Plaid Pete and Seth Discover the Carbon Cycle

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SWBAT construct a model to describe how matter in the form of carbon transfers through an ecosystem.

Big Idea

What is the carbon cycle? Why is it important to the healthy balance of an ecosystem? Students play the carbon cycle game, learn the steps of the carbon cycle, and construct models to explain the process.

Setting Up the Investigation

Connection to The Next Generation Science Standards

In this investigation, students continue the work that will lead them to understand the Disciplinary Core Idea of Ecosystems:  Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics -  Interdependent Relationships in Ecosystems -  that food of almost any kind of animal can be traced back to plants.  Organisms are related in food webs in which some animals eat plants for food and other animals eat the animals that eat plants. Some organisms, such as fungi and bacteria, break down dead organisms (both plants or plants parts and animals) and therefore operate as "decomposers."  Decomposition eventually restores (recycles) some materials back to the soil.  Organisms can survive only in environments in which their particular needs are met.  A healthy ecosystem is one in which multiple species of different types are each able to meet their needs in a a relatively stable web of life.  Newly introduced species can damage the balance of the ecosystem. (5-LS2-1); Cycles of Matter and Energy Transfer in Ecosystems - Matter cycles between the air and soil and among plants, animals, and microbes as these organisms live and die.  Organisms obtain gases, and water, from the environment, and release waste matter (gas, liquid, or solid) back into the environment.  (5-LS2-1) and the Crosscutting Concept of Systems and System Models  - A system can be described in terms of its components and their interactions (5-LS2-1).

Please Note:  The Lexile Level for Plaid Pete Discovers What Matters in Ecosystems - Lab Scenario Sheet Lesson 15 is 770 (5th Grade Range is 740 - 1010).

The Preparation Time for This Investigation is approximately 10 minutes.

Materials Needed:

One copy for each student of Plaid Pete Discovers What Matters In Ecosystems - Lab Scenario Lesson 15

One copy for each student of Plaid Pete Discovers What Matters In Ecosystems - Lab Sheet Lesson 15

Food Chains Fact Cards


Focus & Motivation

20 minutes

Introduce Scenario

I pass out the Plaid Pete Discovers What Matters In Ecosystems - Lab Scenario Lesson 15 and my students get out their highlighters.  I tell them there are 3 reader's theater parts, Plaid Pete, his friends, Seth, and a narrator.  Students work in their teams to highlight the text and decide who will read the parts.  Students read the parts in their teams, as I circulate and listen in.

As before, we are continuing to work on aspects of Reading Fluency.   I am pleased to see improvements in oral fluency with each scenario we read.  

After we read the scenario, I engage my students in a discussion.  I want them to identify the main idea of the scenario, and some supporting details.  In this Video Clip, I quickly discover that my students are confused.  I realize that they are not understanding that carbon can occur in different forms.  I have them pull out their Science Notebooks and go to the page that contains the copy of the Periodic Table of Elements that we glued in from our unit on matter.  I have them locate the element carbon on the table and remind them that an element is a pure substance that cannot be broken down into a simpler form.  

I go to the TED-Ed Periodic Videos website and play the video for Carbon.  It is just over 10 minutes long.  When the video is done, we review the fact that carbon comes in different forms.  We are most familiar with the gas form known as Carbon Dioxide, which is a combination of Carbon and Oxygen.  I also remind them about the compounds we constructed with Unifix cubes.  I write the chemical formula for fructose (plant sugar) on the whiteboard:  C6H1206 (writing the numbers in subscript).  I say, "Remember when we used unifix cubes to construct the compound for sugar?  This is the chemical formula for sucrose - the sugar made by plants.  Plants make sugar, and then they store the extra sugar in their cells - it becomes a part of the matter of the plant.  If you look at this formula, what does it tell you that plants are made from?"  I ask my students to turn and talk in their teams, and over and over again I hear the correct answer - Wow!  They're made of carbon!

Learning Objective & Success Criteria

Note:  Consistent with the Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol, I am now including a language objective with each lesson.  These objectives were derived from the Washington State ELP Standards Frameworks that are correlated with the CCSS and the NGSS.

I share the learning objective and success criteria:  

Learning Objective:  I can construct a model to describe how matter in the form of carbon moves between plants, animals, and the environment.

Language Objective:  I can explain key details that support the main idea.  [ELP.4-5.1]

Success Criteria:  I can accurately construct and label a model on my lab sheet.

Guided Exploration

20 minutes

All About Carbon Dioxide Video

For this segment of the lesson, I take my students into the computer lab where we have access to a SMART Board.  Before we begin the game, I play the All About Carbon Dioxide Video that explains basic information about the carbon cycle.  It is presented by the United States Environmental Protection Agency.  We discuss the ideas presented there.  I focus my student's attention to the part of the video where they discuss the idea that "plants store carbon."  I ask, "Where did you just learn the carbon is stored in plants?"  I call on a student who correctly responds that it is in the sugar.  I ask, "Where did the carbon come from?"  I ask my students to turn and talk to the person next to them.  After they have had a few moments to discuss this in pairs, I call on a pair and they are able to correctly state that plants take the carbon dioxide from the air, separate the carbon atoms from the oxygen atoms, and then use the carbon to make sugar.  I ask, "What is this process of plants making sugar called?"  Pairs again turn and talk, and then one pair is able to correctly respond that this is called photosynthesis. 

The Carbon Cycle Game

We then go to individual computers and play The Carbon Cycle Game from The National Earth Science Teacher's Association.  I have my students work in pairs, placing a more capable reader with a less capable reader.  I explain that although we are primarily concerned with the simple transfer of carbon within ecosystems - this game will give them a larger view of the carbon cycle within the biosphere.  I tell my students that this will become important information in an upcoming unit.  I point out the the counter in the lower left hand corner that indicates how many reservoirs have been visited, and how many questions have been answered.  When students have had an opportunity to go to all 6 reservoirs and answer all 7 of the questions, we head back to the classroom.


15 minutes

Introduce Text

I project The Carbon Cycle from the National Earth Science Teacher's Website.  I read the first paragraph to my students.  I explain that by "on the move" the text means that carbon is constantly cycling through ecosystems.  I tell my students that this text is going to give us the steps in the Carbon Cycle.  I say, "It's important that you pay close attention and write the steps carefully, because when you are done listing them, you will use them to create a model in the ecosystem that is represented by the fact card that you will be given today."   I also explain that for our purposes today, we will only be concerned with

List the Steps of the Carbon Cycle

I read the first step:  Carbon moves from the atmosphere to plants.  I write the step in my Science Notebook, and my students copy the step into theirs.

  1. Carbon moves from the atmosphere to plants.

I tell my students to turn and talk in their teams and describe in their own words what happens during that step.  I call on a team to share their response.  The student responds, "Carbon is in the gas carbon dioxide.  Plants take carbon dioxide from the air and use it to make food."  I confirm that yes, they have correctly summarized the important points of that section in their own words.  We write this information under the first step.

Comparing the Carbon Cycle to the Water (Hydrologic) Cycle

We get to the next step:  2. Carbon moves from plants to animals, and I read that this occurs through food chains.  I ask my students, "Do you understand now why we spent so much time learning about food chains and plants?"  I ask, "Does this cycle remind you of any other cycle in nature that we have learned about?"  I call on a student who responds, "It's like the water cycle!"   

I ask the question, "How is the carbon cycle like the water, or hydrologic cycle?"  I tell my teams to turn and talk.  I randomly call on a team.  One student responds, "Just like in the water cycle where water keeps getting recycled over and over, in the carbon cycle, carbon gets recycled over and over."  I remind my students about our earlier discussion on the water cycle - and the idea that all of the water that ever was or has been is still on earth because it is a closed system.  I ask, "How do you think that applies to the carbon cycle?" I again have my teams turn and talk.  I all on one student who responds, "Wow!  Since Earth is basically a closed system that means that all of the carbon that ever was or has been is still here on Earth - it just keeps getting recycled, just like water."  During our discussion on the water cycle, they got a little carried away with the idea of that so I can see where this conversation is going!  I hurriedly redirect them back to the text.

I skip the next step and have them finish with this third step:  3. Carbon moves from living things to the atmosphere.  Right now, I just want them to have a very basic understanding of the cycling of carbon in an ecosystem.  This will serve as a basis for building more complex ideas about fossil fuels and global warming during our Earth's Systems unit.  This is one student's completed notes.


Team Activity

15 minutes

Introduce Task

I tell my students that now that they understand the steps of the carbon cycle, their job is to create a model of what that cycle might look like in a specific ecosystem.  They are "translating" it to an ecosystem. I explain that they will need to create a model to show how the plants and animals of a specific ecosystem transfer matter in the form of carbon, and they will need to show what form the carbon takes.  I review again the two forms of carbon that we have discussed:  solid carbon - the matter that living organisms are composed, or made up of; and carbon in a gaseous form - carbon dioxide.  

Assign Fact Cards & Begin Models

I have the Food Chains Fact Cards that were introduced in Lesson 13 placed face down in my hands.  I randomly draw a popsicle stick and have the student from that team choose a card.  I continue in this manner until each team has a card.  This is the ecosystem they will use to construct their model.  I pass out copies of Plaid Pete Discovers What Matters In Ecosystems - Lab Sheet Lesson 15 to each student.  Students work in their teams to begin their models. I provide copies of the Biome Food Chains cards to each team so that they have pictures of their animals.

Reflection & Closure

5 minutes

Pair Share/Review

Before students turn in their notebooks for me to evaluate, I have them engage in a pair share/review.  I randomly pull popsicle sticks and pair students together.  I have placed the following checklist on the whiteboard:  

  • I have included all of the steps in the carbon cycle.
  • I have "translated" the steps so that they reflect the transfer of carbon (matter) in the specific ecosystem that was chosen by my team.
  • I have described my carbon cycle model to my partner.


Pairs work together and then turn in their notebooks.  This is an example of one completed student lab sheet  As I continue to examine notebooks at the end of the day, I see this student's lab sheet  In looking at the Lab Sheet, I don't see evidence that this student understands the different forms of carbon.  This is a student I will pull into a small group tomorrow for additional instruction.