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Why is Carbon an Important Element?

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Students explore the carbon cycle and the relationship between atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations and temperature. Students create and compare graphs of carbon dioxide and temperature data from one local (Mauna Loa, Hawaii) meteorological station and one NASA global data set. These graphs, as well as a global vegetation map and an atmospheric wind circulation patterns diagram, are used as evidence to support the scientific claims they develop through their analysis and interpretation.

Activity takes two class periods.

Learn more about Teaching Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness»

ngssSee how this Activity supports the Next Generation Science Standards»
High School: 2 Performance Expectations, 2 Disciplinary Core Ideas, 10 Cross Cutting Concepts, 13 Science and Engineering Practices

Climate Literacy
About Teaching Climate Literacy

Biogeochemical cycles of greenhouse gases / Carbon cycle
About Teaching Principle 2
Other materials addressing 2d
Observations are the foundation for understanding the climate system
About Teaching Principle 5
Other materials addressing 5b

Energy Literacy

Environmental quality is impacted by energy choices.
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7.3 Environmental quality.
Greenhouse gases affect energy flow through the Earth system.
Other materials addressing:
2.6 Greenhouse gases affect energy flow.
The effects of changes in Earth's energy system are often not immediately apparent.
Other materials addressing:
2.7 Effects of changes in Earth's energy system .

Excellence in Environmental Education Guidelines

1. Questioning, Analysis and Interpretation Skills:G) Drawing conclusions and developing explanations
Other materials addressing:
G) Drawing conclusions and developing explanations.
1. Questioning, Analysis and Interpretation Skills:A) Questioning
Other materials addressing:
A) Questioning.
1. Questioning, Analysis and Interpretation Skills:B) Designing investigations
Other materials addressing:
B) Designing investigations.
1. Questioning, Analysis and Interpretation Skills:C) Collecting information
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C) Collecting information.
1. Questioning, Analysis and Interpretation Skills:F) Working with models and simulations
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F) Working with models and simulations.
2. Knowledge of Environmental Processes and Systems:2.1 The Earth as a Physical System:A) Processes that shape the Earth
Other materials addressing:
A) Processes that shape the Earth.
2. Knowledge of Environmental Processes and Systems:2.2 The Living Environment:D) Flow of matter and energy
Other materials addressing:
D) Flow of matter and energy.

Notes From Our Reviewers The CLEAN collection is hand-picked and rigorously reviewed for scientific accuracy and classroom effectiveness. Read what our review team had to say about this resource below or learn more about how CLEAN reviews teaching materials
Teaching Tips | Science | Pedagogy | Technical Details

Teaching Tips

About the Science

  • Data set in this exercise only goes to 1998. The educator may want to supplement this with more recent data, see links below or check the references in the educator's guide.
  • Important learning about correlations and causation.

About the Pedagogy

  • This student graphing exercise allows students to interpret graphs, analyze data, and reach their own conclusions.
  • Project/team approach to the lesson with computer-based graphing exercises, mind maps, and group discussions and presentations.
  • Educator's guide is clearly written.
  • Student materials are well organized.

Technical Details/Ease of Use

  • Complete activity, easy to use for educators and students.

Next Generation Science Standards See how this Activity supports:

High School

Performance Expectations: 2

HS-ESS2-6: Develop a quantitative model to describe the cycling of carbon among the hydrosphere, atmosphere, geosphere, and biosphere.

HS-LS2-5: Develop a model to illustrate the role of photosynthesis and cellular respiration in the cycling of carbon among the biosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere, and geosphere.

Disciplinary Core Ideas: 2

HS-ESS2.D3:Changes in the atmosphere due to human activity have increased carbon dioxide concentrations and thus affect climate.

HS-LS2.C2:Moreover, anthropogenic changes (induced by human activity) in the environment—including habitat destruction, pollution, introduction of invasive species, overexploitation, and climate change—can disrupt an ecosystem and threaten the survival of some species.

Cross Cutting Concepts: 10

Patterns, Cause and effect, Scale, Proportion and Quantity, Systems and System Models, Energy and Matter, Stability and Change

HS-C1.1:Different patterns may be observed at each of the scales at which a system is studied and can provide evidence for causality in explanations of phenomena

HS-C2.1:Empirical evidence is required to differentiate between cause and correlation and make claims about specific causes and effects.

HS-C2.4:Changes in systems may have various causes that may not have equal effects.

HS-C3.1:The significance of a phenomenon is dependent on the scale, proportion, and quantity at which it occurs.

HS-C4.3:Models (e.g., physical, mathematical, computer models) can be used to simulate systems and interactions—including energy, matter, and information flows—within and between systems at different scales.

HS-C4.4:Models can be used to predict the behavior of a system, but these predictions have limited precision and reliability due to the assumptions and approximations inherent in models.

HS-C5.2:Changes of energy and matter in a system can be described in terms of energy and matter flows into, out of, and within that system.

HS-C5.4: Energy drives the cycling of matter within and between systems.

HS-C7.2:Change and rates of change can be quantified and modeled over very short or very long periods of time. Some system changes are irreversible.

HS-C7.3:Feedback (negative or positive) can stabilize or destabilize a system.

Science and Engineering Practices: 13

Asking Questions and Defining Problems, Developing and Using Models, Planning and Carrying Out Investigations, Analyzing and Interpreting Data, Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking, Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions, Engaging in Argument from Evidence, Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information

HS-P1.2:ask questions that arise from examining models or a theory, to clarify and/or seek additional information and relationships.

HS-P1.6:Ask questions that can be investigated within the scope of the school laboratory, research facilities, or field (e.g., outdoor environment) with available resources and, when appropriate, frame a hypothesis based on a model or theory.

HS-P2.1:Evaluate merits and limitations of two different models of the same proposed tool, process, mechanism or system in order to select or revise a model that best fits the evidence or design criteria.

HS-P2.3:Develop, revise, and/or use a model based on evidence to illustrate and/or predict the relationships between systems or between components of a system

HS-P3.1:Plan an investigation or test a design individually and collaboratively to produce data to serve as the basis for evidence as part of building and revising models, supporting explanations for phenomena, or testing solutions to problems. Consider possible confounding variables or effects and evaluate the investigation’s design to ensure variables are controlled.

HS-P3.5:Make directional hypotheses that specify what happens to a dependent variable when an independent variable is manipulated.

HS-P4.3:Consider limitations of data analysis (e.g., measurement error, sample selection) when analyzing and interpreting data

HS-P5.5:Apply ratios, rates, percentages, and unit conversions in the context of complicated measurement problems involving quantities with derived or compound units (such as mg/mL, kg/m3, acre-feet, etc.).

HS-P6.2:Construct and revise an explanation based on valid and reliable evidence obtained from a variety of sources (including students’ own investigations, models, theories, simulations, peer review) and the assumption that theories and laws that describe the natural world operate today as they did in the past and will continue to do so in the future.

HS-P6.4:Apply scientific reasoning, theory, and/or models to link evidence to the claims to assess the extent to which the reasoning and data support the explanation or conclusion.

HS-P7.3:Respectfully provide and/or receive critiques on scientific arguments by probing reasoning and evidence, challenging ideas and conclusions, responding thoughtfully to diverse perspectives, and determining additional information required to resolve contradictions.

HS-P7.6:Evaluate competing design solutions to a real-world problem based on scientific ideas and principles, empirical evidence, and/or logical arguments regarding relevant factors (e.g. economic, societal, environmental, ethical considerations).

HS-P8.5:Communicate scientific and/or technical information or ideas (e.g. about phenomena and/or the process of development and the design and performance of a proposed process or system) in multiple formats (i.e., orally, graphically, textually, mathematically).

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