Carbon Dioxide Cycle


Lisa Wolfelsperger

Alpine School, New Jersey

Summer Research Program for Science Teachers

August 2011



Subject:  General Science

Grade Level: 5th

Unit: Plants

Introduction: Review with your students that carbon is a common element on earth.  Together with the students make a list of items on the board that contain carbon.  Discuss that carbon does not stay in one place forever.  The movement of the carbon atoms from one thing to another is the carbon cycle.  In this activity, students will understand how carbon moves from one place to another through the role-play of the carbon cycle.


Objective: Students will learn that carbon moves around in the environment, from one place to another.




Background: Carbon is found in both living and non-living parts of the planet.  The carbon cycle is a series of processes that allow carbons to move and be used when in balance.  Processes such as photosynthesis, respiration and the formation of fossil fuels are influenced by the carbon cycle.  The earth’s climate is also impacted by the carbon cycle. 

In this cycle, plants absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and using water make the substances they need for growth.  Animals eat the plants and use the energy to live.  Other animals eat these herbivores and then use the carbon for their own needs.  All animals return carbon dioxide into the air when they breathe.  When the animals die, the carbon is returned to the soil during decomposition.  The carbon atoms in the soil may then be used in the growth of a new plant or microorganisms.

Human have been increasing the carbon flows on earth at an unnatural rate.  The main source of this change is burning fossil fuels, but deforestation and cement manufacturing also contribute to this change.  Since carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that helps control the temperature of the planet, the result of increased carbon levels is causing climate changes across our planet.




1. Cut out cards and glue them to index cards.

2. Make a couple copies of the record sheet for each child.



  1. Set up 7 stations.  Stations will be labeled as follows:  ATMOSPHERE, WATER, ALGAE (aquatic plants), MARINE SNAILS (aquatic animals), SEDIMENTS AND ROCKS, TREES (land plants), CATERPILLARS (land animals).  Each station will have the corresponding Carbon Cycle Role-Play cards.
  2. Explain to the students that they will be the “carbon atom” as they move from station to station, representing the carbon cycle.  Students will record their journey as they move from station to station.
  3. After about 10 minutes or so, have students get into groups of 3 and share their journeys with each other.  Note that all journeys are different in that one carbon atom may not move in the same order cycle as another.
  4. Brainstorm, as a class, how humans have impacted this cycle.  You may want to have students create cards that show how humans have impacted the cycle and play again.  See how it changes the journey.


  1. Write a story explaining the possible journey of a carbon atom.
  2. Create a carbon dioxide cycle poster.

National Science Standards: 

5.1.8.A.1:  Demonstrate understanding and use interrelationships among central scientific concepts.

5.1.8.A.2:  Use models to build theories.

5.3.6.B.1:  Plants are producers and use CO₂.

5.3.6.C.1:  Various human activities have changed the capacity of the environment to support some life forms.