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Sediments and the Global Carbon Cycle

Elana Leithold, North Carolina State University , Science Education Resource Center at Carleton College, On The Cutting Edge collection

This series of activities is designed to introduce students to the role of sediments and sedimentary rocks in the global carbon cycle. Students learn how stable carbon isotopes can be used to reconstruct ancient sedimentary environments. Students will make some simple calculations, formulate hypotheses, and think about the implications of their results. The activity includes an optional demonstration of the density separation of a sediment sample into a light, organic fraction and a heavier, mineral fraction.

Activity takes two to three class periods and/or homework assignment time. Additional materials required.

Learn more about Teaching Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness»

ngssSee how this Activity supports the Next Generation Science Standards»
High School: 1 Performance Expectation, 1 Disciplinary Core Idea, 5 Cross Cutting Concepts, 6 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
Biosphere drives the global carbon cycle
About Teaching Principle 3
Other materials addressing 3e
Our understanding of climate
About Teaching Climate Literacy
Other materials addressing Our understanding of climate

Excellence in Environmental Education Guidelines

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:2.2 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

  • The activity could be used as a lab exercise supported by bigger picture discussions in the classroom.
  • Optionally, the exercises may be done in small groups. Depending on time and facilities, collection and analysis of some sediment or soil samples for organic carbon content, stable carbon isotopes, and/or mineral surface area could be included.
  • The problem sets could be assigned as homework.
  • For upper level classes, students can find the journal articles themselves. Students may wish to refer to more recent journal articles to compare with more current analysis.
  • No summative assessment is provided, so instructors may wish to look back over all three parts of the activity and tie the concepts and analysis together to make all parts of the activity coherent and relevant.

About the Science

  • These exercises illustrate the role sedimentary rocks play in terms of long-term carbon storage and relevance to global warming. It also introduces students to the use of organic geochemistry-stable carbon isotopes for paleoenvironmental interpretations.
  • Calculations are based on real data from journal articles (references are provided).
  • Comment from expert scientist: The material is relevant and the data that students work with in this exercise is pretty current. I really like the fact that this exercise challenges student preconceptions about organic carbon, and lets undergrad students explore the "hidden" nature of vast amounts of OC in earth systems.
  • Several routine calculations are required to complete the activity, so it gives students practice with quantitative skills.

About the Pedagogy

  • This activity involves students performing calculations using real data from linked journal article.
  • An answer key is provided.
  • The activity involves developing quantitative skills as well as critical thinking through interpretation of data.
  • The instructor could assign this as group work, thus building collaborative skills.
  • A demonstration of density separation of sediments and soils using Sodium Polytungstate solution can be included.

Technical Details/Ease of Use

  • Student handout, instructor's notes, and a solution set are included as well as bibliographic information that can be consulted for further information.

Next Generation Science Standards See how this Activity supports:

High School

Performance Expectations: 1

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

Disciplinary Core Ideas: 1

HS-ESS2.A3:The geological record shows that changes to global and regional climate can be caused by interactions among changes in the sun’s energy output or Earth’s orbit, tectonic events, ocean circulation, volcanic activity, glaciers, vegetation, and human activities. These changes can occur on a variety of time scales from sudden (e.g., volcanic ash clouds) to intermediate (ice ages) to very long-term tectonic cycles.

Cross Cutting Concepts: 5

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

HS-C5.1:The total amount of energy and matter in closed systems is conserved.

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-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.

Science and Engineering Practices: 6

Asking Questions and Defining Problems, Developing and Using Models, Analyzing and Interpreting Data, Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking, Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions, Engaging in Argument from Evidence

HS-P1.3:ask questions to determine relationships, including quantitative relationships, between independent and dependent variables

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-P4.2:Apply concepts of statistics and probability (including determining function fits to data, slope, intercept, and correlation coefficient for linear fits) to scientific and engineering questions and problems, using digital tools when feasible.

HS-P5.2:Use mathematical, computational, and/or algorithmic representations of phenomena or design solutions to describe and/or support claims and/or explanations.

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-P7.4:Construct, use, and/or present an oral and written argument or counter-arguments based on data and evidence.

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