EarthLabs for Educators > Climate and the Carbon Cycle > Lab 1: Living in a Carbon World

Lab 1: Living in a Carbon World


The lab activity described here was created by Candace Dunlap of TERC for the EarthLabs project.

Open the Student Activity in a New Window Use the button at the right to navigate to the student activity pages for this lab. To open the student pages in a new tab or window, right-click (control-click on a Mac) the "Open the Student Activity" button and choose "Open Link in New Window" or "Open Link in New Tab."


Investigation Summary and Learning Objectives

Image source: WikiCommons

Students are briefly introduced to the essential role that carbon plays in life as we know it. They use videos, molecular model kits and a field activity to explore the relationship between carbon dioxide, tree growth and environmental variables and to investigate the pathway of carbon from the air into tree biomass. Finally, they explore carbon molecules and important carbon cycle processes both by building ball-and-stick models and by interacting with Web-based molecules.

After completing this investigation, students will be able to:

For more information about the TOPIC, read the section titled Background Information under Additional Resources below

Activity Overview and Teaching Materials

Detailed overview of what students will do in each lab activity, how long it will take, and what materials are required to complete the lab.

Research by Michigan State indicates that students have a very limited understanding of how the global carbon cycle works. See What Carbon Cycle? College Students Lack Scientific Literacy, Study Finds Specifically, this research indicates that students do not understand the processes that transform carbon nor do they understand that most of a tree's growth comes from atmospheric CO2 and water. Labs 1A and 1B are designed to address these misconceptions and lack of understanding of basic carbon processes that underpin the carbon cycle.

In Part A: Students view a TedEd video to consider the question, "Where does a tree get its biomass? They investigate how trees remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store most of the carbon atoms in their stems, leaves, branches and roots. Students analyze images to trace the pathways of carbon through trees, soil and food webs. They go into the field to measure the carbon stored in a selected tree nearby their school or in their neighborhood. Finally, they are introduced to the relationship between the carbon cycle and other biochemical cycles such as the nitrogen cycle.

Materials you will need for each group for the tree carbon activity:

  • A nearby tree - preferably having a circumference of 38cm (15 inches) or more.
  • A regular flexible tape measure that will fit around the circumference of the tree; or a diameter tape measure; and/or a long string, marker and push pin. Note: for larger trees, the string, marker and push pin may be best.

Time estimate: 2-4 class periods. Note: The field experiment of measuring carbon in a nearby tree will take 2-3 classroom periods to go out and measure the trees, do the calculations, share data and answer the discussion questions which are part of the lab.

In Part B: Students use molecular ball-and-stick models to visualize photosynthesis and cell respiration and to explore carbon's potential for many different types of larger, more complex organic carbon-compounds.

For each group of 2-4 students:

One Mega Molecule kit for Photosynthesis and Cellular Respiration purchased from http://www.megamoleculesllc.com/biology.html or from Amazon.com

Supply each group with a plastic baggie with 6 CO2 molecules and 6 H2O molecules (12 carbon atoms, 12 hydrogen atoms, 18 oxygen atoms and 36 bonds) already put together.

Optional: Nice Molecules APP for IPAD Nice Molecules APP for IPAD and IPhone will allow you and your students to interactively visualize JMOL molecules. The cost is $1.99.


Time estimate: 2 class periods

Printable Materials

Download and print files needed for each lab activity, including images, data tables, and Stop and Think questions.

To download one of the PDF or Word files below, right-click (control-click on a Mac) the link and choose "Save File As" or "Save Link As."

  • Elements in Biomolecules Chart (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 137kB Nov5 13) Elements in Biomolecules Chart
  • Stop and Think Questions


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  • Suggested Answers


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    to Stop and Think Questions

Teaching Notes and Tips

General recommendations for classroom implementation as well as guidelines and facilitation tips for leading class discussions.

General Recommendations:

  • Read through the lab and teacher resources BEFORE implementing with your students.
  • Print out any paper-based materials before starting the lab.
  • Have students keep a journal or notebook to record all of their notes, questions, and findings.

In Part A:

Gather materials for the tree carbon activity. You may want to go out to the area where students will be selecting and identifying trees and identify those trees that are on the Allometric Coefficients for Common North American Trees. (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 98kB Feb23 15) table and flag them.

Primary discussion questions for TedEd video:

  • With a partner, write down where you think the mass of the Giant Sequoia tree comes from as it grows. Share your list with the class. As you look at the class list, are there any sources of the tree's mass that make more sense than others? Why?
  • In the video, were there any major misconceptions that people had about where the mass of a tree comes from as it grows? If so, do they match any of the hypotheses on the class list?

Purpose of the discussion: The first two discussions are related. The first is a formative prompt meant to uncover what misconceptions students may have about how trees grow. If students are to understand that plants and especially trees pull a lot of carbon out of the atmosphere, they need to grapple with this major misconception.

Facilitation Tips: Write students hypotheses on the board. After the video, have students revisit the hypotheses and talk about which hypothesis(es) should be rejected based on the information in the video.

Consider talking about what a misconception is and whether or not science misconceptions matter in understanding the world around us. Also discuss why so many people in the video had difficulty thinking about tree growth in terms of CO2.

Supporting questions
  • Why do you think so many people had misconceptions about where a tree gets it biomass from?

Wrap Up: Carbon enters the biosphere via trees and other plants. After the discussion, ask students to think about what they think happens to the carbon atoms in the carbon dioxide molecules taken in by the tree? Where can these carbon atoms eventually go?


In Part B:

In LAB 1B, students build a myriad of carbon compounds from six carbon dioxide molecules and six water molecules - the same building materials that trees use to build their structures. Students will build a glucose molecule from 6 carbon dioxide molecules and 6 water molecules.

Students need to construct an understanding of the many different forms and structures carbon compounds can take because of the bonding nature of carbon. The term "carbon compound" should be used throughout all of the investigations in this module, where appropriate. For classroom management, have students take apart the molecules they built before the end of class in order to prep for the next class coming in. An easy way to do this is to have the students model cell respiration by taking apart the glucose molecules and oxygen molecules to make the products of cell respiration - 6 CO2 and 6 H2O.

Student Notebooks

Suggestions for how to use Student Notebooks for Lab 1.

[hidden.327020 'Read more

Suggestions for how to use Student Notebooks for Lab 1:

  • Have students write down the learning objectives for Lab 1.
  • Have students record answers to all Stop and Think questions.
  • Have students record answers to Discussion questions.
  • Have students record diagrams they have drawn when prompted by
  • Have students record important hands-on lab activity components. This could include research questions, data, observations, drawing, graphs, and conclusions.

Assessment

There are several options for assessment of student understanding of material introduced in this lab. Choose from the following list, or create your own assessments.

showRead more

There are several options for assessment of student understanding of material introduced in this lab. Choose from the following list, or create your own assessments.

Assessment Options:

  1. Assess student understanding of topics addressed in this investigation by grading their written responses to the Stop and Think questions or by using Stop and Think questions as part of whole-class or small group discussions.
  2. Written Test for Lab 1


    This file is only accessible to verified educators. If you would like access to this file, please enter your email address below. If you are new to the site, you will be asked to complete a short request form. If you have already been verified by the EarthLabs project, you will be taken directly to the file download page.

    . (
    Test key


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    )

National Science Teaching Standards

Lab 1 supports the following Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS):

showRead more

Science and Engineering Practices
4. Analyzing and interpreting data
5. Using mathematics and computational thinking
7. Engaging in argument from evidence

Disciplinary Core Ideas
HS.ESS2.D: Weather and Climate
HS.ESS3.A: Natural Resources
HS. ESS3.B: Natural Hazards
HS.ESS3.C: Human Impacts on Earth Systems

Cross-Cutting Concepts
2. Cause and effect
7. Stability and change

Go to ........left
Go to Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)

Additional Resources

Explore background information and content extensions related to Lab 1.

showRead more

Background Information

Content Extension


Activity Overview and Teaching Materials

Research by Michigan State indicates that students have a very limited understanding of how the global carbon cycle works. See What Carbon Cycle? College Students Lack Scientific Literacy, Study Finds Specifically, this research indicates that students do not understand the processes that transform carbon nor do they understand that most of a tree's growth comes from atmospheric CO2 and water. Labs 1A and 1B are designed to address these mis-conceptions and lack of understanding of basic carbon processes that underpin the carbon cycle.

In Part A: Students view a TedEd video to consider the question, "Where does a tree get its biomass? They investigate how trees remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store most of the carbon atoms in their stems, leaves, branches and roots. Students "visualize" important plant carbon-compounds such as cellulose and glucose by looking at their Jmol images. They go into the field to measure the carbon stored in a selected tree nearby their school or in their neighborhood. Finally, they are introduced to the relationships between the carbon cycle and other biochemical cycles such as the nitrogen cycle.

In Part B: Students use molecular ball-and-stick models to visualize photosynthesis and cell respiration and to explore carbon's potential for combining with other common elements such as hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen to form a variety of molecules. They can also interactively explore 3-D representations of these molecules accessing the molecules at the "World of Molecules" Web site–the Interactive Library. This site uses JAVA which could present from problems for schools. You easily see beautiful J-mol molecules on the IPAD app, "Nice Molecules." This app allows students to rotate and enlarge many different carbon compounds and access information about each molecule.




Printable Materials

To download one of the PDF or Word files below, right-click (control-click on a Mac) the link and choose "Save File As" or "Save Link As."


  • Student Data Sheet for the field activity "How Much Carbon is Stored in a Nearby Tree."
  • Elements in Biomolecules Chart (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 137kB Nov5 13) Elements in Biomolecules Chart
  • Stop and Think Questions
    Lab 1A and Lab 1B


    This file is only accessible to verified educators. If you would like access to this file, please enter your email address below. If you are new to the site, you will be asked to complete a short request form. If you have already been verified by the EarthLabs project, you will be taken directly to the file download page.

  • Suggested Answers to Stop and Think Questions
    Lab 1A and Lab 1B with answers


    This file is only accessible to verified educators. If you would like access to this file, please enter your email address below. If you are new to the site, you will be asked to complete a short request form. If you have already been verified by the EarthLabs project, you will be taken directly to the file download page.


Teaching Notes and Tips:

Purpose of the discussion:

The first two discussions are related. The first is a formative prompt meant to uncover what misconceptions students may have about how trees grow. If students are to understand that plants and especially trees pull a lot of carbon out of the atmosphere, they need to grapple with the major misconception.

Facilitation Tips:

Write students hypotheses on the board.

After the video, have students revisit the hypotheses and talk about which hypothesis(es) must be rejected based on the information in the video.

Consider talking about what a misconception is and whether or not science misconceptions matter in understanding the world around us. Also discuss why so many people in the video had difficulty thinking about tree growth in terms of CO2.

What are plants made of? Consider beginning to talk about what plants are made of in terms of proteins, carbohydrates, Lipids and nucleic acids. Even though trees get hydrogen, nitrogen, phosphorus atoms etc from the soil all of the carbon to build these carbon compounds comes from the carbon taken in by plants from the air. This concept will be reinforced in Lab 1B. Consider using this diagram image



In LAB 1B, students build a myriad of carbon compounds from six carbon dioxide molecules and six water molecules - the same building materials that trees use to build their structures. Students will build a glucose molecule from 6 carbon dioxide molecules and 6 water molecules. Students need to construct an understanding of the many different forms and structures carbon compounds can take because of the bonding nature of carbon. The term "carbon compound" should be used throughout all of the investigations in this module, where appropriate. For classroom management, have students take apart the molecules they built before the end of class in order to prep for the next class coming in.

Purpose of the discussion:

All of these discussions are meant for students to get at the idea of the atoms in carbon compunds

Facilitation Tips:

Consider bringing up these molecules


Primary discussion questions:


Wrap Up:


Student Notebooks

Student notebooks are optional. Here are just a few suggestions for what to include in student notebooks for Lab 1:
  • Plant experiment: research question, materials, protocol, observation, data, graphs, analysis questions
  • Elements in Biomolecules chart
  • Notes from videos
  • Equations for the processes in Lab 1B: photosynthesis, respiration, decomposition, biosynthesis
  • Additional research on biomolecules

Assessment:

There are several options for assessments of students understanding of material produced in this Lab. Teachers can choose from the following list or create their own assessments.

Assessment Options:

  1. Assess student understanding of topics addressed in this investigation by grading their responses to the Stop and Think questions.
  2. Teachers may want to collect and grade the hands-on lab write-ups.
  3. Written Test for
    Lab 1


    This file is only accessible to verified educators. If you would like access to this file, please enter your email address below. If you are new to the site, you will be asked to complete a short request form. If you have already been verified by the EarthLabs project, you will be taken directly to the file download page.

    (Answer
    Key


    This file is only accessible to verified educators. If you would like access to this file, please enter your email address below. If you are new to the site, you will be asked to complete a short request form. If you have already been verified by the EarthLabs project, you will be taken directly to the file download page.

    )

National Science Teaching Standards

Lab 1 supports the following Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS):

Science and Engineering Practices

2. Developing and Using Models

3. Planning and Carrying Out Investigations

4. Analyzing and Interpreting Data

5. Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking


Disciplinary Core Ideas

LS2.B Cycles of Matter and Energy Transfer in Ecosystems

PS3.D Energy in Chemical Processes

LS1.C Organization for Matter and Energy Flow in Organisms


Cross-Cutting Concepts

3. Scale, Proportion and Quantity

4. Systems and System Models

5. Energy and Matter




Additional resources

Background information:

The NatureEducation Scitable site has multiple articles that can provide excellent background information for yourself and/or your students. These articles are more appropriate for AP level students. Knowledge Project at Scitable

Here are two examples: Effects of Rising Atmopshereic Concentrations of Carbon Dioxide on Plants

Terrestrial Primary Production: Fuel for Life

Studying and Projecting Climate Change with Earth Systems Models

Content extension:


Determine the amount of carbon in a tree near you. Use this simple tree carbon calculator http://www.northsydney.nsw.gov.au/carbon/carbon.html

Explore visualizations of forests and vegetation created with data from the new NASA NPP Suomi satellite. NASA visualizations of forests and vegetation

Read about how scientists use remote sensing to map carbon in forests in Seeing Forests for the Trees and the Carbon; Mapping the World's Forests in Three Dimensions

Research various programs to plant trees such as the "Plant a Billion Trees" program at The Nature Conservancy.

Students research which types/species of trees in their location absorb and sequester the most carbon.

Use ScienceDaily to have students discover the latest research on carbon sequestration in forests. Some tags would include: carbon storage/sequestration in forests, nutrients and carbon storage/sequestration.

As part of Lab 1B, test the corn seeds for presence of biomolecules (proteins, carbohydrates (sugars and starches), fats. These testing kits which include Benedict's solutions for sugar, Lugol's for starch, Biuret's for proteins and Sudan's for fats can be purchased from most science supply catalogs such as Carolina's biological.

Read about the FACE carbon dioxide enrichment experiments


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