Science Concepts—Carbon on the Move

Summary: Carbon is an important element that comprises part of all living organisms and is found in many nonliving parts of our planet and atmosphere. In this topic guide, students explore the carbon cycle to discover how carbon moves between atmosphere, biosphere and lithosphere. With a clear understanding of the carbon cycle, carbon sources and carbon sinks, students will be poised to better understand the causes and impacts of global climate change.

Concepts to teach:


  1. Carbon moves around the planet in various forms and substances
  2. A carbon source, living or non-living, releases CO2 into the atmosphere
  3. A carbon sink absorbs and holds CO2 from the air or water
  4. Human activities are emitting excess carbon into the atmosphere

Standards: NGSS Performance Expectations

  • 5-LS2-1. Develop a model to describe the movement of matter among plants, animals, decomposers, and the environment.

Specific Objectives:
Students will be able to:

  1. Identify objects in their surroundings that contain carbon
  2. Describe how carbon moves through living and non-living part of the Earth system
  3. Identify parts of the carbon cycle where carbon is released into the atmosphere
  4. Identify parts of the carbon cycle where carbon is held from the air or water
  5. Describe how burning fossils fuels contributes to an increase in atmospheric carbon

Activity Links and Resources:

  • Reading: The Carbon Cycle—From NESTA Windows on the Universe, explores how carbon moves through ecosystems
  • Online Activity: Play the online interactive Carbon Cycle Game
  • Activity: Carbon Walk—In this Lesson 1.1 from the Bringing Wetlands to Market curriculum, students discover the many places carbon can be found in and around the schoolyard. Consider combining this activity with the OCEP Watershed Walk.
  • It All Starts With Carbon—This Aquarium of the Pacific presentation on the Climate Interpreter website provides a simple description of the role carbon plays in climate change.
    • The “Heat Trapping Blanket” image helps students understand and be able to describe the impacts of excess CO2 in the atmosphere


  • From OCEP teacher Nancy Buchanan: After playing the Carbon Cycle Game, students write a paragraph about their trip through the cycle, including 1) where they went and 2) how they got to each destination. Students create a “map” documenting their journey through the carbon cycle.
  • Carbon Walk observations and classifications. Students identify whether or not an object contains carbon, or whether it is a carbon sink or source.