The Roots of the Carbon Cycle

PBS Learning Media
Type Category
Instructional Materials
Interactive Simulation , 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 resource is an interactive model showing the role of soil in the carbon cycle.   Using arrows to represent the cycling of the carbon through the soil under a variety of conditions, it gives a visual depiction of the process.  Students can use the interactive model to determine how carbon moves more in certain climates or conditions.  The variables are easy to manipulate and the data is visual, including more qualitative data rather than quantitative data.  The questions that are provided give the teacher a good starting point to engage students in an in-depth study of the carbon cycle. As an alternative to using this as an introduction, the resource could be used toward the end of an instructional sequence to review the concept of the carbon cycle in entirety.

Intended Audience

Educational Level
  • Grade 6
  • Grade 7
  • Grade 8
  • Middle School
Access Restrictions

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

Performance Expectations

MS-LS2-3 Develop a model to describe the cycling of matter and flow of energy among living and nonliving parts of an ecosystem.

Clarification Statement: Emphasis is on describing the conservation of matter and flow of energy into and out of various ecosystems, and on defining the boundaries of the system.

Assessment Boundary: Assessment does not include the use of chemical reactions to describe the processes.

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this performance expectation.

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
The students will use an interactive model to determine conditions that enable greater carbon cycling. The variables are displayed with graphic representations, making it accessible to students who are better visual learners. With several variables to manipulate, students can see the amount of carbon being cycled as represented by arrows. By analyzing and interpreting the visual data through answering the focus and post-activity questions, students will be able to draw conclusions about the conditions that lead to maximum carbon cycling. Background information as well as questions for pre-activity, during, and post-activity are included. The teacher can also use the supplemental links to improve their personal understanding or to enrich the lesson for students who have the ability to go further.

Science and Engineering Practices

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this science and engineering practice.

Comments about Including the Science and Engineering Practice
Through the use of the interactive model , students will be able to access qualitative data regarding the optimal conditions for carbon to cycle through soil. The variables are visual, and the data is interpreted from visual information. It may be helpful for students to create a data table to record their observations as they manipulate the interactive. This way, when they are interpreting the information, they will be able to compare all of the sets that they viewed in one place. The patterns in their collected data can then be communicated through answering the focus and post-activity questions.

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 interactive model does not include food webs but does show the conditions for the cycling of matter specifically through the soil. This is an idea that may be hard for students to visualize, so the use of a model such as this will help them to build their understanding toward the disciplinary core idea. This lesson should be one part in a progression that leads the students to a conceptual understanding.

Crosscutting Concepts

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this crosscutting concept, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
This lesson and interactive model help to visualize the soil as a system. There are several factors that can change the system and its ability to cycle carbon through it. The teacher should explicitly bring up the concept of a system and guide the students to define the boundary of the system. Components of the system include biotic matter, moisture level, and temperature as well as the carbon that gets cycled through. This crosscutting concept is not explicitly covered in the accompanying questions, so the teacher will need to address the concept of systems in class discussion and in supplemental questions to make it explicit.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: This lesson and interactive model will serve well as part of a lesson sequence that meets the performance expectation using a model to describe the cycling of matter and flow of energy among living and nonliving parts of an ecosystem. The understanding of the cycling of matter through an ecosystem is complex and students do not always consider the soil and how a variety of conditions can affect the rate of cycling. This resource will help them to analyze data and visualize the carbon that is constantly moving from one part of the ecosystem to another, bringing together aspects of the disciplinary core idea of cycles of matter and transfer of energy, the practice of analyzing and interpreting data and the crosscutting concept of systems.

  • Instructional Supports: The interactive model provided gives the student relevant information as well as the ability to manipulate the variables to analyze the qualitative data that is displayed. The background information that is provided also gives the students a text resource to gather ideas from. Students who struggle with written language or are English Language Learners may need more support to describe the 18 variations of environmental conditions that are portrayed in slides. Providing clear visuals or experiences with each of the variations can support their understanding. The teacher is provided with a number of questions that are appropriate, however, more questions need to be added to have students explicitly consider the system that the carbon is cycling through.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: The questions provided will be a good foundation for the teacher to determine student progress, but a few more questions need to be developed to align with all three dimensions that should be included. Monitoring could include class discussion participation, exit tickets, and diagrams of example ecosystems showing the cycle of carbon within a system that has defined components and boundary

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: The interactive model is web-based, so internet is required in order to access. It works on all browsers tested and does not require a plug-in. The interactivity is very easy to navigate and students can go back to review previous slides if needed. Each slide provides useful information and all slides should be reviewed.