by Rebecca Burgess
Free downloadable PDF: carbon-cycle-curriculum
The lessons in this study guide are designed to connect student’s personal physical energy to its original source—the sun—and carry that connection into a deeper understanding of human material culture. Two foundational natural processes- photosynthesis and the carbon cycle are responsible for all life on earth.
The first of these processes—photosynthesis—allows plants to be ‘fed by sunlight’ as they convert photons (light energy), into chemical energy (sugars). The energy provided through photosynthesis is what drives the earth’s carbon cycle, whereby carbon dioxide from the earth’s atmosphere is ‘inhaled’ by plants and transformed (with the addition of water) into carbohydrates.
Our biosphere (the place where we humans exist, between sky and soil, including all living and dead organisms not yet converted into soil organic matter) is one of earth’s carbon pools, where carbon exists in the form of carbohydrates. We generally think about carbohydrates as something we eat, but they also create very beneficial sources for fiber and fuel.
Modern society has become increasingly dependent upon a more ancient and less renewable form of carbon—fossil carbon, which comes from our deepest carbon pool—our lithosphere. This source of carbon is often burned and refined to create gasoline for our cars, plastic for our clothes, dyes, bottles, bags, and thousands of other objects we humans use. Fossil carbon is part of the earth’s storage system, and can be likened to a bank account that we humans are on our way to depleting, at the cost of our climate.
Helping students become familiar with the fundamental cycles (first two lessons) and then giving them the opportunity to chart their own material culture (third lesson) in relation to the ‘fresh carbon’ concept is a crucial step towards developing an ecologically literate generation, capable of addressing the fundamental shifts we must make from a fossil fuel based culture, and into a biosphere based one.
These lessons are designed to meet strategic developmental goals for children ages six through eight, as well as meeting current California state educational standards, including those put forth by the most recent Education for the Environment Initiative. These lessons also meet the U.S. Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development standards, put forth by a collaboration between the United States and the United Nations.