Jump to this Activity »
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

Climate Literacy
About Teaching Climate Literacy

Biogeochemical cycles of greenhouse gases / Carbon cycle
About Teaching Principle 2
Other materials addressing 2d

Energy Literacy

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.

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:

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: 2

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.

MS-ESS2.A2:The planet’s systems interact over scales that range from microscopic to global in size, and they operate over fractions of a second to billions of years. These interactions have shaped Earth’s history and will determine its future.

Cross Cutting Concepts: 7

Systems and System Models, 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-C3.1:Time, space, and energy phenomena can be observed at various scales using models to study systems that are too large or too small.

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

Science and Engineering Practices: 4

Developing and Using Models, Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions, Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information

MS-P2.6: Develop a model to describe unobservable mechanisms.

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-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: 1

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

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.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.

Cross Cutting Concepts: 5

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

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-C3.2: Some systems can only be studied indirectly as they are too small, too large, too fast, or too slow to observe directly.

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-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: 4

Developing and Using Models, Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions, Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information

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-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-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).

Jump to this Activity »