September 2016 – Vol. 29 No. 1

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. [1] 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. [2]

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. [3] 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, [4] 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.


Monterey Bay Aquarium Plastics Activities:
Plastics in the Water Column
Plastics Reduce Use or Recycle
Plastic Use Audit
Gyre in a Bottle

Algalita Marine Research Foundation Learn more about debris found in the Pacific Gyre as well as research reports and educational resources.

Center for Microbial Oceanography (C-MORE), Find several free activities exploring the cause, distribution and biological impacts of marine debris.

The Story of Stuff Project Watch the story of bottled water and access free curriculum resources.

California’s Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (Cal Recycle)

5 Gyres Project


[1] Environmental Protection Agency. (2014). Common Wastes & Materials: Plastics. Retrieved 11/26/14.

[2] The Ocean Conservancy. (2014). Turning the Tide on Trash. Retrieved 11/26/14.

[3] [4] 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.

Written by Mary Whaley

Mary Whaley is the Teachers Program Manager at Monterey Bay Aquarium and is the Informal Science Director for CSTA.

One Response

  1. I am thrilled to see science lessons focused on the plastic in our world’s ocean. If I may offer another resource: PLASTIC, AHOY! INVESTIGATING THE GREAT PACIFIC GARBAGE PATCH, a Millbrook Press nonfiction book for students in grades 4 and up. Set against a backdrop of the scientific method, the book follows three female scientists as they observe plastic debris in the North Pacific Gyre and develop experiments to learn more about it. The last chapter offers a series of ocean stewardship ideas that students can implement. Annie Crawley’s beautiful photographs provide a glimpse into life at sea as a research scientist.

    Junior Library Guild Selection
    AAAS Science Books & Film Finalist in the Middle Grades category
    Nerdy Book Club Award for middle grade nonfiction
    Authors for Earth Day Eco Book of the Month

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California Science Assessment Update

Posted: Wednesday, October 12th, 2016

by Jessica Sawko

In June 2016 California submitted a waiver application to discontinue using the old CST (based on 1998 standards) and conduct two years of pilot and field tests (in spring 2017 and 2018, respectively) of the new science assessment designed to support our state’s current science standards (California Next Generation Science Standards (CA-NGSS) adopted in 2013). The waiver was requested because no student scores will be provided as a part of the pilot and field tests. The CDE received a response from the U.S. Department of Education (ED) on September 30, 2016, which provides the CDE the opportunity to resubmit a revised waiver request within 60 days. The CDE will be revising the waiver request and resubmitting as ED suggested.

At its October 2016 North/South Assessment meetings CDE confirmed that there will be no administration of the old CST in the spring of 2017. (An archive of the meeting is available at Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

Some ways to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service in your classroom

Posted: Thursday, September 22nd, 2016

by Carol Peterson

1) To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, Google has put together a collection of virtual tours combining 360-degree video, panoramic photos and expert narration. It’s called “The Hidden Worlds of the National Parks” and is accessible right from the browser. You can choose from one of five different locales, including the Kenai Fjords in Alaska and Bryce Canyon in Utah, and get a guided “tour” from a local park ranger. Each one has a few virtual vistas to explore, with documentary-style voiceovers and extra media hidden behind clickable thumbnails. Ideas are included for use in classrooms. Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

2016 Award Recipients – Join CSTA in Honoring Their Accomplishments

Posted: Thursday, September 22nd, 2016

CSTA is pleased to announce the winners of the 2016 CSTA Awards for Distinguished Contributions, Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award, 2014 and 2015 PAEMST-Science recipients from California, and the 2016 California PAEMST Finalists. The following individuals and organizations will be honored during the 2016 California Science Education Conference  on October 21- 23 in Palm Springs. This year’s group of awardees are truly outstanding. Please join us in congratulating them!

Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award

John Keller

John Keller

The Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award honors an individual who has made a significant contribution to science education in the state and who, through years of leadership and service, has truly made a positive impact on the quality of science teaching. This year’s recipient is John Keller, Ph.D. Dr. Keller is Associate Professor, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Co-Director, Center for Engineering, Science, and Mathematics Education, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. In her letter of recommendation, SDSU science education faculty and former CSTA board member Donna Ross wrote: “He brings people together who share the desire to make a difference in the development and implementation of programs for science teaching. Examples of these projects include the Math and Science Teaching Initiative (MSTI), Noyce Scholars Program, Western Regional Noyce Initiative, and the Science Teacher and Researcher (STAR) program.” Through his work, he has had a dramatic impact on science teacher education, both preservice and in-service, in California, the region, and the country. He developed and implemented the STEM Teacher and Researcher Program which aims to produce excellent K-12 STEM teachers by providing aspiring teachers with opportunities to do authentic research while helping them translate their research experience into classroom practice. SFSU faculty member Larry Horvath said it best in his letter:“John Keller exemplifies the best aspects of a scientist, science educator, and mentor. His contributions to science education in the state of California are varied, significant, and I am sure will continue well into the future.” Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

NGSS: Making Your Life Easier

Posted: Tuesday, September 20th, 2016

by Peter A’hearn

Wait… What?

NGSS is a big shift. Teachers need to learn new content, figure out how this whole engineering thing relates to science, and develop new unit and lesson plans. How could NGSS possibly make life easier?

The idea that NGSS could make our lives easier came to me during the California State NGSS Rollout #1 Classroom Example lesson on chromatography. I have since done this lesson with high school chemistry students and it made me think back to having my own students do chromatography. I spent lots of time preparing to make sure the experiment went well and achieved the “correct” result. I pre-prepared the solutions and organized and prepped the materials. I re-wrote and re-wrote again the procedure so there was no way a kid could get it wrong. I spent 20 minutes before the lab modeling all of the steps in class, so there was no way to do it wrong. Except that it turns out there were many. Learn More…

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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the K-12 science specialist in the Palm Springs Unified School District and is Region 4 Director for CSTA.

Celestial Highlights, September 2016

Posted: Tuesday, September 20th, 2016

by Robert C. Victor. Twilight sky maps by Robert D. Miller. Graph of evening planet setting times by Dr. Jeffrey L. Hunt 

Our evening twilight chart for September, depicting the sky about 40 minutes after sunset from SoCal, shows brilliant Venus remaining low, creeping from W to WSW and gaining a little altitude as the month progresses. Its close encounter within 2.5° N of Spica on Sept. 18 is best seen with binoculars to catch the star low in bright twilight. The brightest stars in the evening sky are golden Arcturus descending in the west, and blue-white Vega passing just north of overhead. Look for Altair and Deneb completing the Summer Triangle with Vega. The triangle of Mars-Saturn-Antares expands as Mars seems to hold nearly stationary in SSW as the month progresses, while Saturn and Antares slink off to the SW. Learn More…

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Written by Robert Victor

Robert Victor

Robert C. Victor was Staff Astronomer at Abrams Planetarium, Michigan State University. He is now retired and enjoys providing skywatching opportunities for school children in and around Palm Springs, CA. Robert is a member of CSTA.