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.

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, or create your own assessments.

Science Standards

Lab 2 supports following Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Additional Resources

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