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Investigating Combustion and the Carbon Cycle

Great Explorations in Math and Science (GEMS) , Lawrence Hall of Science

In this activity, students explore the role of combustion in the carbon cycle. They learn that carbon flows among reservoirs on Earth through processes such as respiration, photosynthesis, combustion, and decomposition, and that combustion of fossil fuels is causing an imbalance. This activity is one in a series of 9 activities.

Activity takes about one 50-minute class period.

Learn more about Teaching Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness»

ngssSee how this Activity supports the Next Generation Science Standards»
Middle School: 1 Performance Expectation, 2 Disciplinary Core Ideas, 7 Cross Cutting Concepts, 4 Science and Engineering Practices
High School: 1 Performance Expectation, 2 Disciplinary Core Ideas, 5 Cross Cutting Concepts, 4 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

  • Some teacher preparation is required - printing student worksheets and two-sided cards.
  • The lesson includes burning a paraffin candle to show unburned carbon/soot; this can either be done as a demonstration by the teacher or by older students themselves.
  • After the paraffin burning activity, have a microscope set up so students can look at the carbon soot. Note that this soot makes up the particulates/air pollution given off by burning any fossil fuel.
  • This lesson is part of a larger collection, so it refers several times to the students' "Investigation Notebook." The necessary pages from this are included (3) at the end of the teacher pages and can be printed out for students.

About the Science

  • This lesson explores the carbon cycle and how carbon moves between sources and sinks. A game component in the activity simulates carbon atoms moving through various reservoirs. The game is played twice, and the second time the simulation accounts for the process of combustion. This shows the carbon cycle with and without human influence.
  • An interactive visualization of the carbon cycle is referred to as a "computer model", however it a conceptual model, a visual model, or a visualization.
  • Comments from expert scientist:
    Scientific strengths:
    - I thought that this was a great lab for use with grade school kids.
    - The paper clip model gave a hands-on visual to a concept that could be difficult to otherwise visualize, and its simplicity granted it some elegance.
    - I especially appreciated how the teacher was instructed to ask critical thinking questions that prompt the students to consider that science methods are not always perfect, but they can be quite useful.
    - The graph showing the breakdown of anthropogenic carbon sources is dated -- it only contains data up to 2004.
    - I also think that the candle burning lesson, although accurate, was a bit abstract/stand-alone. Making the tie between that and actual combustion that occurs in car engines, for example, might be difficult for students to do on their own. I think that it would be helpful if this bit of the lesson was better incorporated into the rest of the lab.

About the Pedagogy

  • This is an especially well-documented teacher's guide that is thorough and very well thought-out.
  • Several different instructional styles are included in the lesson, and there are additional suggestions to expand or alter the activities to accommodate different types of students.

Technical Details/Ease of Use

  • The teacher's guide includes all the necessary information for how to do the lesson as well as graphics and slides, worksheets, and "flow cards." The handouts will need to be printed and prepared ahead of time, especially the two-sided cards.
  • The interactive simulation of the carbon cycle is accessible through a URL and can be downloaded onto the teacher's computer. This should be done ahead of time.

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

This unit is part of a larger curriculum about the carbon cycle, http://mare.lawrencehallofscience.org/curriculum/ocean-science-sequence/oss68-overview/oss68-resources/unit2 The rest of the curriculum is available for purchase, but this unit is free.

Next Generation Science Standards See how this Activity supports:

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