Blame it on the Carbon

50 teachers like this lesson
Print Lesson


SWBAT identify the parts and processes of the carbon cycle.

Big Idea

As students describe how the carbon cycle contributes to the condition of our environment, they gain a better understanding of the cause and effect of human activities on the Earth's systems.


5 minutes

I begin the lesson and activate student background knowledge / interest in the topic by flipping through the slideshow below, stopping on each slide for only 1-2 seconds. After looping the show a few times, I ask the students what they think each of the pictures have in common.

After a few guesses (which are usually incorrect), I explain to the students that each of the objects shown in the pictures are made of the element, carbon (C). I ask the students to raise their hands if they have ever heard of carbon. Mostly all of the students will raise their hand, because they have at least heard the term. However, when I ask for volunteers to tell me what they know about carbon, many hands go down. The truth is that while carbon is everywhere and directly affects every person on the planet, most people know very little about it!

At this time, I do not provide any information related to carbon. If I simply spit out facts and information right now, not only will I bore the heck out of my students, but it will not stick with them, as they have little to no foundation to make connections to. Students will get the chance to learn more about the topic as they investigate it during the lesson. Instead, I record responses on the board as volunteers share what they know (or think they know). This is interesting to refer to later to see if their ideas were correct. It is also a great way to assess how much learning has taken place.


30 minutes

I hand out the Carbon Cycle reading passage and have students read independently. After reading, I ask students to use a Round Robin strategy to identify key information in the text that will help us understand how carbon affects our environment. I also ask them to name some of the places where carbon is found on Earth. Using the Round Robin ensures that all students are actively participating and requires them to listen to others so they they don't repeat some else's answer.

To provide more detail and deepen the level of learning pertaining to the carbon cycle, we watch the TedEd video The Carbon Cycle. While watching, I have students take notes in the margins of their Carbon and the Carbon Cycle handout, next to the spot on the paper that discusses a similar idea.* This will allow them to organize information based on the subtopic - both visually and cognitively.

*In order to allow students to take ample notes and to align subtopics on their paper, I have found that I need to pause the video several times and to rewind and review some parts that are particularly information-heavy. Time needs to be planned accordingly, as the video takes much longer than the time it states on the bottom of the screen. For more information, plese watch the annotated video below to see where stopping throughout the video may be necessary,

After watching the video, we brainstorm why carbon is important and why carbon is sometimes hazardous. I call on random students to provide a response.




10 minutes

Next, I give the students a chance to experience the many components of the carbon cycle by playing the online interactive The Carbon Cycle game. In this game, students assume the identify of carbon atoms that are released into the atmosphere when fossil fuels are burned. While traveling, they will have to decide their fate by selecting different paths to take through the cycle. They choose also have to answer questions about the carbon cycle in order to move on.I explain the main idea of the game and tell the students that even though it may only take them a few minutes to complete their journey as a carbon atom, it can take actual carbon atoms millions of years to make it to all the locations in the carbon cycle.

After each student has had approximately 10 minutes to play several rounds of the carbon cycle game, we reflect on the activity, discussing the following:

  • Will your journey ever end?
  • Was everyone’s journey the same? Why not?
  • How does this relate to the actual carbon cycle?
  • Does the carbon in our environment make as many "stops" as you did in the game? How do you know?
  • What would happen if we burned more fossil fuels? Less? None?


10 minutes

Now that students have learned about the relationship between carbon and the environment,  I challenge them to calculate their own "carbon footprint", using the Nature Conservancy Carbon Footprint calculator. After calculating both individual and household footprints, we compare our results and calculate the average carbon footprint for sixth graders from our school, as well as their families, comparing it to the national and world averages.*


5 minutes

We revisit the ideas that students contributed (ideas on board) at the start of the lesson to see if they are accurate. If not, I ask for students to discuss the misconception with their table groups, then ask spokespeople from random groups to share out their ideas. It is interesting to see how much students have learned about the uses and potential effects of carbon on the environment. Students will learn to see its necessity, but will also understand how it can create a dangerous environment and a threat to our life as it is today.

Next, I collect the reading passages* and direct the students to create a diagram - in their science notebook - of the carbon cycle, labeling all of the ways carbon is circulated throughout the environment. For each transfer, I have them label it with a "+" or a "-", signifying if the transfer is positive or negative to the environment.

*I collect the reading in advance so that they could not refer to the diagram on the page.