Teacher Information for Student Activity Guide on the Carbon Cycle


Science: Atmospheric/Environmental Science
(Note: since climate change is interdisciplinary in nature, this lesson can be adapted to fit most subjects of science)

Grade Level

8-12, College Undergraduate: Introductory Courses

National Standards Addressed

9-12: Content Standard B: Interactions of Energy and Matter
9-12: Content Standard C: Matter, Energy, and Organization in Living Systems
9-12: Content Standard D: Geochemical Cycles, Energy in the Earth System
9-12: Content Standard F: Environmental Quality, Natural and Human-Induced Hazards,

AAAS Project 2061--Benchmarks for Science Literacy

Grades 6 through 8:

Understand oral, written, or visual presentations that incorporate circle charts, bar and line graphs, two-way data tables, diagrams, and symbols. 12D/M4

The atmosphere is a mixture of nitrogen, oxygen, and trace amounts of water vapor, carbon dioxide, and other gases. 4B/M15

Light and other electromagnetic waves can warm objects. How much an object's temperature increases depends on how intense the light striking its surface is, how long the light shines on the object, and how much of the light is absorbed. 4E/M6

Grades 9 through 12:

Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, such as carbon dioxide and water vapor, are transparent to much of the incoming sunlight but not to the infrared light from the warmed surface of the earth. When greenhouse gases increase, more thermal energy is trapped in the atmosphere, and the temperature of the earth increases the light energy radiated into space until it again equals the light energy absorbed from the sun. 4B/H4

The earth's climates have changed in the past, are currently changing, and are expected to change in the future, primarily due to changes in the amount of light reaching places on the earth and the composition of the atmosphere. The burning of fossil fuels in the last century has increased the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which has contributed to Earth's warming. 4B/H6


This purpose of this activity is to familiarize students with carbon cycle science, specifically the trends in atmospheric carbon dioxide. The activity is designed so that students will construct their own understanding of the carbon cycle by utilizing data and tools provided by NOAA and inquiring into the observed atmospheric processes and their influences on the carbon dioxide record. A significant difficulty to teaching climate change and the carbon cycle exists in the abstract nature of many of the fundamental concepts underlying the science; this activity is designed to enhance student conception through actual scientific data and provide a conceptual framework to address the challenges of a changing climate.


  • Students will demonstrate the ability to interpret graphs and quantify the abundance of carbon dioxide within the atmosphere.
  • Students will analyze and compare scientific data, identify short- and long-term trends in the data, and determine which natural processes and human activities can be attributed to the resulting data.
  • Students will identify the potential implications of this scientific data on natural ecosystems and human society.


The following web resources are required for this activity:

Basics of the Carbon Cycle and Greenhouse Effect
Interactive Atmospheric Data Visualization
GMD Frequently Asked Questions
Carbon Cycle Glossary of Terms


Questions provided throughout the activity will guide the learning process and assess each student's comprehension and understanding. Reviewing student answers to the activity guide questions will enable ongoing assessment and final evaluation. Note: some of the application questions are opinion-based, and a wide range of answers should be accepted.

Teaching Recommendations

Preview the activity and concepts prior to classroom use. Review the websites provided and familiarize yourself with the tools required to complete the activity.

Time Requirement

This activity will require approximately 2-3 hours for students to complete. It can be divided into shorter sections, if time is limited. For example, most of the concepts are introduced within the Interactive Atmospheric Data Visualization section, so you may decide to omit the GLOBALVIEW section. In addition, the final research question is considered optional, since it will require considerably more time.

Student Grouping

This activity can be completed individually or in groups of 2-3 students. Students should be encouraged to collaborate when answering the questions and be given time to compare explanations and revise their thinking if necessary.

Software Requirements

Internet Browser
Adobe Acrobat


This activity gives only a brief glimpse into the wealth of data available through the web tools presented in this activity. Interested teachers and students are encouraged to use these tools for further instruction or research.

Further outreach information and help can be obtained from:

Carol Knight
Outreach Coordinator
(303) 497-6401

For questions about the measurements and data, contact:

Pieter Tans
Senior Scientist
(303) 497-6678