their own research question inspired by the paper decomposition experiment or before/after a museum visit. Student-generated questions might include:

  • How does light intensity affect the rate at which red construction paper fades?
  • How does the type of light bulb influence the amount of paper fading?
  • Which is more effective at blocking light and heat from affecting paper: plastic or glass?

Next Generation Science Standards

Science and Engineering Practices

  • Planning and Carrying Out Investigations

Crosscutting Concepts

  • Cause and Effect

Background for Educators

Decomposition is the process of a substance breaking down into simpler substances or elements and can be caused by heat, light, chemical processes, or biological activity. In ecosystems, breaking down organic material (such as dead plant or animal tissue) into smaller molecules makes important elements such as nitrogen available for other organisms to use. Bacteria, fungi, insects, and other organisms carry out this type of decomposition.

Heat, light, and moisture also can contribute to decomposition. For example, chemical changes can occur when an object is subjected to light and heat energy, causing atoms and molecules to break their bonds and sometimes form different substances.

While decomposition is a beneficial process in nature, in can be problematic for those who aim to preserve specimens in a natural history museum or artworks in an art museum. Conservators go to great lengths to protect museum objects from light, heat, moisture, and living things such as fungi, bacteria, and insects.

Free science fair projects.