Spread It. Grow It. Know It.

There are many things that impact growing healthy plants, like corn. Essential elements are vital to sustaining life on our planet. Plants requite 17 essential elements. These essential elements can be found in air, water, and soil. Soil is continuously being formed by geological and biological processes. The organisms that live in the soil create a unique ecosystem in which its inhabitants depend upon and interact with one another. Missing essential elements and poor soil can both cause plant health to be affected.

TEACH-FLEX Option: Online Breakout Box

Using breakout.edu, our game can be played online. No physical box needed! Teacher Tip: Instructions below are for the classroom breakout box. For help with the answers to the online game, simply go to the Online Lock Combinations tab.


Spread It. Grow It. Know It.

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Teaching the Lesson


Middle School Science

  • MS-PS1-1. Develop models to describe the atomic composition of simple molecules and extended structures.
  • MS-LS1-6. Construct a scientific explanation based on evidence for the role of photosynthesis in the cycling of matter and flow of energy into and out of organisms.
  • MS-LS2-4. Construct an argument supported by empirical evidence that changes to physical or biological components of an ecosystem affect populations.

Learning Objectives

  • Students will understand elements essential for plant growth.
  • Students will assess different nutrient deficiencies in corn plants.
  • Students will explore different soil types.


Breakout Edu Tips

If this is your first time using a Breakout Edu box, you are in for a treat. Once you’ve done one breakout box your students will be ready for the next time.

  • You can use breakout boxes as a whole class, in addition to small groups.
  • You have the opportunity to give students hints. Every box comes with at least two hint cards. If you have a high performing group, you may want to challenge them with less hints, while a different hour may need more hints. Having a visual timer for students while they are working is really helpful. It allows them to budget their time and when they may want to use their hints.
  • As the teacher, you have the discretion to hide things wherever in your room you deem best. Feel free to make adjustments. Just make sure the clues for the locks don’t change. Otherwise, students may not be able to get in.

Background Information

We are fortunate to live in a society with abundant food, but the challenge for the future is simple. We must feed a population that grows by 80 million people each year, using the same amount of farmland and depleting natural resources. Clearly, the farming practices of the past are not going to be able to sustain us in the future. Our response to this challenge involves making difficult decisions about land use, fertilizers, pesticides, and genetic engineering, among others. As a society, we will have to decide how agriculture can economically feed our growing population, while at the same time help us protect our environment.

Plants and Their Essential Elements
All organisms must take in matter from their environment in order to survive. There are 92 naturally occurring elements on Earth. Only a minor number of them are needed by living things.

Plants must carry out thousands of different chemical reactions, many of which are like those of humans. Scientists have identified 17 elements that are described as essential elements. An element is defined as being important to the plant if the following conditions are met.

  • The element must be required by the plant to complete its life cycle.
  • The element cannot be replaced by another element.
  • The element must be required for a specific biological function.
  • The element must be required by a substantial number of different plant species.

Nutrient Deficiencies of Plants
Plants require a variety of elements to be present in different amounts in order to support healthy growth. A nutrient deficiency results for a nutrient not being available in a sufficient quantity to meet the needs of the growing plant. Nutrient toxicity occurs when a nutrient is present in such an excess that it harms the plant. When a plant is out of nutrient balance, it displays symptoms that are characteristic for that nutrient. A farmer concerned for the health of his or her crops must use scientific tools to prevent deficiencies and, if necessary, to examine these symptoms and diagnose problems. Soil and plant tissue tests are used to detect nutrient imbalances. Once the problem has been identified, steps are taken to correct the imbalance. Farmers prescribe fertilizers for their crops based on nutrient needs determined by soil testing.

Free Educational Resources
Science and proper soil nutrition will be critical to helping with not only feeding our world but doing so sustainably. This background information serves as a basic understanding of this complex subject. Free Nourishing the Planet in the 21st Century high school curriculum is available for teachers to use. Teaching the curriculum prior to teaching the breakout box will provide the background information needed for the students to be successful at the lesson. To view other free educational resources, visit www.nutrientsforlife.org and www.kansascornstem.com.

Breakout Box Activity

Recommended Ages: Middle school audiences
Ideal Group Size: Can be used in small groups or whole class
Suggested Time: 30-40 minutes

A nearby neighbor is traveling out of town for the next month. They have an incredible amount of plants, and even a greenhouse, they’re nervous to leave unattended. They have asked you to take care of their plants and plan to pay you. Extra money is something you could really use right now to buy new earbuds and a video game. Yet, if you can’t take care of their plants successfully, you’ll have to pay them back for damaged plants. Solve the clues below to prove you have the knowledge to keep their plants healthy and make a few bucks!

Lock Combinations

The following codes will open the locks on the box.

3-Digit Lock – 3 Numbers

4-Digit Lock – 4 Numbers

5-Character Lock – 5 different symbols


Color Lock – 5 colors for the Color Multilock
Red, Green, Blue, Yellow, Orange

Key Lock – Where is the key hidden?
Teacher’s Choice

Online Lock Combinations

The following codes will open the locks on the online version.

3-Digit Lock – 3 Numbers

4-Digit Lock – 4 Numbers

5-Shape Lock – 5 different shapes
Diamond, Square, Triangle, Star, Circle

Color Lock – 5 colors for the Color Multilock
Red, Green, Blue, Yellow, Orange

Setup Instructions


  1. Students will need the soils strips and soil characteristics cards to solve the 4-digit lock on the main box. These pieces should be hidden in the small lock box with the key lock on it. Students will need to match the cards under the correct soil type. In the end, there will be three cards under each soil type. When the cards are ordered, students will put the numbers into the lock. The other shapes and color dots are there to add an additional challenge.
  2. To solve the 5-character lock, students will need to use the diffusion comic. Before laying it out for students, you will need to cut off the top right corner that says, “use me last: 1.” This piece can be hidden where you like. If you have students that need more of a challenge, you can make the piece more difficult to find. Students will also need the Diffusion Question card that says, “Water and nutrients move ___________ through the ___ylem. Sugars are moved ______________ through the ph___oem.” Supplying the answers for these blanks and using the last piece of the comic will help them remove the 5-character lock on the main box.
  3. Students will need to use the most common essential elements hint card and periodic table of elements to help solve the 3-digit lock that is on the main box. Students will need to add the atomic numbers for the five most common and abundant essential elements (carbon, hydrogen, sulfur, phosphorus, and oxygen). When they are finished adding these numbers, they will have an answer of 46. They will need to combine this answer with the bolded and squared “1” from the hint card.
  4. Students will need to use the four different corn nutrient deficiencies cards and nutrient deficiency strips to solve the color lock. There are also small information cards. They will need to match the definition to the correct picture. They will then enter the font color on the information card into the number space listed on
    the corn nutrient deficiency card. This will take off the color lock from the large main box.
  5. To remove the key lock, students will need to compare the periodic table of essential nutrients for plants and the periodic table of essential nutrients for humans. Students will want to circle, highlight, or color all the elements essential for both plants and animals. When finished, they should have identified 15 essential nutrients. Somewhere in the room you should have the number 15 represented. You may use the provided card, write it on a board, build it out of materials, or hide the key in or near something that already has a 15 labeled on it. There are other number cards included if you would like to leave them out as a decoy.
  6. It is also possible to include materials or information in the large black box to lead into other Nutrient for Life Foundation or Kansas Corn STEM lessons.

Additional Requirements
To access the full labs visit nutrientsforlife.org and kansascornstem.com.

Reflection and Conclusion

At the completion of this breakout, your students should have a better understanding of essential nutrients (including which are most common), diffusion, plant nutrient deficiencies, and soil types. Feel free to give students the following questions as an exit ticket or knowledge check at the end of the breakout. If you have groups that do not breakout, it is always nice to go over the information or clues that would have led to the last locks coming off.


  1. How many essential elements are shared among plants and humans? Answer: 15
  2. What are the three categories of soil? Answer: Clay, silt, and loam
  3. What part of the plant pulls up water and nutrients from the roots of the plant? Answer: Xylem
  4. What is the name of the process causing nutrients to concentrate in root hairs? Answer: Diffusion

Teacher Resources

Soil Strips and Soil Characteristic Card Answer Key