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Dinosaur Breath - Learning about the Carbon Cycle

Lauren Cooper, Malinda Schaefer Zarske, Janet Yowell, TeachEngineering - Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, CU Boulder

This activity illustrates the carbon cycle using an age-appropriate hook, and it includes thorough discussion and hands-on experimentation. Students learn about the geological (ancient) carbon cycle; they investigate the role of dinosaurs in the carbon cycle, and the eventual storage of carbon in the form of chalk. Students discover how the carbon cycle has been occurring for millions of years and is necessary for life on Earth. Finally, they may extend their knowledge to the concept of global warming and how engineers are working to understand the carbon cycle and reduce harmful carbon dioxide emissions.

Activity takes one 50-minute period, implementing the extensions takes more time. Additional materials are necessary.

Learn more about Teaching Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness»

ngssSee how this Activity supports the Next Generation Science Standards»
Middle School: 1 Performance Expectation, 1 Disciplinary Core Idea, 6 Cross Cutting Concepts, 5 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

Energy Literacy

Energy is neither created nor destroyed.
Other materials addressing:
1.3 Energy is neither created nor destroyed.
Fossil and bio fuels are organic matter that contain energy captured from sunlight.
Other materials addressing:
4.3 Fossil and bio fuels contain energy captured from sunlight.
Movement of matter between reservoirs is driven by Earth's internal and external sources of energy.
Other materials addressing:
2.5 Energy moves between reservoirs.
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:C) Collecting information
Other materials addressing:
C) Collecting information.
2. Knowledge of Environmental Processes and Systems:2.1 The Earth as a Physical System:B) Changes in matter
Other materials addressing:
B) Changes in matter.
2. Knowledge of Environmental Processes and Systems:2.1 The Earth as a Physical System:C) Energy
Other materials addressing:
C) Energy.
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

  • Educator needs to strengthen the piece that suggests mitigation strategies.
  • The part of the activity that extends student learning from the carbon cycle to global warming, human impact, greenhouse gas emission and finally mitigation strategies is not developed very strongly and will need additional effort by educator.
  • Comment from expert scientist: A simple diagram of the cycle or cycles portrayed in this exercise would greatly clarify the activity.

About the Science

  • Activity includes well-designed background reading with good assessment questions.
  • The phrasing, "oceans soak up carbon to prevent high CO2 levels in atmosphere," implies an intention that might suggest that oceans could "solve the global warming issue.", which is not the case and should be clarified by educator.
  • Extending the students' learning to global warming, human impact to greenhouse gas emission is evident in the activity.
  • This activity emphasizes that engineers and scientists are working for solutions to reduce the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere in a very illustrative way.
  • Comment from expert scientist:The discussion of the link between deforestation and carbon in the atmosphere in the Introduction/Motivation is muddled. Do forests emit net carbon or just not absorb it once they've been cut down? Discussion in terms of sources and sinks would clarify this.
  • Comment from expert scientist: Statement "Oceans soak up a tremendous volume of carbon to prevent too much CO2 from remaining in the atmosphere" is slightly misleading; this process is not about too much CO2 in the atmosphere but is a physical outcome of partial pressures pCO2. The ocean doesn't really care how much CO2 is in the atmosphere it just reacts to pCO2.
  • Comment from expert scientist: The exercise lacks even a simplified discussion of carbon sources and sinks, which makes it difficult to follow how carbon is stored and released.
  • Comment from expert scientist: There is only a very oblique reminder that CO2 is a greenhouse gas. Today, people are concerned about the rising CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere due to the dangers of global warming. Strictly speaking there may be a molecule from a dinosaur's last breath in any breath we take, a variation on the Last Breath of Caesar problem, but to keep the exercise straightforward, it's best to focus on the chalk even if there is no guarantee the chalk used in the experiment formed in the right time or place to contain 'dinosaur breath'.

About the Pedagogy

  • This is a very carefully designed lesson that is complete with a lot of well-written background materials and well-described experimental set-up.
  • Hands-on experiment, discussion questions and effective extension ideas, make this a robust activity.
  • The lesson contains support reading and worksheets in multiple formats.
  • The hands-on game is engaging for students.
  • Very good assessment strategies are included.
  • The activity includes a list of prerequisite knowledge and a glossary.
  • Students with different learning styles are engaged because of reading, intro game, hands-on experiment, and discussions.

Technical Details/Ease of Use

  • The activity offers both Word and PDF document of worksheets allowing for convenient changes.
  • For additional safety, students need splash-proof goggles, not just safety glasses.

Next Generation Science Standards See how this Activity supports:

Middle School

Performance Expectations: 1

MS-LS2-3: Develop a model to describe the cycling of matter and flow of energy among living and nonliving parts of an ecosystem

Disciplinary Core Ideas: 1

MS-ESS2.A1:All Earth processes are the result of energy flowing and matter cycling within and among the planet’s systems. This energy is derived from the sun and Earth’s hot interior. The energy that flows and matter that cycles produce chemical and physical changes in Earth’s materials and living organisms.

Cross Cutting Concepts: 6

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

MS-C1.1:Macroscopic patterns are related to the nature of microscopic and atomic-level structure.

MS-C2.2:Cause and effect relationships may be used to predict phenomena in natural or designed systems.

MS-C3.5:Phenomena that can be observed at one scale may not be observable at another scale.

MS-C5.1:Matter is conserved because atoms are conserved in physical and chemical processes.

MS-C5.2: Within a natural or designed system, the transfer of energy drives the motion and/or cycling of matter.

MS-C7.1: Explanations of stability and change in natural or designed systems can be constructed by examining the changes over time and forces at different scales, including the atomic scale.

Science and Engineering Practices: 5

Planning and Carrying Out Investigations, Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions, Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information

MS-P3.2:Conduct an investigation and/or evaluate and/or revise the experimental design to produce data to serve as the basis for evidence that meet the goals of the investigation

MS-P3.4:Collect data to produce data to serve as the basis for evidence to answer scientific questions or test design solutions under a range of conditions

MS-P6.2:Construct an explanation using models or representations.

MS-P8.1:Critically read scientific texts adapted for classroom use to determine the central ideas and/or obtain scientific and/or technical information to describe patterns in and/or evidence about the natural and designed world(s).

MS-P8.5:Communicate scientific and/or technical information (e.g. about a proposed object, tool, process, system) in writing and/or through oral presentations.

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