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Cool Carbon Sink (3rd - 6th) | Lesson #2, Series 2

Cool Carbon Sink

Key Topics/Vocabulary: Human Impact, CO2 Emissions/Cycle, Biosphere, Atmosphere, Fossil Fuels, Oaks, Stoma, Dendrochronology

Grade Levels: 3rd-6th

Click here for Series #2 Description 

Science Framework

Spanish Lesson Plan

Lesson Bridge

Connect this Lesson (2) to Waste Audit (1) by reminding students how some natural and organic materials break down and return to the earth thus sequestering (or holding) carbon from the atmosphere. Non-natural or non-organic waste items do not return nutrients to the earth and can even be toxic to our environment (landfills). Prepare students for Lesson (3) Greenhouses by mentioning how too much carbon in the atmosphere can cause climate change.

Lesson Overview:

In this lesson, students will get a hands-on look at the carbon cycle, where carbon is stored in their local environment (organic matter), the importance of carbon as the building blocks of all life, how humans have an influence on the natural process of carbon cycling, and the importance of native Oak trees. Students will learn how we can help balance the carbon cycle by planting more trees.

Essential Question(s) that Connect CCCs and SEPs: 


Human Impact- The effect our human actions have on the environment

Carbon Cycle/Emissions- The process of how carbon travels from nonliving to living things, often carbon can be left in the air surrounding the earth.

Biosphere- All parts of and around the earth where life can be found

Atmosphere- The layer of gas or air that surrounds the earth

Fossil Fuels- A natural substance that comes from the decomposition of organic material buried in the earth, it can be used as a source of energy.

Oaks- A genus of tree (Quercus) with over 500 species.

Stoma- A tiny opening or pore found on the leaf of a plant from which gas can come in and out.

Dendrochronology - The study of tree rings.



Activity Procedure:


Breathe in (that is oxygen!) Breathe out (that is carbon dioxide!) Say what? Carbon is an element on Earth and is a building block to all Life. Do you know who breathes in what you breathe out? Trees! That’s right, trees and other plants breathe in carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide, or CO2, is a molecule of carbon attached to two molecules of oxygen--plants breathe it in through tiny holes, or ‘stoma’, in their leaves and convert it to your favorite food--sugar--to store energy from the sun. At night, they break down the sugar and breathe out oxygen. So, plants and people breathe opposites!


Pass around tree cross sections for students to look at in groups (or look at a real-life cross section). How do scientists know what the weather was like in the past? How does climate affect tree growth? How do scientists measure changes in the climate through dendrochronology (study of tree rings)?  Scientists can study tree rings to tell when there were drier or wetter periods in time. In periods of drier climate the trees grow less. What would the distance between the rings look like? (The rings are smaller and more compact). During periods of time when there was a wetter climate, the trees grow more. What would the distance between the rings look like then? (The rings would grow wider apart from more expansion).


This lesson is about oak trees AND carbon. Carbon is a natural element in our environment. It lives in everything that is living or was once living. Ask students to make educated guesses about things they  think may contain carbon. Explain to your students that the carbon contained in any one thing doesn’t stay there forever. The carbon atoms move from one thing to another in what is called the carbon cycle. Parts of the carbon cycle happen very quickly, like when plants take in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere for photosynthesis. But, other parts of the carbon cycle happen very slowly. Draw a simple diagram of the carbon cycle and explain how the natural cycle is being disrupted by people adding more carbon to the atmosphere than ever before in human history. Talk about how fossil fuels and overgrazing contribute to this.


  1. Designate a large open space for this activity and introduce students to the three chalked-out or labeled categories ‘atmosphere’ ‘ocean’ and ‘land’
  2. Divide students evenly into 7 groups and distribute the appropriate role-play card and carbon cycle script lines to each group. Each group will be a team of actors that will play a certain part of the carbon cycle (atmosphere, water, algae, marine snail, sediments & rocks, trees, or land animals). 
  3. Distribute 2-4 carbon ‘cookies’ to each group and explain that these represent carbon atoms.
  4. Have students in each group review their role play card to figure out their role in the carbon cycle and decide as a group using their “Options for carbon movement” how they are going to move their carbon.
  5. Explain that they can give their carbon to only one other group, or if they have plenty, they can give the carbon to more than one group.
  6. Explain that carbon exists in all of these things at the same time and only a portion of the carbon in each thing moves. Therefore, when each group moves their carbon, they can’t give away all their carbon: they must keep at least one carbon atom.
  7. As they move their carbon, they must say their script lines to explain the carbon movement that they have chosen.  
  8. One at a time, ask each group to give their carbon to another group (or groups).
  9. Run the role-play a number of times, telling students to make different choices about carbon movement each time.
  10. If you have time, consider running the following variations:
  1. If time allows, lead an oak planting demonstration or activity


So what has carbon in it? Why is carbon important? What do trees do that is so important? What happens if too much carbon gets in the atmosphere and there aren’t enough trees to remove it from the atmosphere? How can we help?

Extensions Activities:

Cited Curriculum:

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