Climate and the carbon cycle

Lesson overview

In this introductory lesson, we look at the scientific processes and concepts of the carbon cycle. This will enable young people to grow prior knowledge of food chains and feeding relationships to understanding the drivers of environmental change. The lesson will start with an introduction to what carbon is, followed by a scaffolded understanding of the carbon cycle, reinforced by a fun activity. The lesson will close by analysing how an imbalance in the carbon cycle is leading to increased carbon in the atmosphere, which is driving the climate crisis.

Learning outcomes
  • List where carbon can be found
  • Describe four basic processes of the carbon cycle
  • Demonstrate their understanding of carbon stores and movement between them
  • Link increasing carbon levels in the atmosphere with climate change
Lesson steps

1. What is carbon? (10 mins)

The lesson starts with a carbon quiz to identify where carbon is found. This activity emphasises that carbon is found in things are alive, dead, and also that have never been alive.

2. How does carbon move? (5 mins)

The first stage in understanding the carbon cycle is to relate the concepts and processes that students have previously studied. This includes food chains and what animals and plants need to survive. The lesson step will then identify where carbon is in these processes: plants absorb carbon as CO2 from the atmosphere and store it; animals eat this carbon (as food) to get energy; and animals and plants release carbon as CO2 back into the atmosphere as they use up this food for energy.

3. What is the carbon cycle and how has it changed? (15 mins)

This knowledge is then placed into the carbon cycle, with an explanation that these processes have largely been in balance over the past millennia. This stage of the lesson adds the ocean and the influence of carbon emissions from human activity by burning fossil fuels. This burning of ancient plants and animals that have turned into fossil fuels (oil, gas, and coal), cause an imbalance in the carbon cycle, adding more carbon to the atmosphere. Students complete the Student Sheet to review this learning.

4. Carbon role play activity (15 mins)

The carbon role play activity is an active modelling on the journey of carbon between plants, animals, the atmosphere, and fossil fuels over the past 750 years. The important learning is for students to understand the movement of carbon, and how the burning of fossil fuels since industrialisation has meant that there is now more carbon in the atmosphere.

5. Why does this matter? (5 mins)

This lesson looks at the relationship between carbon in the atmosphere and global average temperatures. This segment will include an explanation of the greenhouse effect. Students will be able to share their understanding of the impacts of climate change as a whole class discussion.

6. Learning review (5mins)

This final session will ask students to reflect on their learning by completing a review pyramid.

Further guidance

Further guidance is included in the notes section of the slides.