Acting out the nitrogen cycle

I’ve always found the nitrogen cycle to be one of those concepts that students find difficult to understand. Not only are there so many unfamiliar terms and ideas (denitrifying bacteria, nitrogen fixation, different types of ammonia, etc), but students often think that the nitrogen cycle is linear, that all nitrogen atoms go around the cycle step by step. I often hear questions like “Where does the nitrogen cycle start?”

To challenge this misconception, I decided to play the nitrogen cycle game with my Year 9s this year. I first saw this activity in action from my student teacher, Smriti Mediratta, who is now a temporary teacher in my faculty. She adapted the activity from a range of websites such as this one.  All you have to do is to place station signs that show reservoirs of nitrogen and place 1 dice on each sign. Students then role play a nitrogen atom and follow the instructions on each sign. On their nitrogen cycle journey, they fill out a worksheet to show where they went in each step and how they got there.

Note that these resources have been created by Smriti so hat tip to her 🙂

During the activity, I heard one group say “We are going to soil again. We are always going to soil!” From this and the class discussion afterwards, it was evident that students understood that the nitrogen cycle is non-linear; that some nitrogen atoms might never go to all reservoirs and just go from one to another.

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I also found this activity to be effective in allowing students to physically act out the nitrogen cycle, which makes it more memorable than just reading a text and looking at a a diagram. If you are a science teacher, I highly recommend trying this activity with your students.

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