Our STEM project and the carbon cycle

For the past couple of weeks, my group (Kathryn, Siobhan, Jovanni, and me), have been working on setting up an experiment investigating the great pacific garbage patch. This is an area in the pacific ocean where plastics collect because of the currents. We are investigating how this affects the quality of the water and how well it can sustain life.In order to do this we filled up to 10 gallon tanks with water from Tod’s point. Then we added some live rock with
coralline algae and aiptasia on them that Robert got us (thank you Robe
rt!). Then we added a layer of plastics to one of the tanks. We are measuring various variables that could affect the water’s ability to sustain life. For example, level of nitrate ions, amount of dissolved oxygen, and pH.


This is some of the live rock we got from Robert. Like you can see it has some of the algae growing on it already.

We have also been learning about the four major cycles. The water cycle, the nitrogen cycle, the phosphorus cycle, and the carbon cycle. Our project relates very closely to the carbon cycle. To understand this relationship, you’ll first need some background on the carbon cycle, and to understand the carbon cycle you’ll need to know what carbon is and what it does first. Carbon is a major part of all organic molecules (proteins, nucleic acids, carbohydrates, and lipids). It is actually one of the requirements for a molecule to be considered organic. Carbon has four valence electrons, meaning it can form four covalent bonds. These can come in various ways. For example it can form four single covalent bonds (like in methane, where carbon binds with four hydrogen), or in two double covalent bonds (like in carbon dioxide, where carbon binds with two oxygen atoms). The carbon cycle consists of various reservoirs. For example the atmosphere, where carbon exists mostly as carbon dioxide. It also exists in life to be included in the organic molecules I mentioned before. A molecule of glucose for example contains 6 carbon atoms. Another reservoirs are the fossil fuels that have been form from waste decomposing and being under a lot of pressure for many years. The last major reservoir is the ocean. Carbon moves between these reservoirs in various ways. For example, going from the atmosphere to plants is through photosynthesis. From the plants to animals is through consumption. From the animals through the atmosphere is through respiration, and from the animals and plants to fossil fuels is decomposition.

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A diagram summarizing the carbon cycle.

The carbon cycle is being messed with by humans. We are taking the fossil fue
ls that have been setting in the ground for the past couple of million years and are burning them all them over the span over a century. This is releasing tons and tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which is a major contributor to global warming. Another way we are messing with the carbon cycle is by using the fossil fuels in plastics. Pretty much all plastic is made from petroleum, an organic molecule that therefore has carbon in it. We are then dumping all of this plastic into our oceans which then affects the ocean’s life. This way we are both messing with and changing a very important cycle (never a good idea….) and damaging the ocean’s ability to support life, since the chemicals released by plastic are often detrimental to the animals’ and plants’ lives. Not only that there have also been cases recorded of animals choking on things like plastic bags. This how our project relates to the carbon cycle. Since we are investigating plastic in our project how plastic affects the oceans, we’ll also have to understand the carbon cycle. We will research the molecular structures of plastics like polyethylene terephthalate and high-density polyethylene. Understanding the carbon cycle will definitely help us with our project and I am really looking forward to see the results of our investigation in a couple of weeks.


This is the tank with the plastic in it (obviously). The probe on the left hand side is a temperature probe, we are looking at how the addition of plastic affect the temperature of the water.


One thought on “Our STEM project and the carbon cycle

  1. Brian Walach says:

    Reblogged this on GHS Innovation Lab and commented:

    This week, we asked students to reflect on how their project relates to either the carbon, nitrogen, or phosphorus cycle. Jari’s post describes his group’s efforts to mimic the Great Pacific garbage patch. He included photos of his team’s work and technical knowledge gained through videos, online resources, and communication with his team.


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