Carbon Moves!

Lesson Objective: Students are challenged to understand the role of carbon in global climate change by participating in an interactive, regionally relevant carbon cycle game. By participating in the game, students learn that

  • Carbon cycles through four spheres: atmosphere (air), biosphere (living organisms), lithosphere (rocks), and hydrosphere (water).
  • The amount of carbon in the spheres can change both because of natural variation and human causes.


General Lesson Description: Students imagine they are carbon molecules and travel via different processes through carbon reservoirs on the Colorado Plateau (the Four Corners area of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah). This game can be adapted to other regions.


Where Lesson Fits in the Curriculum: The game excels as an initial activity to a unit on climate change because it introduces the critical role of carbon and how carbon moves between the atmosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere and lithosphere. This activity can stand alone but was originally developed as part of a ten-day Colorado Plateau Carbon Connections curriculum. This curriculum was developed collaboratively by Northern Arizona University (Flagstaff, Arizona) climate scientists, social scientists, and educators, in conjunction with the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (Colorado Springs, Colorado). The curriculum was supported by the National Science Foundation’s Climate Change Education Partnership program.

The game is regionally based and uses specific references to places, flora/fauna, and geological formations on the Colorado Plateau. The scientific information about how carbon cycles and the relative amounts of time carbon moves through or remains in reservoirs are accurate. This game was designed so that it could be modified for use in other regions. Both the Colorado Plateau and “modifiable” word-processed versions of the game cards are provided.


Grade Levels: 6-12


Time Frame: 40-60 minutes depending on age level and depth of discussion


Standards and Framework for K-12 Science Education
National Science Education Standards:
Grades 9-12, Earth and Space Science, Content Standard D: all students should develop an understanding of geochemical cycle. (National Research Council 1996, 189).

  • The earth is a system containing essentially a fixed amount of each stable chemical atom or element. Each element can exist in several different chemical reservoirs. Each element on earth moves among reservoirs in the solid earth, oceans, atmosphere, and organisms as part of geochemical cycles.
  • Movement of matter between reservoirs is driven by the earth's internal and external sources of energy. These movements are often accompanied by a change in the physical and chemical properties of the matter. Carbon, for example, occurs in carbonate rocks such as limestone, in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide gas, in water as dissolved carbon dioxide, and in all organisms as complex molecules that control the chemistry of life.

A Framework for K-12 Science Education:
LS2.B Cycles of Matter and Energy Transfer in Ecosystems (National Research Council 2012, 154).

  • By the end of Grade 12: Photosynthesis and cellular respiration are important components of the carbon cycle, in which carbon is exchanged between the biosphere, atmosphere, oceans, and geosphere through chemical, physical, geological, and biological processes.

ESS.3.D Global Climate Change (National Research Council 2012, 198).

  • By the end of Grade 8: Human activities, such as the release of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels, are major factors in the current rise in Earth’s mean surface temperature (global warming).


anthropogenic – caused by humans. The root of the word is Greek: anthropos = human and genesis = to create.
atmosphere – the gases that surround the Earth
biosphere – the living systems on Earth, including archaea, bacteria, protists, fungi, plants and animals
carbon (C) - an element that makes up molecules including carbon dioxide gas (CO2), glucose (a simple sugar), cellulose (the main tissue in plants), as well as fossil fuels including natural gas (methane, CH4), gasoline and other petroleum products.  Most carbon on Earth is in the form of limestone, CaCO3.
carbon cycle – how carbon (in its many forms) moves between different carbon reservoirs including the air, rocks, oceans, and living things
carbon reservoir – a natural storage place for carbon on the planet, such as a forest or the atmosphere. Carbon can move between reservoirs. For example carbon moves from the atmosphere to plants through photosynthesis.
Colorado Plateau – a geographic region in the western United States that includes the Four Corners states of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado.  The semi-arid region is known for its dramatic landscapes, marked by deep canyons and other colorful rock formations.
cryosphere – the portions of the earth that are covered by ice including sea ice, mountain glaciers, and ice sheets.  This also includes permafrost, permanently frozen ground.
fossil fuels – carbon-based substances formed from the decomposition of plants and animals over hundreds of millions of years ago. The most common fossil fuels are coal, oil, and natural gas.
hydrosphere – all water on Earth including oceans, lakes, and rivers and water vapor in the atmosphere
lithosphere – the outer crust and mantle of the Earth


Background Information for Educator:
According to the 2007 synthesis report prepared by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the main drivers for climate change are increased concentrations of greenhouse gases and aerosols and increased global radiation in the atmosphere and on the Earth’s surface (IPCC 2007, p. 15). Human activities have increased the concentrations of greenhouses gases in the Earth’s atmosphere, particularly carbon dioxide. In order for students to understand the science of climate change, students must clearly grasp how carbon cycles through the atmosphere and other Earth’s systems. The Framework for K-12 Science Education (National Research Council 2012) outlines a vision for student learning that emphasizes the Earth as interconnected systems involving the atmosphere, hydrosphere, geosphere (lithosphere), and biosphere. Students are typically introduced to the carbon cycle in elementary or middle grades as part of how matter cycles. Research on student misconceptions indicates that students recognize the parts of this cycle, but do not understand the connections between the spheres. Some students think the cycle involves cause and effect events with matter being created or destroyed during those events. To them, each part of the cycle represents a new, not continuous, event (Driver, Squire, Rushworth, & Wood-Robinson 1994). This disjointed view of how carbon moves makes it difficult to apply the carbon cycle to environmental issues, such as climate change. Additionally the word “cycle” infers that every carbon molecule follows the same series of events over and over again, thus students underestimate differences in frequencies of some processes and different rates of storage times among the reservoirs. 

The Carbon Moves! game was developed from other similar carbon cycling games (Gardiner & Genyuk , 2006 and Kreger 2004) to counter these misconceptions and to deepen understanding of the carbon cycle. The learning goal of the game is for students to experience how carbon molecules are transferred between carbon reservoirs, to record the relative amount of time carbon remains in any given reservoir, and to recognize the processes that change carbon from one form to another. A carbon reservoir is defined as a natural storage place for carbon. The game involves students physically moving from one carbon reservoir to another, based on information provided by carbon cycle game cards. Students record their carbon molecules’ journey for later discussion of the carbon cycle. For example, students learn that carbon can move from the atmosphere to the biosphere through the process of photosynthesis. Afterwards, carbon can move from the biosphere to the lithosphere where it can be buried for millions of years as a fossil fuel.

The residence times for carbon in the different reservoirs are representative of actual times. Carbon cycles through animals very quickly, from seconds to years, while carbon in the soil averages about 20 years, and carbon in the atmosphere is usually represented with a residence time of between 30-90 years in climate models.


Lesson Materials & Preparation

Materials Educators Need To Provide


  • Download and print copies of Carbon Moves! game posters (7) – cardstock will work best
  • Download and print copies of the Carbon Moves! game cards – cardstock will work best
  • If modifying the Carbon Moves! game for your region, download and edit the word-processed version of the carbon game. (There is no artwork associated with this version.)
  • Copies of student recording sheets for Carbon Moves! game
  • Blank sheets of paper and colored pencils, if desired, for students to draw a carbon cycle


Getting Ready to Teach


1. Set up the Carbon Moves! game:

  • Hang the seven reservoir posters around the classroom.
  • Place the Carbon Moves! game cards in envelopes or plastic bags near the corresponding poster. For example, the atmosphere cards would be placed with the atmosphere poster.

2. Introduce the game to students and demonstrate how one round of the game is played. To play the game, students are initially assigned to one of the seven reservoirs: atmosphere, biosphere–animals, biosphere-plants, biosphere–soils, hydrosphere, lithosphere–fossil fuels, lithosphere–limestone. At each reservoir, students select a card, read and record the pertinent information regarding their carbon molecule including a description of the form of carbon and the process of transformation.

3. Students play 10 rounds of the game.


Student Instructions


1. There are several carbon reservoirs throughout the classroom. At each reservoir is a stack of carbon cards. Each Carbon Moves! game card describes the movement of a carbon molecule from one carbon reservoir to another. The places where carbon is located are called reservoirs. To begin the game, take a card from the FRONT of the pile from your starting reservoir.  The card will tell you where you are presently “living” your life as a carbon molecule, what process happens to you next, and where that process takes you in the carbon cycle. (Educator demonstrates with one Carbon Moves! game card and illustrates to students how to record information on their recording sheet.)

2. Write down the information from your card on the recording sheet.  Your starting reservoir or “sphere” is labeled on the top of the card. Each carbon card indicates the location of the reservoir where carbon has moved on the bottom of the card. This is your ending reservoir. Once you have completed recording the information, put the card in the BACK of the same pile. 

3. You begin the next round of the game by moving to the ending reservoir from the previous round. DO NOT TAKE YOUR CARD WITH YOU. This becomes the starting reservoir for the next round of the game. Draw a new card from the FRONT of that pile.  Write down the information in the columns like you did for the first card.  Then put that card in the BACK of the same pile you drew it from.

4. Continue playing until you finish ten rounds.


Processing the Carbon Moves! Game


1. Analyze the data about the movement of carbon molecules you collected during the game. Respond to the following questions:
A. Look over your data. Which reservoirs did you visit?
B. In which reservoir(s) did you stay for just a short period of time? Why do you think you were only there a short while?
C.  What processes move carbon fairly quickly from one reservoir to another?  For      example, what processes move carbon from the atmosphere to the biosphere?  What   processes moves carbon from the biosphere to the atmosphere?
D. In which reservoirs did you remain for millions of years before you were able to go to            a new reservoir?
E. Did you become any man-made (anthropogenic) sources of carbon when you played the game? What evidence do you see of humans changing the carbon cycle? In which carbon reservoir does most of this “extra” carbon accumulate?

2. Using the information obtained in the game, sketch the carbon cycle to illustrate your understanding of how carbon molecules move between carbon reservoirs.
a. Draw arrows that show carbon molecules moving between carbon reservoirs. Label the arrows with the name of the processes that are moving the carbon molecules between these reservoirs.

b. Refer to your data sheet to help you.

3. Based on your experience of the Carbon Moves! game, write an explanation of how carbon moves between the different reservoirs.


OPTIONAL: Have students write a short story, poem, or rap based on their carbon life cycle – “My life as a carbon atom…”



Assessment Suggestions

  • Assign points for appropriate participation in the game and subsequent discussion.
  • Check student recording sheets for completion.
  • Assign points for responses to questions.
  • Examine carbon cycle diagram for completion and accuracy.
  • Analyze student explanations for how carbon cycles between reservoirs.


Instructional Considerations
The Carbon Moves! game is designed to be interactive, incorporating multiple learning styles. The images on the cards illustrate connections to the content for visual and English Language learners. The reading level is intentionally basic to maximize student understanding. Some students may need additional instruction on processes such as photosynthesis, respiration, and combustion. Lower level students can be paired with a stronger learner to play the game and process the information.


Driver, R., Squires, A., Rushworth, P., & Wood-Robinson, V. (1994). Making sense of secondary science: research into children's ideas. London: Routledge Falmer.
Gardiner , L.,& Genyuk , J. (2006, November 6). The carbon cycle game. Retrieved from
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).(2007).Climate change 2007: synthesis report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. [Core Writing Team: Pachauri, R.K, & Reisinger, A. (eds.)]. Geneva, Switzerland: IPCC. 104 pp.
Kreger, C. (2004, November 10). Exploring the environment: Global climate change. Retrieved from
National Research Council. (2012). A framework for K-12 science education: practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas. Committee on a Conceptual Framework for New K-12 Science Education Standards. Board on Science Education, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
National Research Council. (1996). National science education standards . Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.


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