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Carbon Cycle Activities & Games

Instructor: Julie Zundel

Julie has taught high school Zoology, Biology, Physical Science and Chem Tech. She has a Bachelor of Science in Biology and a Master of Education.

Understanding the movement of atoms, like carbon, throughout the Earth can be difficult for many students to grasp. While textbook lessons can be informative, these activities teach students about the carbon cycle using fun, hands-on methods that can be used alone or alongside a textbook.

Learning about the Carbon Cycle

It's hard for most students to image that the carbon in their bodies may someday end up in an elephant, or that the air they breathe out may end up in the ocean. This series of activities about the carbon cycle, or the movement of carbon throughout the Earth, will aid students in understanding these phenomena.

Carbon Cycle Diagram
carbon cycle

The Journey of a Carbon Atom

By becoming a carbon atom and traveling through the carbon cycle, students will learn all about the possible places a carbon atom can end up. This activity will take some preparation, however, once created, it can be used for years.

Materials

  • Eight Signs:
    • Atmosphere
    • Deep Ocean
    • Fossil Fuels
    • Land Biosphere
    • Marine Biosphere
    • Rocks
    • Soil
    • Surface Ocean
  • Cards to be placed at each sign that give the next destination of the carbon atom. Several examples are below:
    • You diffused into the surface ocean, leave the atmosphere and go to the surface ocean station.
    • The critter you belonged to died and sank to the deep ocean. Leave the marine biosphere and go to the deep ocean station.
    • The fossil fuel you're part of is burned in an engine, and you're released into the atmosphere. Head to the atmosphere station.
  • Note: The internet has several websites that give clues so you need not come up with them on your own. Search 'carbon cycle game' on the internet to find and print off clues.
  • A student worksheet, so students can keep track of where their carbon atom travels. For example:

Station Name Next Destination How You Moved to the Next Destination
Fossil Fuels Atmosphere I was burned in a combustion engine
Atmosphere Surface Ocean I diffused into the surface ocean

Activity Instructions

  • Begin by asking students to name some places where they can find carbon. Make a list on the board.
  • Work with students to list where carbon could be found.
  • Next, introduce the activity and randomly hand each student a clue card so they know where to begin.
  • Students should rotate through the carbon cycle (ensuring they leave their clue card before they depart to the next sign so each station doesn't run out of clues).
  • As they rotate through the cycle, remind them to fill out their worksheet so they can keep track of their destination and how they got there.

Follow-Up Questions/Activities

  • Did every carbon atom (student) make it to every sign?
  • Work with students to create a carbon cycle based on their experiences with the game.
  • Have students create their own carbon cycle with images for each stop along the way.

Carbon in Water

This is a simple, short activity that helps students see one piece of the carbon cycle: how carbon dioxide can get into water. Since students cannot see carbon dioxide, it's hard for them to visualize its movement within the carbon cycle. This activity is a nice jumping off point for ocean acidification.

Materials

  • Beakers or cups
  • Straws
  • Bromothymol blue (an acid/base indicator)
  • Images of the carbon cycle

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