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: Tuesday, March 14th, 2017
The pre-publication version of the new California Science Curriculum Framework is now available for download. This publication incorporates all the edits that were approved by the State Board of Education in November 2016 and was many months in the making. Our sincere thanks to the dozens of CSTA members were involved in its development. Our appreciation is also extended to the California Department of Education, the State Board of Education, the Instructional Quality Commission, and the Science Curriculum Framework and Evaluation Criteria Committee and their staff for their hard work and dedication to produce this document and for their commitment to the public input process. To the many writers and contributors to the Framework CSTA thanks you for your many hours of work to produce a world-class document.
For tips on how to approach this document see our article from December 2016: California Has Adopted a New Science Curriculum Framework – Now What …? If you would like to learn more about the Framework, consider participating in one of the Framework Launch events (a.k.a. Rollout #4) scheduled throughout 2017.
The final publication version (formatted for printing) will be available in July 2017. This document will not be available in printed format, only electronically.
Posted: Monday, March 13th, 2017
The 2017 Award Season is now open! One of the benefits of being a CSTA member is your eligibility for awards as well as your eligibility to nominate someone for an award. CSTA offers several awards and members may nominate individuals and organizations for the Future Science Teacher Award, the prestigious Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award, and the CSTA Distinguished Contributions Award (organizational award). May 9, 2017 is the deadline for nominations for these awards. CSTA believes that the importance of science education cannot be overstated. Given the essential presence of the sciences in understanding the past and planning for the future, science education remains, and will increasingly be one of the most important disciplines in education. CSTA is committed to recognizing and encouraging excellence in science teaching through the presentation of awards to science educators and organizations who have made outstanding contributions in science education in the state and who are poised to continue the momentum of providing high quality, relevant science education into the future. Learn More…
Posted: Monday, March 13th, 2017
CSTA is now accepting applications from regular, preservice, and retired members to serve on our volunteer committees! CSTA’s all-volunteer board of directors invites you to consider maximizing your member experience by volunteering for CSTA. CSTA committee service offers you the opportunity to share your expertise, learn a new skill, or do something you love to do but never have the opportunity to do in your regular day. CSTA committee volunteers do some pretty amazing things: Learn More…
Posted: Monday, March 13th, 2017
by Marian Murphy-Shaw
If you attended an NGSS Rollout phase 1-3 or CDE workshops at CSTA’s annual conference you may recall hearing from Chris Breazeale when he was working with the CDE. Chris has relocated professionally, with his passion for science education, and is now the Executive Director at the Explorit Science Center, a hands-on exploration museum featuring interactive STEM exhibits located at the beautiful Mace Ranch, 3141 5th St. in Davis, CA. Visitors can “think it, try it, and explorit” with a variety of displays that allow visitors to “do science.” To preview the museum, or schedule a classroom visit, see www.explorit.org. Learn More…
Posted: Monday, March 13th, 2017
by Joseph Calmer
Probably like you, NGSS has been at the forefront of many department meetings, lunch conversations, and solitary lesson planning sessions. Despite reading the original NRC Framework, the Ca Draft Frameworks, and many CSTA writings, I am still left with the question: “what does it actually mean for my classroom?”
I had an eye-opening experience that helped me with that question. It came out of a conversation that I had with a student teacher. It turns out that I’ve found the secret to learning how to teach with NGSS: I need to engage in dialogue about teaching with novice teachers. I’ve had the pleasure of teaching science in some capacity for 12 years. During that time pedagogy and student learning become sort of a “hidden curriculum.” It is difficult to plan a lesson for the hidden curriculum; the best way is to just have two or more professionals talk and see what emerges. I was surprised it took me so long to realize this epiphany. Learn More…