carbon-cycleby 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 cycles, namely photosynthesis and the carbon cycle, are responsible for all life on earth, and learning about these two core cycles early on is an essential platform for enhancing human decision-making processes towards the creation of a sustainable society.

The first of these cycles—photosynthesis—is a process only plants can partake in; one that allows them 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 absorbed 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. Carbohydrates have the potential to supply humans with sustainable sources of food, fuel and fiber, and can be likened to ‘fresh forms of carbon,’ manifesting within plant life during the earth’s annual seasonal growing cycles.

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.

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