Resource Type
Completion Time
About 1 period
High school and Up
Download, Share, and Remix
Michael Wing
Hand samples of limestone, coal, peat, crude oil, gasoline.
Wooden ball-and-stick molecular model kits
Power Point Presentation
Examples of student work
11” x 17” sheets of paper
Colored pencils, pens, crayons
Earth System, Structure, and Processes
Water Cycle, Weather, and Climate
General Environmental Studies
Climate Change


In this activity, students diagram the carbon cycle. A lot of the concepts presented here are necessary in order to fully understand the greenhouse effect and global warming. This lesson is presented as an activity to do before embarking on a study of the greenhouse effect and global warming.


  1. Students understand that the total amount of carbon on Earth is constant.

  2. Students understand that limestone rock is by far the most important reservoir of carbon on Earth.

  3. Students understand that CO2 in the atmosphere is one of the smallest reservoirs of carbon on earth, and that even small changes to the carbon cycle can have big impacts on atmospheric CO2 concentrations.

  4. Students understand that burning fossil fuels releases carbon into the atmosphere that has been sequestered for millions of years.


Since the carbon cycle is so complicated, it is a good idea for students to have previously studied the much simpler water cycle.


  1. Show the Power Point

  2. Pass around hand samples of limestone, coal, peat, crude oil, gasoline.

  3. Have students build ball-and-stick models of elemental carbon (C), carbon dioxide (CO2), carbonic acid (H2CO3), bicarbonate (HCO3-), carbonate (CO3-2), calcium carbonate (CaCO3), and methane (CH4) while chanting the chemical names out loud.

  4. Discuss

  5. Read through the handout

  6. Show student work

  7. Turn students loose to complete the diagram


This assignment together with the energy non-cycle diagram are good ways to lead into a study of the greenhouse effect and global warming.


The diagram is graded holistically. Emphasis is given to the clarity with which the concept of “cycle” is graphically expressed. Questions on a unit exam test specific content knowledge. For instance “Where is most of the Earth’s carbon stored?”


Michael Wing, wing [at]


9-12 Content Standard C: Life Science: Content Standard D: Earth ad Space Science: Content Standard F: Science In Personal and Social Perspectives: e. Matter, energy, and organization in living systems b. Geochemical cycles c. Natural resources

Standards Other


Attachment Size
Download Lesson (PDF - 173 KB)172.66 KB 172.66 KB
Diagram Handout (PDF - 25.6 KB)25.57 KB 25.57 KB
Student Work (PDF - 1.1 MB)1.12 MB 1.12 MB
Download Powerpoint (PPT - 1 MB)1 MB 1 MB

This program is supported by the National Science Foundation. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed by this program are those of the PIs and coordinating team, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.