Climate and the Carbon Cycle: Unit Overview

The lab activities in this module were developed by Candace Dunlap of TERC for the EarthLabs project.

The Workshop Leader Resources were developed by Nick Haddad of TERC, Project Director of the EarthLabs project.

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Why teach about carbon and the earth system?

Carbon, like water, is essential to life as we know it on Earth. It is a component of our DNA and of the foods we eat, and its presence in the atmosphere (in the form of carbon dioxide, a "greenhouse gas") helps keep our planet warm enough to be habitable. Like water, carbon continuously cycles through the major components of the Earth system—the Geosphere and the Biosphere - driven by processes that occur at incredibly different time scales, from fractions of a second (photosynthesis) to millions of years (formation of fossil fuels).

As significant a role as the carbon cycle plays in our lives, it is poorly understood; whether it's the way in which carbon dioxide supports the growth of plants or functions as Earth's thermostat, misconceptions abound. This module is designed to help students strengthen their understanding of the carbon cycle and carbon's essential role in our lives. Because carbon is connected to everything that matters to us –our bodies, our ecosystems, our climate, and the health of our planet – it makes sense for all of us to better understand this essentially important element and the ways in which it cycles through the Earth system.

Why use this set of lessons?

This unit will introduce students to the basics of the carbon cycle. They will learn how the carbon cycle, climate and the abiotic and biotic components of the environment influence each other. They will learn where carbon is stored in the Earth's system (reservoirs) and by what processes it moves from one reservoir to another. Using case studies, NASA visualizations, current research, and interactives, students will explore how living things on land, in soils, and in our oceans regulate the carbon cycle. Students will analyze the effect of carbon dioxide on the Earth's thermostat and our climate. Finally, they will seek possible solutions to a warming climate.

Key questions

Key questions addressed by this unit include:

  • How do the carbon cycle, climate and the environment influence each other?
  • How does carbon move through the Geosphere and the Biosphere, in what forms and at what time and spatial scales?
  • How is the carbon cycle interconnected with other biochemical cycles such as the nitrogen cycle?
  • How does the carbon cycle regulate the temperature of Earth's atmosphere?
  • Will carbon dioxide continue to rise, and if so, what can we do about it?

Before starting this unit

Read the Lab Overviews section, which identifies all of the materials you'll need to gather and provides a quick scope and sequence of the unit. If you have not already done so, please read the Climate Series Introduction where you will find additional information about climate science as well as suggestions for helping your students get the most out of their engagement with the module. Install and practice using new software and digital tools; acquire needed lab materials; and print out student handouts.


Several options for assessing student understanding are provided throughout this module. Some Lab sections are "learning assessments" with culminating performance assessments.Stop and Think questions can be used to assess student understanding at key points within each lab. These questions are available on the Instructor Page for each lab, under the Printable Materials heading. Short written tests to assess student understanding of material covered by each lab can be found on the corresponding Instructor Pages, under the Assessment heading. A full list of lab-level assessments as well as a cumulative end-of-module test can also be found on the Assessments page.


The resources below provide important background information relevant to this module and to the entire set of Climate EarthLabs modules.

Workshop Leader Resources

Below are links to a set of resources which you may use if you wish to lead a one-day workshop that introduces this unit to other teachers. The resources are suggestions, and you are free to modify them and use them as you wish.

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