Investigating Plastics in the Oceans
Posted: Tuesday, January 6th, 2015
by Mary Whaley, Joey Lehnhard and Beth Callaghan
From durable goods like eyeglasses and vehicle parts to single-use items like straws and water bottles, plastic is ubiquitous in our modern world. Plastic is lightweight, long-lasting and relatively economical to manufacture. It has revolutionized the way we live from medical use to manufacturing. But, how wisely are we using these durable, versatile materials produced from fossil fuels – a nonrenewable resource?
Plastic is important in our modern world. However, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, only about 9 percent of the estimated 32 million tons of plastic waste the U.S. generated in 2012 was recovered for recycling.  Much of the waste is single-use disposable items that end up causing numerous problems in our environment. For example, six of the top 10 items collected in the 2013 International Coastal Clean-up Day were single-use plastic. 
Even if our non-recycled plastic waste does make it to a landfill, plastic is built to last. Its complex polymer chains make it flexible or rigid, clear or opaque, but always nonbiodegradable. While sunlight, wind and wave action may eventually cause it to photodegrade, breaking down into small pieces, natural processes involving bacteria or fungi cannot digest plastic and return it to the nutrient cycle –it remains in the environment indefinitely.
Plastics of all shapes and sizes end up in the ocean as marine debris. In fact, it’s estimated that 90% of floating debris is plastic. Plastics have varying densities so some float in sea water, others sink and some remain neutrally buoyant, causing problems throughout the water column by entangling or being consumed by marine animals and also by both leaching and attracting toxic chemicals.
But there is hope. It comes in the form of our students.
Unlike other serious environmental issues such as ocean acidification, air pollution, or climate change, students have a significant daily impact on plastic pollution. They can do this by making individual choices like bringing their own shopping bag, buying a soda can instead of a plastic bottle, refusing straws, or choosing reusable lunch containers instead of disposable baggies. They can also be involved in larger initiatives like advocating for plastic bag bans in our cities or working with their school cafeteria to reduce plastic use.
Helping students understand that they have an impact on the world around us is a powerful educational goal. In fact, inspiring and empowering students to take action to protect the environment may develop self-efficacy and enhance a sense of personal control.  Engaging students in activities that place content in a real-world context helps students remember details by giving the information meaning and context, and allowing students to connect the new information or experience to prior knowledge.
So how do you get started addressing this issue in your classrooms?
A great way to get your students engaged and help them see the relevance of this issue is to conduct Plastic Use Audit (see Resources) on your school campus or cafeteria. Students sort and record the amounts of different types of trash to identify the most commonly tossed items.
Next challenge your students to investigate what plastic is and how wisely society uses plastics. In “Plastics: Reduce Use or Recycle?” (see resources list), students observe and describe the physical and chemical properties that can be used to identify different kinds of plastics (transparency, density, surface appearance and rigidity). They learn that the number in the chasing arrows symbol is an identification code developed by Society of the Plastics Industry to assist in differentiating various plastics. It is a common misconception that the number means that object can be recycled. Students also distinguish single-use plastics from durable goods. Finally, students examine society’s use of plastics, taking into account that it is made from nonrenewable resources.
Once students understand what plastic is and think about their use of plastic, they can begin to investigate how the density of plastic affects its location in the ocean water column. In Plastics in the Water Column, students examine the relationship between plastics of different densities and the possible effects on marine ecosystems. Students predict and test whether each piece of plastic floats, sinks or remains neutrally buoyant. The use of a density table gives students practice interpreting scientific tables and allows them to see if their results are supported by evidence or not. Students then engage in a science talk to elicit ideas on why different plastics may end up in different places in the water column. Next, students discuss how marine animals tend to feed in one of three ocean layers – benthic (sea floor), pelagic (open water), and surface, leading to a better understanding of plastics’ impact on marine animals and the food web.
Leaving students feeling empowered and with a sense of hope is an essential part of the sequence of activities. Brainstorming ways individuals and communities can reduce single-use plastic consumption is one way to focus on positive change. Identifying individual actions such as carrying a reusable water bottle can be an effective and empowering strategy for younger students,  while action and advocacy projects are powerful experiences supporting older students and can lead to greater community impact. Challenging students to make a public service announcement (PSA) to educate others about plastic pollution and the actions they can take to preserve ocean health is a compelling technological enrichment.
In addition, providing opportunities for students to work actively with abstract content such as density, coupled with cause and effect relationships, raises the learning to a level of authenticity called for in the Next Generation Science Standards. When students use firsthand exploration and discussion to develop an understanding of phenomena using evidence from their own experience, learning, interest and motivation all increase. While understanding the watersheds and ocean health has always been an important content area, NGSS further emphasizes the importance of the world’s oceans to Earth’s systems.
This investigation is a great way to talk about density in the real world, integrate conservation and ocean science education into your curriculum, and empower your students to make a positive difference in their local and global communities.
Algalita Marine Research Foundation www.algalita.org: Learn more about debris found in the Pacific Gyre as well as research reports and educational resources.
Center for Microbial Oceanography (C-MORE), http://cmore.soest.hawaii.edu/education/teachers/science_kits/marine_debris_kit.htm: Find several free activities exploring the cause, distribution and biological impacts of marine debris.
The Story of Stuff Project www.storyofstuff.com: Watch the story of bottled water and access free curriculum resources.
California’s Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (Cal Recycle) http://www.calrecycle.ca.gov/
5 Gyres Project http://5gyres.org
 Environmental Protection Agency. (2014). Common Wastes & Materials: Plastics. Retrieved 11/26/14. www.epa.gov/osw/conserve/materials/plastics
 The Ocean Conservancy. (2014). Turning the Tide on Trash. Retrieved 11/26/14. http://www.oceanconservancy.org/our-work/marine-debris/icc-data-2014.pdf
  Ardoin, N. (2009). Behavior-change theories and free-choice environmental learning. In J. Falk, J. Heimlich, and S. Foutz (eds.), Free-Choice Learning and the Environment (pp. 57-76). Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press.
Mary Whaley is the Teacher Programs Manager at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Informal Science Education Director for CSTA. Joey Lehnhard and Beth Callaghan are Senior Education Specialists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. All are members of CSTA.
Posted: Saturday, January 14th, 2017
The Council of Math/Science Educators of San Mateo County will be hosting the 41st annual STEM Conference this February 4, 2017 at the San Mateo County Office of Education. This STEM Conference is the place to get lots of new lessons and ideas to use in your classroom. There will be over twenty-five workshops and a variety of exhibitors that provide participants with a wide range of practical and realistic ideas and resources to use in their science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs from Pre-K to grade 12. With California’s adoption of the Common Core State Standards and the Next Generation Science Standards, we are dedicated to ensuring that we prepare our teachers to take on these educational policies.
Teachers, administrators, and parents are invited to explore the many exciting aspects of STEM education and learn about and discuss the latest news, information, and issues. This is also an opportunity to network with colleagues who can assist you in building your programs and meet new friends that share your interests and love of teaching. Register online today!
Posted: Friday, January 13th, 2017
Achieve has launched and is facilitating an EQuIP Peer Review Panel for Science–a group of expert reviewers who will evaluate the quality and alignment of lessons and units to the standards–in an effort to identify and shine a spotlight on emerging high-quality lesson and unit plans designed for the NGSS.
If you or your state, district, school, or organization has designed NGSS-aligned instructional materials, please consider submitting these in order to help provide educators across the country with various models and templates of high-quality lesson and unit plans. Learn More…
Posted: Friday, January 13th, 2017
An upcoming Perry Outreach Program on Saturday, April 22, 2017 at the Orthopaedic Institute for Children in Los Angeles, CA. The Perry Outreach Program is a free, one-day, hands-on experience for high school and college-aged women who are interested in pursuing careers in medicine and engineering. Students will hear from women leaders in these fields and try it for themselves by performing mock orthopaedic surgeries and biomechanics experiments. Learn More…
Posted: Friday, January 13th, 2017
by Jessica Sawko
January 2017 has proven to be a very busy month for science education policy and CA NGSS implementation activities. CSTA has been and will be there every step of the way, seeking and enacting all options to support high-quality science education and the successful implementation of CA NGSS.
California Department of Education/U.S. Department of Education Science Double-Testing Waiver Hearing
The year started with California Department of Education’s (CDE) hearing with the U.S. Department of Education conducted via WebEx on January 6, 2017. This hearing was the final step in California’s efforts to secure a waiver from the federal government in order to discontinue administration of the old CST and suspension of the reporting of student test scores on a science assessment for two years. As reported by EdSource, the U.S. Department of Education representative, Ann Whalen, a senior adviser to U.S. Secretary John King Jr., committed to making her final ruling “very shortly.” Deputy Superintendent Keric Ashley presented on behalf of CDE during the hearing and did an excellent job describing the broad-based support for this waiver in California, the rationale for the waiver, and California’s commitment to the successful implementation of a new high-quality science assessment. As previously reported, California is moving forward with its plans to administer a census pilot assessments this spring. The testing window is set to open on March 20, 2017. For more information visit New CA Science Test: What You Should Know.
Posted: Friday, January 13th, 2017
by Jessica Sawko
The early-bird registration rates for the 65th NSTA National Conference on Science Education in Los Angeles is just days away (ends Feb. 3). And as the early-registration deadline approaches excitement is building for what is anticipated to be the largest gathering of science educators (both California and nationwide) – with attendance expected to reach 10,000 or more. If you have never had the pleasure of attending the NSTA National Conference, I recommend you visit their website with tips for newcomers that describe the various components of the event. A conference preview is also available for download. Learn More…