Guest Blogger: Cait Goodwin, Marine Educator at Oregon Sea Grant Hatfield Marine Science Center
Last spring, students in Oregon engaged in school activities that helped them understand the problem of marine debris and gave them the desire to do something about it. Their teachers took part in a professional development training last February at Hatfield Marine Science Center as part of a partnership project to engage 4th-12th grade students in marine debris efforts through a comprehensive Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics and Social Studies (STEAMSS)-based marine debris curriculum. Armed with lessons and resources, the teachers returned to implement activities in their classrooms.
Several teachers turned the marine debris topic into units that extended over multiple weeks and involved field trips to the local watershed or coastal beaches. The students learned about marine debris impacts and came up with ways they could help alleviate the problem. Here are some of their stories:
Fourth grade teacher Amie Lundquist of Oceanlake Elementary School used the topic of marine debris as a focus for a Project-Based Learning unit. Amie brought in “Beach Boxes,” plastic boxes filled with sand and various types of natural and anthropogenic debris to introduce the topic. Just as the teachers had done in their own training, Amie’s students sifted through the box contents and discussed the items within, sharing observations and creating their own initial definitions of marine debris. The class then took two field trips to local beaches to collect, analyze and chart debris, and make comparisons between visits. She felt that this step was a crucial part of the marine debris study, and that collecting garbage in natural environments made the concept of marine debris “real” for her students.
Back in the classroom, the class tracked marine debris movements through the ocean using an online ocean current simulator. They also dissected Albatross boluses using lessons included in the marine debris curriculum. As they sorted through the plastics the birds had ingested, the students made powerful connections between marine debris and its impact on wildlife. “My students took complete ownership over the project and worked hard to become experts on marine debris,” explains Amie. To share their discoveries with others, they created videos, PowerPoint presentations and brochures, and gave speeches to the local community.
Eddyville middle school teacher Sean Bedell’s three-week unit on marine debris focused on two goals: To collect data to document the problem and to use technology to share what was learned to make a difference. The class began by reading a marine debris study that focused on small plastics in the ocean and their impact on the food web. To determine whether evidence of small plastics could be found on nearby beaches, the students built quadrats and sifting boxes and headed into the field. When they first arrived on the beach, one student commented on how clean the sand looked. But then as they neared the high tide line, everybody stopped, got down close to the sand, and a chorus of “Whoa, look at all these tiny pieces of plastic!” erupted from the group. Sean believes that was the moment the students realized the extent of the problem. They also recognized that marine debris is not just “huge masses of rope or ghost ships” as they had previously thought, but includes tiny pieces of plastic that animals are eating. “On that first field trip, the class collected 1,200 pieces of plastic, and the average size was about 3mm. That was similar to the average size from the study we read,” Sean recalls. The next step was to empower the students to make a change. Back in the classroom, they made PSAs to educate the public about marine debris and to encourage behaviors that reduce plastics from entering the ocean. The students also used their marine debris data to create a poster for the state park, and the interpretive rangers now use their poster in park outreach programs.
Similar scenarios emerged in other classrooms in Oregon. Some students used the plastic pieces they collected at the beach to create artistic, ocean-themed mosaics. Others used an iron to repurpose single-use plastic bags into strong and fashionable “upcycled” containers. As part of Outdoor School, students used transects and quadrats to quantitatively assess the distribution and abundance of marine debris on a coastal beach. And in other classrooms, students wrote letters to their legislators to express their concern about the issue of marine debris.
Looking back on the year, teachers reflected on the experience and gave the curriculum development team feedback about the resources they used and the impacts the activities had on their students. Here is a sample of what the teachers had to say:
“I felt at the end of this unit students understood an environmental problem that they had not heard about before and in some small way made a difference in the world.”
“Students really understood that they were connected to what happens in the ocean 2 hours away!”
“Even at the end of the day during our clean up time, students would find little pieces of plastics or garbage around the classroom and automatically made the connection to how it would impact marine wildlife.”
“As I sat at a baseball game with a student this year, he saw a person leave behind an empty water bottle. “Oh no, that could become marine debris!” he exclaimed and quickly picked it up.”
After the NOAA Marine Debris STEAMSS curriculum has been modified to incorporate teacher feedback, it will be made available to the public. The project partners are Oregon State University, Oregon Sea Grant, Oregon Coast Aquarium, Lincoln County School District, and the NOAA Marine Debris Program.