Carbon Lab ( Interactive Lab)

Annenberg Foundation
Type Category
Instructional Materials
Simulation , Interactive Simulation , Lesson/Lesson Plan , Model
This resource, vetted by NSTA curators, is provided to teachers along with suggested modifications to make it more in line with the vision of the NGSS. While not considered to be "fully aligned," the resources and expert recommendations provide teachers with concrete examples and expert guidance using the EQuIP rubric to adapted existing resources. Read more here.



This is one of the many interactive labs provided by Annenberg Learner, and it is part of a course for high school teachers called, The Habitable Planet.  While the full course is designed for teachers, the labs are appropriate for use with high school students.  This interactive simulation “uses a robust model of the carbon cycle to give you an intuitive sense for how carbon circulates through the atmosphere, biosphere, oceans, and crust.”  Thus, the simulation can help students understand the carbon cycle on the global scale.  In particular, this simulation allows users to experiment with how human inputs affect the carbon cycle and the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide.  Users can manipulate projected fossil fuel use, deforestation, emissions levels, and feedback caused by melting tundra.  The simulation then demonstrates the effects of these changes on projected atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and carbon storage levels in other environmental sinks.  The simulation is supported by three lessons that guide users toward understanding the key concepts presented in the simulation. The simulation is also accompanied by a downloadable data table (Word document) to record observations made during the simulation.

Intended Audience

Educator and learner
Educational Level
  • Grade 12
  • Grade 11
  • Grade 10
  • Grade 9
  • High School
Access Restrictions

Free access - The right to view and/or download material without financial, registration, or excessive advertising barriers.

Performance Expectations

HS-LS2-5 Develop a model to illustrate the role of photosynthesis and cellular respiration in the cycling of carbon among the biosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere, and geosphere.

Clarification Statement: Examples of models could include simulations and mathematical models.

Assessment Boundary: Assessment does not include the specific chemical steps of photosynthesis and respiration.

This resource was not designed to build towards this performance expectation, but can be used to build towards it using the suggestions provided below.

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
This resource could serve as one in a series of learning experiences that build up to the Performance Expectation. The series of lessons engage students in using a computer simulation to investigate the cycling of carbon on the global scale. To meet the full Performance Expectation, students should also engage in learning experiences that specifically address the role of photosynthesis and respiration in the carbon cycle. An activity like the Carbon Transfer Through Snails and Elodea Virtual Lab ( can help students develop their understaning of carbon cycling at the ecosystem scale. After completing these two activities, students could develop a model that connects carbon cycling at the ecosystem and global scales. Student engagement and understanding could also be enhanced by having students work in small groups, while holding periodic whole-class discussions.

Science and Engineering Practices

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this science and engineering practice, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Science and Engineering Practice
The carbon cycle simulation is accompanied by three lessons that guide users through investigating the key concepts embedded in the model: the basic carbon cycle, the role of reduced emissions, and the role of feedback effects. Each lesson is accompanied by guiding questions that prompt users to analyze relationships between components of the global carbon system, predict the effect of changes in those components, and propose solutions that minimize increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. The teacher could emphasize the importance of this practice by previewing the guiding questions before each lesson, having students work in small groups to complete the lessons and answer the guiding questions, holding class discussions at the end of each lesson, and explicitly connecting those guiding questions to the model and the system being modeled.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
The roles of photosynthesis and cellular respiration are implicit in the simulation, but the role of extraction and removal of fossil fuels and the role of chemical exchanges among environmental sinks are the focus of the simulation and lessons. The teacher should plan to combine this resource with other learning experiences to help students master the full Disciplinary Core Idea. This simulation does a good job of addressing the cycling of carbon among the biosphere, atmosphere, oceans, and geosphere. However, students will need to engage in other activities to connect photosynthesis and respiration to the global carbon cycle. This resource is implicitly built around the guiding question of how human activities affect the global carbon cycle, but the teacher could support student learning by making this question explicit and anchoring it with an engaging phenomenon, e.g., a news clip discussing projected fossil fuel use and carbon emissions, at the beginning of the lesson.

Crosscutting Concepts

This resource was not designed to build towards this crosscutting concept, but can be used to build towards it using the suggestions provided below.

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
This resource could be strengthened by combining it with other activities that allow students to connect carbon cycling from the organismal to the ecosystem to the global scale. The teacher can also support students in making these connections through ongoing questioning. Assuming that students have developed understanding of photosynthesis and respiration at the organismal level, then the teacher could ask students to connect those processes to changes observed in various sinks within the simulation. This approach will also connect strongly to the Crosscutting Concept of Scale, Proportion, and Quantity by drawing students’ attention to patterns at different scales and the need to model the large and complex global carbon cycle.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: This resource aligns strongly to the practice, and the teacher can easily draw students’ attention to the crosscutting concept. To fully meet the Disciplinary Core Idea and Performance Expectation, though, the teacher will need to integrate this resource with other learning activities that build students’ understanding of carbon cycling at smaller scales.

  • Instructional Supports: The lessons in this resource are built around the guiding question of how human activities affect the global carbon cycle, but they are not anchored by a phenomenon. The teacher will need to develop appropriate phenomena to anchor these lessons and the broader unit of which they are a part. The guiding questions provided with each lesson provide opportunities for students to clarify their ideas, but teachers will need to provide structures within which students can share and received feedback on these ideas. One strategy would be to ask students to discuss and record their answers on the downloadable data table within small groups before sharing out to the whole class for discussion and feedback. The resource does not provide guidance for differentiation. The most likely approach to differentiation would come in intentional formation of small groups to work through the simulation. Beyond that, extra support for struggling students or enrichment for advanced students will need to come through additional activities. The lessons do include relevant content readings after students complete the simulation activities for each lesson segment.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: The guiding questions provide a good basis for formative assessment, but rubrics or answer keys are not provided. Teachers might ask students to record their answers to guiding questions in a science journal or assess student understanding through oral questioning as students work in small groups.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: The simulation provides a highly structured experience based on students’ inputs, and the interactive features directly support student learning. The resource is easy to use and well designed.