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Carbon on the Move!

Candace Dunlap, TERC

In this 3-part lab activity, students investigate how carbon moves through the global carbon cycle and study the effects of specific feedback loops on the carbon cycle.

Activity takes about one 60-min lesson.

Learn more about Teaching Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness»

ngssSee how this Resource supports the Next Generation Science Standards»
Middle School: 2 Performance Expectations, 4 Disciplinary Core Ideas, 9 Cross Cutting Concepts, 9 Science and Engineering Practices
High School: 3 Performance Expectations, 6 Disciplinary Core Ideas, 8 Cross Cutting Concepts, 8 Science and Engineering Practices

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

  • Teaching tips provided in Teacher version of lab https://serc.carleton.edu/earthlabs/carbon/lab_2.html
  • The "Stop and Think" questions could be used as evaluation tools.
  • If using as a stand-alone lesson, may want to review the learning objectives from Lab 1 as the lesson refers to activities or skills learned in that lesson.
  • Could cut or abbreviate some of the activities to make more age appropriate for high school students.

About the Science

  • Great introduction to the many biochemical processes involved in the carbon cycle, thinking about the carbon cycle as a system, applying systems thinking to real-world management scenario (mountain pine beetle), and feedback loops.
  • Comments from expert scientist: Clear and scientifically relevant goals for students Accurate key processes involved in the carbon cycle. Mostly high quality, informative resources. Good, and nicely contrasting examples/descriptions of feedback loops in the pine beetle section.
    Minor point: In the diagram of the terrestrial food web in Part A (https://serc.carleton.edu/eslabs/carbon/2a.html), the decomposers aren’t really connected to the rest of the diagram with any arrows.

    Minor points: In the animation at http://www.biology.ualberta.ca/facilities/multimedia/uploads/alberta/CarbonCycle.html there should also be CO2 coming out of the ocean (this is correctly shown in a later figure). There are other things about that animation that are odd, e.g. what’s the difference intended between “fossil fuels” and “burning of fossil fuels”? why not have “photosynthesis” also taking CO2 out of the atmosphere and putting it into the forests on the right? Missing link between the tree and the squirrel.

    Part A, 2nd Checking in Box, Q2. The system marks “combustion/burning as incorrect, but the animation shows burning of fossil fuels transferring CO2 from “rocks” to the atmosphere, both of which are within the “geosphere”. Or do the creators of this lab put fossil fuels in the “biosphere” box? Based on Q5 in the 3rd “Checking In” box, it seems perhaps they do consider fossil fuels as part of the biosphere.

    About feedback terminology: the scientific terms “positive” and “negative” for feedback loops is notoriously confusing to most humans. I advocate for us all to move away from those and use more descriptive terminology such as those in Donella Meadows’ work: amplifying or reinforcing instead of “positive”, and balancing or stabilizing instead of “negative”. In Part C, this activity does switch to more helpful terminology (“amplifying” and “slowing down”, then later “reinforcing” and “balancing”).

    Part A, 2nd Checking In box, Q3: I don’t see how students would be able to answer this question after watching the animation. I assume there is other information they have – perhaps from the game.

About the Pedagogy

  • Activity includes a teacher version of the lab (with information on common misconceptions about carbon and the carbon cycle), end-of-lab assessments, and answer key: https://serc.carleton.edu/eslabs/carbon/lab2.html
  • Part of a larger group of lessons/labs - EarthLabs - but can be used as a stand-alone lesson.
  • Include "Checking In" and "Stop and Think" questions for each lab component to guide students' exploration of the carbon cycle.
  • Great visual diagrams and animations included.
  • Lesson extension at the end of the lab for further exploration of mountain pine beetle included.
  • Lab includes three different activities: a game, an interactive visualization, and an investigation of feedback loops.

Technical Details/Ease of Use

  • Very easy to use step-by-step lesson.
  • Internet access needed for animations and videos.
  • Easy to use - all materials provided via links or downloadable pdf or Word format. All pages are designed to be printer-friendly.

Related URLs These related sites were noted by our reviewers but have not been reviewed by CLEAN

One of 8 labs within the Climate & Carbon Cycle Unit: https://serc.carleton.edu/eslabs/carbon/index.html Unit is one of 9 units in the EarthLabs resource: https://serc.carleton.edu/eslabs/index.html

Next Generation Science Standards See how this Resource supports:

Middle School

Performance Expectations: 2

MS-ESS2-1: Develop a model to describe the cycling of Earth's materials and the flow of energy that drives this process.

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: 4

MS-ESS2.A:Earth’s Materials and Systems

MS-LS2.B1:Food webs are models that demonstrate how matter and energy is transferred between producers, consumers, and decomposers as the three groups interact within an ecosystem. Transfers of matter into and out of the physical environment occur at every level. Decomposers recycle nutrients from dead plant or animal matter back to the soil in terrestrial environments or to the water in aquatic environments. The atoms that make up the organisms in an ecosystem are cycled repeatedly between the living and nonliving parts of the ecosystem.

MS-LS2.C1:Ecosystems are dynamic in nature; their characteristics can vary over time. Disruptions to any physical or biological component of an ecosystem can lead to shifts in all its populations.

MS-PS3.D:Energy in Chemical Processes and Everyday Life

Cross Cutting Concepts: 9

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

MS-C1.4:Graphs, charts, and images can be used to identify patterns in data.

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

MS-C3.2: The observed function of natural and designed systems may change with scale.

MS-C4.1: Systems may interact with other systems; they may have sub-systems and be a part of larger complex systems.

MS-C4.2: Models can be used to represent systems and their interactions—such as inputs, processes and outputs—and energy, matter, and information flows within systems.

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.

MS-C7.4:Systems in dynamic equilibrium are stable due to a balance of feedback mechanisms.

Science and Engineering Practices: 9

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

MS-P1.6:Ask questions that can be investigated within the scope of the classroom, outdoor environment, and museums and other public facilities with available resources and, when appropriate, frame a hypothesis based on observations and scientific principles.

MS-P2.4:Develop and/or revise a model to show the relationships among variables, including those that are not observable but predict observable phenomena.

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-P4.4:Analyze and interpret data to provide evidence for phenomena.

MS-P6.3:Construct a scientific explanation based on valid and reliable evidence obtained from sources (including the students’ own experiments) 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.

MS-P6.4:Apply scientific ideas, principles, and/or evidence to construct, revise and/or use an explanation for real- world phenomena, examples, or events.

MS-P7.2:Respectfully provide and receive critiques about one’s explanations, procedures, models, and questions by citing relevant evidence and posing and responding to questions that elicit pertinent elaboration and detail.

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.

High School

Performance Expectations: 3

HS-ESS2-2: Analyze geoscience data to make the claim that one change to Earth's surface can create feedbacks that cause changes to other Earth systems.

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: 6

HS-ESS2.A1:Earth’s systems, being dynamic and interacting, cause feedback effects that can increase or decrease the original changes.

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

HS-ESS2.D4:Current models predict that, although future regional climate changes will be complex and varied, average global temperatures will continue to rise. The outcomes predicted by global climate models strongly depend on the amounts of human-generated greenhouse gases added to the atmosphere each year and by the ways in which these gases are absorbed by the ocean and biosphere.

HS-LS1.C3:As matter and energy flow through different organizational levels of living systems, chemical elements are recombined in different ways to form different products.

HS-LS2.B3:Photosynthesis and cellular respiration are important components of the carbon cycle, in which carbon is exchanged among the biosphere, atmosphere, oceans, and geosphere through chemical, physical, geological, and biological processes.

HS-PS3.D2:The main way that solar energy is captured and stored on Earth is through the complex chemical process known as photosynthesis.

Cross Cutting Concepts: 8

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-C2.2:Cause and effect relationships can be suggested and predicted for complex natural and human designed systems by examining what is known about smaller scale mechanisms within the system.

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-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-C5.3:Energy cannot be created or destroyed—only moves between one place and another place, between objects and/or fields, or between systems.

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

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

Science and Engineering Practices: 8

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

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-P2.3: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-P3.5:Make directional hypotheses that specify what happens to a dependent variable when an independent variable is manipulated.

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-P6.3:Apply scientific ideas, principles, and/or evidence to provide an explanation of phenomena and solve design problems, taking into account possible unanticipated effects.

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-P8.1:Critically read scientific literature adapted for classroom use to determine the central ideas or conclusions and/or to obtain scientific and/or technical information to summarize complex evidence, concepts, processes, or information presented in a text by paraphrasing them in simpler but still accurate terms.

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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