Cruising Through the Carbon Cycle

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SWBAT to identify carbon sinks and sources throughout the biosphere.

Big Idea

Get your kids moving through the carbon cycle through this engaging movement based simulation!

Notes for the Teacher

This activity is a great way to go deeper into the carbon cycle and introduce the concept of carbon sinks and sources.  Students have a basic knowledge of cycles in nature, specifically the water cycle, and they have a vague understanding that carbon dioxide cycles between photosynthesis and respiration but the details and depth of understanding is fuzzy at best.  This movement activity gets kids thinking about specific examples of what compounds contain carbon and where they are found on the planet in a way that allows them to ask better questions about specific parts of the carbon cycle and to focus with more engagement and curiosity as we begin to explore the more complex processes of photosynthesis and cellular respiration later on in the unit.  As a teacher, the addition of movement in the classroom has been a huge success, both in terms of focus and engagement as well as in content retention.  I'll look forward to hearing about your experiences working with this activity!

The Classroom Flow: Introducing the Activity

10 minutes

1.  Ask students to talk about the following prompts in their lab groups (3-4 students):

What is the carbon cycle?
Have you heard of it before?  If so, where/when?
What do you think words like geo-, cryo-, atmo- and hydrosphere mean?

2.  Share out student responses with the large group using the spokesperson protocol.

  • Note:  students will recall that we worked with our carbon footprint in the first semester and that it is related to climate change.  They will often mention its connection to photosynthesis and will know what the atmosphere and hydrosphere are.  They will be uncertain as to the specifics of the cycle or the meaning of cryosphere and geosphere.

2.  Tell students that today they will each become a carbon atom going through the carbon cycle. Pass out the carbon cycle game sheet to each student.

3.  Point out to students the carbon cycle signs around the room indicating the specific parts of the ecosystem in the geosphere, cryosphere, atmosphere, and hydrosphere.  Show students that there are carbon cycle cards at each station.

4.  Go over the directions with the class:  

  • Students start at any place in the room they like and when you start the activity, they pick up one of the face-down cards at their station.  
  • They read the card and write down the scenario onto their document.  At that point, they return their card to the pile at that station and then move to whatever station is indicated on the card and repeat the process.  
  • This goes on until their document is filled.

5.  When students finish, ask them to go back to their desks for our discussion.  

The Classroom Flow: Moving through the Carbon Cycle

25 minutes

1.  As the activity begins, students may need your assistance.  Post the activity directions on the board to support students as they work independently at each station.  Alternatively, you can shift this into a paired activity so that students work together as a single carbon atom as they move around the room.  I have done both and routinely shift this activity based upon the needs of the class.

2.  Students may also need support as they attempt to find their next station.  I put the carbon cycle signs up around the room in alphabetical order and indicate that to students to help them find their next location on their own.  I also observe students closely and offer help as needed.  Students also help each other with this.  As the activity goes on, students will become more familiar with and skilled at following the directions in connection to the room layout.  

3.  I have students write down the scenarios at each station as per their document directions so that they can slow down their thinking long enough to really unpack what is going on.  In the past, I have experimented with having them glue down their activity cards onto the sheet, but it requires multiple copies of each card, wastes paper, takes more set up time, and most importantly, it doesn't require students to really read and comprehend their card scenario in the way that I find happens more often as they write.  Having this written record also allows for a more robust class discussion later on in the activity and unit.

4.  I copy and keep extra copies of each station's carbon cycle card set so that if there are specific students who are taking a long time copying down each of their card scenarios onto their activity document, I can offer them the card to take back to their desk and do later on.  This allows them to relax into the learning aspect of the activity because the pressure of lagging behind the group is lifted.

The Classroom Flow: Wrapping Up

15 minutes

1.  Ask students to discuss briefly their experiences during the activity using the following prompts:

What was this activity like for you?
What did you learn that you didn't know before?
What do you have questions about?

2.  Share out using the spokesperson protocol.  Students will express surprise at the number of times they may stayed or returned to specific places in the cycle (for example, limestone).  It is a great transition into the terms sink and source.  

3.  Tell students that there are two words that they need to know as we continue to explore basic cycles in nature:  sinks and sources.  Review the word meanings with the class.

4.  Ask students to look again at their activity documents and discuss with their group which of their cards described a carbon sink and which ones described a carbon source.  

5. Take any clarifying questions or student comments that come up.  

  • Note: Students will connect this activity back to our close read about glaciers during the climate change unit earlier in the Fall semester.

6.  Check out this student work sample for this activity. On page one, this student has carefully documented their data and then shifted into a story form.  On page two the student answered questions connecting the activity to broader themes about the cycling of matter and specifically, carbon.