EarthLabs for Educators > Climate and the Carbon Cycle > Lab 2: The Global Carbon Cycle

Lab 2: The Global Carbon Cycle

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

Summary and Learning Objectives

Students focus initially on a sub-section of Earth's natural carbon cycle related to the biosphere involving the cycling of carbon through the processes of photosynthesis, respiration, and decay. Following that, they study an annotated representation of the full carbon cycle with reservoirs and the processes that drive carbon from one reservoir to others. Finally, students learn about the interconnectedness of the Earth system, feedback loops, and how changes in the carbon cycle lead to other changes in the system.

After completing this investigation, students will be able to:

  • Describe how the primary carbon cycle processes of photosynthesis, respiration, decomposition, ingestion and combustion transport and transform carbon compounds as they move throughout the Earth's Biosphere and Geosphere;
  • Identify the four major carbon reservoirs and explain how carbon can move from one reservoir to anothe;
  • Provide examples of the various time scales at which carbon cycles through the Earth System's Geosphere and Biosphere; and
  • Describe the effects of negative and positive feedbacks on the carbon cycle system.
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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.

In Part A: Students take on the role of a carbon atom moving through the various reservoirs in a Lodgepole Pine forest ecosystem. They explore the various carbon cycle processes (example: photosynthesis, respiration, decomposition, ingestion) that move carbon from one reservoir to another. Some of these processes take place in a fraction of a second while others can take millions of years. This activity has been adapted from the original Forest Carbon Cycle Game instructions (Acrobat (PDF) 237kB Mar30 15) created by the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR). NOTE: Adapted instructions are embedded in the PRINTABLE MATERIALS in addition to LAB 2A text.

Time estimate: 1-2 50 minute class periods

In Part B: Students get a broader introduction to the carbon cycle by using an interactive visualization that highlights the major carbon reservoirs and processes in the larger, more complex global carbon cycle. They are able to see that the time scales of geosphere processes (thousands to millions of years) are much longer than time scales of biosphere processes (minutes to hundreds of years).

Time estimate: 1-2 50 minute class periods

In Part C: Students apply systems thinking strategies to learn about the interconnectedness of the Earth System and how changes to one part of the Earth's system can cause changes to other parts of the system. Students are introduced to positive and negative feedback loops that play a critical role in either amplifying or damping change in the Earth system.

Time estimate: 1-2 50 minute 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."

Teaching Notes and Tips

General recommendations for classroom implementation.

General Recommendations:

  • If unfamiliar with a hands-on activity in this Lab, consider a practice run before implementation.
  • Print out any paper-based materials before starting the lab.
  • Have students keep a lab notebook or journal to record important notes, questions, data and findings.
  • Consider FLIPPING parts of the lessons. This will save you class time and reduce the need to have computer access in your classroom.
  • Discussion questions, Checking In questions and Stop and Think questions can be adapted and used in a variety of ways based on teachers' needs. For example, some questions might make great "DO Now" activities as students enter the classroom or great "exit quizzes" as students leave.
  • You may want to spend time projecting graphs and important images on the board and going over the elements (e.g. units of measure, variables on axis, trends, color schemes etc) with them.
  • You may want to spend time projecting graphs and important images on the board and going over the elements (e.g. units of measure, variables on axis, trends, color schemes etc) with them.
  • In many of the Optional Extensions sections throughout the carbon cycle module, students are prompted to "research the latest research" on important carbon cycle topics pertinent to the lab section they are working in. Rich conversations can ensue when students go to ScienceDaily and/or Phys.org - News and Articles on Science and Technology to find abstracts of new research that supports, contradicts or enhances current understanding on how the carbon cycle works.

Part A: Download the Lodgepole Pine Forest Posters, Passport tickets and Passport chart. Set up the stations with posters and their tickets and place about the room. Follow the instructions on the student lesson and on the printable materials. This lesson was adapted from the Lodgepole Pine Carbon Cycle Game Instructions (Acrobat (PDF) 237kB Mar30 15) created by UCAR. Note: If you have AP students, you may want to skip this lesson and proceed directly to Lab 2B.


Part B: Students will need access to the carbon cycle interactive to do this activity. You may want to consider assigning groups specific starting points so groups don't chose the easier ones.

Each group must describe two carbon pathways - one from a shorter time scale and the other from a longer. One of these pathways must include the ocean reservoir. Students' flow charts can be fairly simple or they might want to enhance them with drawings and images. NOTE: Labs 3, 4,5,6 and 7 have in depth content on the atmosphere, forests, soils and oceans- major reservoirs of the global carbon cycle. If you do not have enough time to complete the entire module, you can direct students to use labs 3-7 to explore for background information they might like to use in the global carbon cycle activity.


Part C: Students are asked to begin thinking about connections between the carbon cycle, the environment and climate. The element strips are provided as scaffolding for this activity. If you have advanced students, you may want to consider not giving students the element strips and instead, have students read the provided resources and identify the elements of the Pine Bark Beetle and climate story.

Student Notebooks

If you have your students keep a lab notebook and/or a journal, here are some suggestions to consider:
  • Have students write down the learning objectives for Lab 2.
  • Have students record answers to all Stop and Think questions.
  • Have students record answers to Discussion questions.
  • Have students record diagrams they have drawn, with labels and a short description of what the diagram represents.
  • Have students record important hands-on or minds-on activity components. This could include research questions, data, tables, observations, drawings, graphs, and conclusions.
  • Have students write down any questions they still have about the content covered in this lab.

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.
  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 2


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  3. Many lab sections are a "learning assessment." While carrying out the activity, students are learning important concepts and demonstrating their understanding in a performance assessment. Lab 2B and 2C have performance assessments.
  4. Anything that students create such as graphs, diagrams and conclusions would serve as good assessments.

Science Standards

Lab 2 supports following Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).
Science and Engineering Practices
2. Developing and Using Models
Disciplinary Core Ideas

ESS2.A Earth's Materials and Systems
ESS2.E Biogeology
LS2.A Ecosystem Functioning Dynamics and Resilience


Cross-Cutting Concepts

2. Cause and effect

3. Scale, Proportion and Quantity

4. Systems and System Models

5. Energy and Matter

7. Stability and Change

Examples of how students engage with the standards:


Go to Next Generation Science Standards.

Additional Resources

Explore background information and content extensions related to Lab 1.

Background Information

Content Extensions

The following sites provide multiple resources for background information and content extensions including current stories, visualizations, data and many links to other resources: