Using the Carbon Cycle Interactive Game in the Classroom

Through an online game, students learn how carbon cycles through Earth system. Materials:
  • The Carbon Cycle Game (online interactive activity)
  • Computer lab with Internet access for students to play game
  • Flash player installed on computers

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A Windows to the Universe Activity developed by Lisa Gardiner and Julia Genyuk
Grade level:
grades 4-9
20 minutes class time (in computer lab) plus optional assessments
Student Learning Outcomes:
  • Students understand that carbon cycles naturally through living and non-living parts of the Earth system in a complex and non-linear way.
  • Students understand that burning fossil fuels adds carbon to the cycle.
  • Students understand the impact of additional carbon dioxide on global warming.
  • Students will learn that carbon is essential for living things.
Lesson format:
Computer interactive plus various optional writing/drawing assessments

Standards Addressed:


  1. Have students read the Windows to the Universe page entitled The Carbon Cycle.
  2. Introduction: Ask students to (based of the reading) list the places where carbon is found on Earth. As a class, brainstorm why carbon is important and why carbon is sometimes hazardous.
  3. Tell students that for this online interactive game, they are all playing the role of carbon atoms. They will travel through the carbon cycle. If you are going to have students do one or more of the assessment items listed below, tell students to take notes about where they traveled during the game.
  4. Post-game discussion questions:
    • How many stops can you make on your trip?
    • Will your journey ever end?
    • Was everyone’s journey the same? Why not?
    • What would happen if we burned more fossil fuels?


  • Students write a paragraph about their trip through the carbon cycle. Include information about (1) where they went, and (2) how they got to each destination.
  • Students create a "map" documenting their journey through the carbon cycle.



Carbon is the 6th element in the periodic table. It is able to combine with a large variety of other elements and as such it is found in some very different places within the Earth system. Living things, including plants and animals, are made of carbon and the depend of carbon for nutrition. Carbon is also an important component in bones, sea shells, and chemical sedimentary rocks like limestone. Carbon can dissolve in water. In the atmosphere, carbon forms a greenhouse gas called carbon dioxide. Carbon continually moves through these parts of the Earth system. This is called the carbon cycle.

The carbon cycle is one of the biogeochemical cycles. Other biogeochemical cycles include the water cycle and the nitrogen cycle. In biogeochemical cycles, elements are transported between the atmosphere, biosphere (living things), hydrosphere (water) and geosphere (rocks, minerals, and soils). Thus, these cycles are excellent examples for teaching about Earth as a system. The basic construction of these cycles allows middle school students to explore the connections between living and non-living parts of the Earth system. Please note that in-depth understanding of these cycles will require understanding of chemistry and is more appropriate at the high school level.

The six locations along the online game board "map" (atmosphere, plants, soils, shallow ocean, deep ocean, and marine life) are called carbon reservoirs or carbon pools. These are places where carbon is stored in the cycle. You may wish to review the characteristics of these six items before students begin playing the game. Links to Windows to the Universe content pages about these areas are provided within the game and are also provided in the list below.

In this interactive game, students assume the identify of carbon atoms that are released into the atmosphere when fossil fuels are burned. It is important to review with students that all carbon, even the carbon that is sequestered deep underground in limestone rocks, coal, and fossil fuels, is part of the carbon cycle. These reservoirs, often known as deep carbon sinks, remove carbon from circulation through other parts of the carbon cycle for such long amounts of time that they are sometimes considered an extension of the carbon cycle called the "slow carbon cycle". For simplicity, the deep carbon sinks have been omitted from this interactive, however they are a very important part of the long-term cycle. While it may only take your students 10-20 minutes to complete their journey as a carbon atom through this interactive game, it can take actual carbon atoms millions of years to make it to all the reservoirs in the carbon cycle.



Last modified November 6, 2006 by Lisa Gardiner.

Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part is sponsored in part through grants from federal agencies (NASA and NOAA), and partnerships with affiliated organizations, including the American Geophysical Union, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Earth System Information Partnership, the American Meteorological Society, the National Center for Science Education, and TERC. The American Geophysical Union and the American Geosciences Institute are Windows to the Universe Founding Partners. NESTA welcomes new Institutional Affiliates in support of our ongoing programs, as well as collaborations on new projects. Contact NESTA for more information. NASA ESIP NCSE HHMI AGU AGI AMS NOAA