Traveling Nitrogen

Windows to the Universe

Activity Source: 

Windows to the Universe. Adapted with permission.

Nitrogen is an element that is found both in living things and the nonliving parts of the Earth system. In this classroom activity, students play the role of nitrogen atoms traveling through the nitrogen cycle to gain understanding of the varied pathways through the cycle and how nitrogen is relevant to living things.

For the teacher: To prepare, set up nitrogen reservoir stations around the classroom (or outside). At each station, place a reservoir sign, inkpad, stamp, die, and dice codes. Then go around the room with the “Key to Stamps” sheet and stamp each reservoir so that each stamp corresponds with a reservoir.


  • Computer with Internet connection
  • 11 large signs with the reservoir names (atmosphere, surface water, rainwater, groundwater, fertilizers, soils, ocean, animal waste, dead plants and animals, live plants, live animals) posted around the classroom or outside
  • “Dice Codes” for each reservoir station
  • 11 dice
  • 11 different small rubber stamps
  • 11 ink pads
  • For each student, a “Passport Worksheet," pen or pencil, and lined paper
  • For the teacher, one “Key to Stamps.”


For students:

    1. Read the Windows to the Universe page entitled “The Nitrogen Cycle.”
    2. Discuss: Where is nitrogen found on Earth? Does it move from place to place or stay still? Why is it important? How does nitrogen travel with the help of bacteria, water, lightning, plants, and animals?
    3. The nitrogen reservoir signs around the room represent places to which nitrogen can travel. These places are called reservoirs. Along with your classmates, spread out so that there are two or three of you at each station.
    4. You and your classmates each are playing the role of a nitrogen atom traveling through the nitrogen cycle (that is, to different stations around the room). To begin, roll dice and proceed to the station indicated.
    5. You each carry a nitrogen passport. Stamp it each time you get to a nitrogen reservoir station.
    6. Toss the die again, and repeat the process. Write a note in the passport to indicate how you are getting from one place to another based on what the die says.
    7. Discuss: How many stops can you make on your trip? Will your journey ever end? Was everyone’s journey the same? Why not? What would happen if a farmer used too much fertilizer (if everyone started from the fertilizer station at the same time)? What would happen if we burnt too many fossil fuels? Since livestock farming creates a large amount of animal waste, how does this affect the nitrogen cycle?
    8. Write a paragraph about your trip through the nitrogen cycle. Include information about where you went and how you reached each destination.