Carbon Cycle Lesson Plan for High School

Developed by: Maurice Smith, Monona Grove High School, Monona, WI
In collaboration with: Galen McKinley, University of Wisconsin – Madison
© copyright 2011/2012

High School Math/Science
Carbon Cycle Applet Lesson Plans

These lesson plans are written in a modular format designed to accommodate varying amounts of class time dedicated to the study of climate change. If you have only one to devote to the subject, you will want to start with Day Eight. If you have two days available for study, you should consider using the plans for Days Seven and Eight. If you have eight days available, use days One through Eight in that order, and so on.

While these lesson plans are intended for use in a block-schedule setting of 90-minute class periods, they can easily be adapted to traditional 45-minute class periods by simply running each daily lesson over two class periods.

Below, the main topics covered in each of the eight days’ lessons are summarized.

Day One: Collapse? The potential for global economic and environmental collapse in our lifetimes is a concern being voiced by more and more scientists and environmental activists in recent years. In his 2011 book World on the Edge, Lester Brown, a globally respected environmentalist and public policy advocate, makes it abundantly clear that the global economy—and human civilization itself—rely on “goods and services” provided free-of-charge by the natural world. Globally, however, these natural services are in steep decline worldwide due to human population growth, climate change and other factors. A detailed examination of Brown’s thesis offers an excellent introduction to a comprehensive climate change unit.

Day Two: Solutions! In order to force a hopeful focus on the unit, climate change solutions proposed in Brown’s World on the Edge, are explained in detail. High school students learning about these issues for the first time deserve (and appreciate) an unvarnished representation of the dangers we face, but they are poorly served if a “hope” piece is not present from the outset as well.

Day Three: Climate Change Basics. Atmospheric composition, the greenhouse effect, carbon sinks, natural global warming feedback loops and long-term climate variability, including the Milankovitch cycles and a detailed look at the Permian mass extinction, make up this science-based lesson.

Day Four: The History Lesson. Students beginning to understand the gravity global warming benefit greatly from learning the story of how human awareness of climate change emerged and blossomed over the past 150 years. Particular focus is given to the IPCC, the Denial Industry, the 2009 Copenhagen Conference and the prospects for global carbon emissions agreements.

Day Five: Basic Math Modeling. Students use their Algebra skills to building linear and exponential math models in order to predict future climactic states.

Day Six: Advanced Math Modeling. Students learn that areas under rate curves equate to total accumulated change in the given quantity. They apply this knowledge using the trapezoidal area formula and integrals to calculate areas under rate-of-CO2-emissions curves. The calculus-based math models created in this fashion offer a final method for predicting future climate states. This lesson requires no previous calculus training and all computations can be performed using the FNINT capabilities of a standard graphing calculator.

Day Seven: Pacala and Socolow’s Wedges. In this lesson, students learn about the 2004 work of these two Princeton scientists who created a “menu” of options for reducing CO2 emissions, each of which eliminates one detailed look at fifteen specific climate change solutions.

Day Eight: The Carbon Cycle Applet. Students use the Carbon Cycle Applet to predicting future climate states by testing assumptions about the carbon emission solutions we will employ in the future.

Download the full lesson plan: MATHEMATICAL MODELING AND STABILIZATION WEDGES (target group: high school)