Earth Science Week Classroom Activities

Carbon Travels

Activity Source:

Adapted with permission by NASA.

We find carbon everywhere on Earth ─ in trees, rocks, fossil fuels, oceans, and even you! Carbon doesn’t stay in one place, through. Scientists study how carbon moves from one place to another. This is the carbon cycle.

The Industrial Revolution, starting in the 1700s, saw a move to large-scale manufacturing and the use of new technologies, such as steam power and electricity. This led to a huge increase in burning of carbon-rich fossil fuels, releasing into the atmosphere carbon (in the form of carbon dioxide) that had been buried underground for millions of years. How did these human actions affect the carbon cycle?


Procedure (for teacher)

  1. Engage : Tell students that you want to begin teaching about carbon today, but you cannot seem to find it. Ask students if anyone saw carbon today on their way into class.
  • Record the ideas of where carbon is found on the board.
  • Solicit additional ideas about the carbon cycle. What is carbon? Where is it found? How does carbon move from one place to another? What forms does it take?
  • Differentially highlight/circle the pools and fluxes.
  • Group student’s ideas into the major global carbon pools.
  1. Explore : Groups of students should prepare a poster about one of the major global carbon pools (e.g. atmosphere, soil), using information from the Carbon Cycle Adventure Story or other age appropriate resources.

  2. Explain : Hand out copies of the Journey Table and a die to each student and tell them the game will begin pre-1700 (before the Industrial Revolution). Model what to do at a station and how to use the Journey Table, emphasizing the importance of including all results, even if they remain at the same pool repeatedly.

  3. Elaborate : Divide students so there is an equal number of students (if possible) at each station to begin the activity.

  • Students follow the instructions, move around the room at their own pace and record results in their tables. After 10 turns, they stand aside to show they are done.

  • Flip over the instructions to begin the post-1700 simulation. Students complete another 10 turns under the new conditions.

  1. Evaluate : Each student adds the path of his/her journey on the board: one diagram for pre-1700, and one for post-1700.
  • Each time a student moved from one pool to another, they should draw an arrow. If they remained in a pool until the next turn, they should circle the pool.

  • Students begin to work independently on completing “What’s Your Carbon Story” until all students’ data are displayed on the board.

  • Consider students’ data. What was different before and after 1700? What do the differences reflect? Burning of fossil fuels and land use change?

NGSS 3-D Learning

  • Science and Engineering Practices ─ Developing and Using Models
  • Disciplinary Core Ideas ─ Earth’s Systems
  • Crosscutting Concepts ─ Energy and Matter