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Here students use data from the NOAA carbon dioxide monitoring sites, such as Mauna Loa, to graph the Keeling Curve for themselves on large sheets of paper. Each group graphs one year, and the graphs are joined at the end to reveal the overall upward trend. The explanation describes the carbon cycle and how human activities are leading to the overall trend of rising carbon dioxide.

This learning activity takes 30 minutes.

Learn more about Teaching Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness»

ngssSee how this Short Demonstration/Experiment supports the Next Generation Science Standards»
Middle School: 1 Disciplinary Core Idea, 1 Cross Cutting Concept, 2 Science and Engineering Practices
High School: 1 Disciplinary Core Idea, 1 Cross Cutting Concept, 1 Science and Engineering Practice

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

  • Good activity for introducing the concept of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the carbon cycle.
  • This activity fits into a sequence on climate change, but also works well as an exercise in graphing and analyzing data.
  • Allow for additional class time if students create the graphs themselves.
  • Allow for additional prep time if teacher creates graphs ahead of time.

About the Science

  • In this activity, students create graphs and analyze carbon dioxide data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to learn about natural cycles and human-caused changes in our atmosphere. Links to additional data sets are provided.
  • Comments from expert scientist:
  • Scientific strengths: This resource explains the difference between natural and anthropogenic influences on CO2 levels. It also helps students understand how to plot graphs and work with data.
  • Suggestions: The target grade level for this resource should be 4th grade - 9th grade.

About the Pedagogy

  • In this simple introductory activity that explores a fundamental data set for climate science, students see an environmental change over different time spans, and discuss both natural and human causes. Instructions are provided for students to create graphs of a year of the data in small groups. They discuss the reasons for the changes they see. Then when all the graphs are put together, they create part of the Keeling Curve, and students can discuss the reasons for the longer term trend in atmospheric CO2.
  • This activity can be done as a class or in groups. The groups allow for more data to be graphed and then can be put together to see the larger trend in rising carbon dioxide.
  • This graphing activity is made more kinesthetic by having students do it on large sheets with sticky dots. Or the activity can be done with a computer with any spreadsheet and graphing software.
  • Students use real CO2 data from NOAA for their graphs and the explanations on the website provide teaching tips, discussion questions, and suggestions for furthering the activity with additional data sets from the South pole and other stations.
  • As an alternative, teachers can prepare the graphs ahead of time and spend class time focused on analyzing the data. Suggestions for discussion are provided.

Technical Details/Ease of Use

  • Very intuitive and easy to set up activity. Materials will need to be collected in advance and it would benefit teachers to build the graphs for students to plot their data onto.
  • CO2 data sets from Mauna Loa (2008-2017) and South Pole (2006-2016) are provided in student-friendly tables. Links are provided to additional data that are not yet formatted for this activity. This engaging visual produced by NASA can help students understand the yearly cycle and the long term trends: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x1SgmFa0r04. It can be run without sound to help students see what is happening, and then with sound at the end of the lesson as a summary.

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

This activity is similar to the Carbon Dioxide Exercise, and there is a visualization that illustrates the difference between annual cycles vs. a long term trend: From Dog Walking to Weather and Climate

Next Generation Science Standards See how this Short Demonstration/Experiment supports:


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