Ecology 1 - Carbon Cycle

Based on a “Carbon Adventures” lesson plan developed by  the GK-12 Project at Arizona State University. For details on the original activity, go to ( There is excellent background information on the carbon cycle in the “Lesson Plan” document on the right side of the page.

This discussion uses a board game activity to simulate the cycling of carbon through the environment. Students play the game and should discover that carbon can take many forms and that there is not a set path through the carbon cycle. Afterwards, the class as a whole spends 5-10 minutes discussing the major points the game is intended to draw out.

Materials Needed:

Timing (35 min)

5 min – Review carbon cycle, arrange students into groups, and walk through the directions (steps 1-4)
15 min – Students play game (steps 5-7)
15 min (3 min per question) – Discuss each of the discussion questions in turn (step 8)

Lesson Plan

  1. Show slide #1 and briefly review the carbon cycle as described in the lecture and in the book.
  2. Tell students that they will be playing a game where they are a carbon atom that will be moving around the environment from one storage area to another. When you move from one storage area (say “Industry and Vehicles”) to another (say “Atmosphere”), you will still be the same carbon atom, only you will undergo a chemical reaction to combine with other atoms as a different molecule. A card you draw will tell you about your starting form (a fossil fuel) and the process you undergo (burning) to take you to a new ending form (carbon dioxide).
  3. Arrange students into groups of 4 students such that each group can gather around a single game board. Distribute the materials.
  4. Show slide #2 and walk students through the directions.
    • Place the game cards onto the proper storage area.
    • Choose a game piece and place it on Plants.
    • Decide who goes first by rolling the dice.
    • Pick a Plant card and find out your next destination. Roll the dice to see how many spaces you move toward your destination. Return the card to the bottom of the Plant pile.
    • Keep rolling until you get to your destination. When you arrive, stop there. You’ve been stored!
    • On your next turn, pick a new card from your new storage area then roll to see how far you go.
    • You get a point each time you get back to Plants. The person with the most points by the time the instructor says to stop playing wins!
  5. Allow students 15 minutes to play. Go around the room and answer any questions the students have as they play.
  6. Give a 1 minute warning to let students know they each get one last turn.
  7. Stop the activity and have students put the materials back into the ziplock bags.
  8. Show slide #3 and discuss each of the questions, one at a time. Get 2-3 responses to each question from students before summarizing their ideas.
  • What is the importance of plants in the carbon cycle? Answer: There are many but one of the most important is that plants are where inorganic carbon in the atmosphere is transformed into organic carbon and enters the biotic realm.
  • How many possible paths are there for a carbon atom to move through the environment? Answer: a LOT. There are many different paths a carbon atom can take.
  • What happens to the carbon atom as it moves from 1 pool to another? Give an example. Answer: the carbon atom stays the same but undergoes chemical reactions to combine with different other atoms and thus form new molecules when it goes to a new pool.
  • Name some places where carbon appears to “get stuck” in a pool and not move for some time. Why might this be? Answer: carbon tends to “get stuck” in the atmosphere and in fossil fuels. Carbon can remain in these forms for many millions of years.
  • Humans have a big influence on the carbon cycle. What would the carbon cycle be like without humans? What is our impact on the carbon cycle? Answer: Our biggest effect is on the burning of fossil fuels. Slide #4 reviews this with the students.
Attachment Size
Ecol1 Carbon cycle.ppt 1.1 MB