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, students are better prepared to understand the mechanisms underlying 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

  • MS-LS2-3. Develop a model to describe the cycling of matter and flow of energy among living and nonliving parts of an ecosystem.

Specific Objectives:
Students will be able to:

  1. Identify objects in their surroundings that contain carbon, as well as an example of a carbon sink and a carbon source.
  2. Describe how carbon moves through the system.
  3. Identify anthropogenic factors that have contributed to an increase in atmospheric carbon in recent decades.

Activity Links and Resources:

  • Background Reading: Carbon Cycle Science  from NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory
  • Activity: Carbon Walk Activity—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.
  • Activity: Greenhouse Gases—What causes excess carbon to end up in the atmosphere? This lesson plan from the Environmental Initiative at Lehigh University (Gr. 8) includes information about the carbon cycle and the Keeling curve.
  • Reading:
    • The Carbon Cycle—From NESTA Windows on the Universe, explores how carbon moves through ecosystems
  • Multimedia:
    • Infographic: Components of the Carbon Cycle—From the US Department of Energy, this infographic shows a simplified representation of the terrestrial carbon cycle side by side with the ocean carbon cycle. Fluxes and reservoirs expressed in gigatons are included.
    • Play the online interactive Carbon Cycle Game


  • Students make observations and classifications during their Carbon Walk. They identify whether or not an object contains carbon, and find examples of carbon sinks and carbon sources.
  • 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 Cycle Exploration Assessment Sheet from the Environmental Initiative at Lehigh University, this traditional worksheet solicits short answers to questions about the carbon cycle and Keeling curve.