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5 Ways to Make The Carbon Cycle a More Engaging Topic

Akanksha Saxena
High School
Teaching with Labster

Introduction: Carbon Cycle

As the planet’s temperature and global carbon dioxide levels are rising, we are walking closer to difficult times. The receding glaciers and the rising sea levels are compelling reasons to take a step back and make more conscious decisions for the betterment of the Earth. The negative implications of human interventions in every nook and cranny of nature have started showing disastrous effects, which will only get worse if we don’t combat and rethink our current mode of action.

The carbon cycle is one of the most important geochemical cycles of nature. Ranging from being the main component of macromolecules (carbohydrates, proteins, lipids and nucleic acids) that we eat, wear and use to being the basic building block of life, carbon is an incredible element that we study in Earth Science textbooks.

Since the availability of carbon is finite on the planet, it is cycled between different reservoirs like the atmosphere, living organisms, seas and oceans and fossil fuels. And this cycle is called the carbon cycle!

carbon cycle graph

Figure: Carbon cycle. Image Source

If everything related to the carbon cycle is so well-known and documented, why does the topic become a nightmare for students? 

Why is it that teachers fall short of resources to deliver an efficient lecture on this topic? 

What are the major challenges that students face in learning how carbon cycles on the planet?

To answer all of these questions, we have strived to gather some resources in this article. As you read, you’ll be portrayed with the basic issues that students face while learning about this topic. We’ll also provide some practical solutions to overcome those issues. Continue reading to gain useful perspectives. By the end, we’ll convince you why a virtual lab simulation will prove helpful not only for your students but also for you as an educator to deliver concepts more efficiently.

3 reasons why the Carbon Cycle can be tricky to teach or learn

There are 3 major reasons why students are overwhelmed by the topic of the Carbon Cycle. Acknowledging these issues is the first step toward making the topic more approachable. 

1. The topic is too theoretical 

Students are often heard complaining about this topic being too theoretical thus killing the interest of students in the class. Learning about the route of carbon as it travels from one reservoir to another becomes monotonous with evident use of it for students in real life. How and why carbon goes from biosphere to pedosphere to geosphere to hydrosphere and atmosphere of the Earth fails to intrigue students and incite curiosity in their playful minds.

2. Failure to connect dots 

Since the topic of the carbon cycle weighs heavy on content, students rarely understand how to connect the dots of theory with real-world problems. Though they are taught about the different types of human influences that disrupt the carbon cycle, they fail to translate their knowledge into effective sustainable solutions that can reduce carbon emissions without having to sacrifice the modern lifestyle. Even educators become increasingly despondent when the ideas of climate change, ocean acidification, fossil fuel phase-out, etc are not communicated to the young learners in the way that they plan to. The lack of interactive tools and visual aids provides no room for educators to connect the dots in their classes. 

3. Failure to relate it with a professional career

Students usually avoid environmental science topics due to the lack of knowledge about their career prospects and scope in the professional arena. How will the concept of the carbon cycle be used in a multinational company? Who cares about my deep understanding of the topic of carbon sequestration techniques and carbon economics? These are some pertinent questions that students ask themselves before dumping the idea of even venturing to learn more about the carbon cycle.

5 ways to make Carbon Cycle a more approachable topic to understand

To address the issues encountered while teaching Carbon Cycle, educators can engage the under-listed solutions in their next classes. These can shed light on how to handle each issue that students encounter. They will not only make lessons clearer and simpler for your pupils to understand, but they will also make teaching easier for educators like you.

1. Make them see the prospects

Since the world runs on money, you can’t ignore your students weighing a subject’s worth by its scope in the monetary world. As your first effort, we advise you to carry out this specific action. Make them see how the world has quickly transitioned over the past 5-6 years to incorporate a subject called “carbon economics” in their academic institutions. Yes, you heard it right. It’s a full-fledged course with a high incoming rate of applications each year in world-renowned institutions. MNCs and big-shot companies are actively hiring candidates who are proficient in this subject. Since the governments are becoming more aware, industries and multi-dollar businesses are being made responsible for their carbon capture and storage, carbon taxes and carbon footprints. 

So, the scope of studying carbon cycles is immense. And this is what we need to inform our young learners about. To invigorate interest and passion for the field, this step is mandatory.

Both government and private sectors are seeing a leap in the sustainable energy sector, especially carbon management.

2. Simplify the fundamental idea 

When teaching about the carbon cycle in your next class, try to simplify the terminologies and their meanings. Explaining why each of the different components of the carbon cycle holds significance for its efficient cycling is important. We have provided a list of ideas that can make the topic more interactive rather than theoretical and abstract.

  1. Climate feedback: Talk about the increasing ocean temperatures and ocean acidification. Also, discuss how the polluted runoffs from industries and agriculture combined with increased frequencies of acid rains have changed how the seas and oceans behave. Then explain how this has saturated the limit of carbon absorption by the seas and oceans. The natural carbon sinks (oceans and seas) can no more absorb the excess atmospheric carbon dioxide due to the anthropogenic effect. 

  2. Land use changes: Explain how the increased share of agricultural lands and ever-increasing deforestation have lowered the ecosystems' resilience and ability to remove excess carbon from the atmosphere

Along the same line, you can explain several carbon cycle-related topics to ease the work of your students.

The Carbon Cycle Reduce carbon emissions Virtual Lab

Figure: An image showing the carbon dioxide concentrations increasing beyond the threshold limits. Your students can add or remove different components (forests, industries, vehicles, etc) and see the effect on the carbon dioxide concentration in relation to the threshold value. It is available in the Carbon Cycle simulation from Labster. The simulation is available for High School courses.

3. Include more engaging tools and flowcharts

Since the topic of carbon cycling pertains to the real world, taking your students to see the fossil fuels, mineral mines, different zones of sea or oceans, forests, agricultural farms, tanneries, industries, etc could be a lot of work. Students also face problems in correlating the different components that emit or absorb carbon. The task can be made simpler by using engaging flowcharts and infographics. These interventions will make the lectures more interactive and data will become easily assimilable for students.

Alternatively, you can also use Labster's Carbon Cycle simulation where your students can visualize the cycling of carbon in different life processes like cellular respiration, photosynthesis, decomposition, combustion, etc. They can learn how carbon moves between places in the environment. This enables teachers to pause the simulation at certain moments and describe how changes at any one point in the carbon cycle have an impact on the cycle as a whole.

carbon cycle 3

Figure: An image showing the course of the carbon cycle as it changed after anthropogenic interference. It is available in the Carbon Cycle simulation from Labster. The simulation is available for High School courses.

4. Help them differentiate between what’s important and what’s not!

Students are often scared when they face the statistical data and figures related to the world's carbon cycling. The rates, estimates and quantitative values and concentrations overwhelm them. It becomes the educator’s duty to help them differentiate between what’s important and what’s not. Teachers might make their pupils' jobs easier by emphasizing to them that understanding the subject's underlying concepts is more important than memorizing facts by heart.

5. Use virtual lab simulations

Biogeochemical cycles including carbon cycles are challenging theoretical concepts to teach, therefore, we at Labster have a solution for you. You can utilize Labster's Carbon Cycle simulation in your next class to close the gaps in the available teaching resources and address the lack of visually engaging video graphical possibilities in the educational space.

We offer an interactive 3D mini-game where your students can virtually visit a farm and engage with farmers to understand their issues of crop shortage and how it’s related to the carbon cycle. As your students interact with the different carbon emitters in the carbon cycle, they’ll better understand the negative implications brought about by them.  

Your lecture delivery and lab management sessions will be made easier and you may make more insightful points. Our virtual learning platform uses methods of interactive, immersive instruction to strengthen the fundamental concepts for future scientists in the making.  

You can learn more about the Carbon Cycle simulation from Labster here or get in touch to find out how you can start using virtual labs with your students.

Farmer carbon cycle GIF

Figure: An image from the Carbon Cycle simulation from Labster. The simulation is available for High School courses.

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