Lab 1: Living in a Carbon World

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

Summary and Learning Objectives

In Part A, students trace the pathway of carbon from the atmosphere into trees where carbon can be stored for hundreds to thousands of years. In Part B, students go outdoors and measure the amount of carbon in a local tree. In Part C, students use molecular model kits and Jmol images to explore how carbon compounds are built and how they are transformed into new carbon compounds as carbon moves through the carbon cycle. In Part D, students learn about combustion, a carbon cycle process that burns fossil fuels. Students analyze graphs and videos to determine if the human activity of burning fossil fuels is changing the chemical composition of the atmosphere.

After completing this investigation, students will be able to:

  • explain why carbon atoms can form the basis of millions of different types of carbon compound molecules;
  • describe how the carbon atoms in CO2 absorbed via plant photosynthesis provide the carbon atoms for all of the new carbon compounds a plant produces;
  • explain how carbon compounds are transformed in four processes that are critical to the carbon cycle: photosynthesis, cell respiration, biosynthesis and combustion;
  • apply skills to measure the amount of carbon in a tree; and
  • explain how combustion moves the carbon atoms in fossil fuels into the atmosphere.

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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.

Printable Materials

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

Teaching Notes and Tips

General recommendations for classroom implementation.

Student Notebooks

If you have your students keep a lab notebook and/or a journal, here are some suggestions to consider:


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

Science Standards

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

Additional Resources

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