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Dust to Dust

The Carbon Cycle

Co Authors:

Jennifer Y. Anderson
Health Science / Nursing
Brookdale Community College

Diane R. Wang
Biology, Plant Breeding and Genetics
Cornell University

Ling Chen
Science Department
Borough of Manhattan Community College / City University of New York


Tom and his grandfather, a retired high school chemistry teacher, are talking about a National Geographic television documentary titled “Waking the Baby Mammoth.” As students read the dialogue that ensues, they learn how carbon, an essential element of life, is transformed from carbon dioxide to carbohydrate to animals, then back to carbon dioxide. The case emphasizes a number of chemistry concepts, including atomic structures, carbon isotopes, radiocarbon dating, beta decay, half-life, and photosynthesis. Developed as a supplement to the nuclear chemistry chapter in a non-majors general chemistry course, the case could also be used in an introductory botany, paleobiology, plant, or general ecology course after students have completed at least one semester of general chemistry.

  • Emphasize the importance of photosynthesis to animals on earth.
  • Highlight the concept that carbon is the building block of all living organisms.
  • Reinforce atomic structure: subatomic particles (protons, neutrons and electrons).
  • Enhance the concepts of radioactive isotope, radiation, and beta decay.
  • Provide practice in balancing nuclear equations.
  • Apply the concept of half-life to the carbon dating technique.
Keywords: Carbon; carbon dioxide; C-14; carbon isotope; atomic structure; radiocarbon dating; beta decay; half-life; photosynthesis; nuclear chemistry
Topical Area: N/A
Educational Level: High school; Undergraduate lower division
Formats: PDF
Type/Method: Directed, Discussion
Language: English
Subject Headings: Chemistry (General)   Biology (General)   Ecology   Botany / Plant Science  
Date Posted: 02/24/10
Date Modified: N/A
Copyright: Copyright held by the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science, University at Buffalo, State University of New York. Please see our usage guidelines, which outline our policy concerning permissible reproduction of this work.

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