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Ahoy! Plastic in the Ocean

TeachEngineering lesson contributed by the National Science Foundation GK-12 and Research Experience for Teachers (RET) Programs, University of Houston. Combine with the companion activity/field trip Where are the Plastics Near Me? to develop students’ ability to create and analyze data sets while building geography and mapping skills. 


Students learn about the Great Pacific garbage patch, research the impact of plastics pollution on oceans, and present that information as a short, eye-catching newsletter suitable to hand out to fast-food restaurant customers.

Grade level: 7-9

Time: 165 minutes (three 55-minute classes)

Engineering Connection

Engineers are often relied upon to be technical experts for their project managers, the public at large, and government officials. The background knowledge they acquire and the type of thinking they use is essential to understanding issues that affect many people and have many technical facets and potential consequences. In this activity, students learn how to gather information about a topic of importance and reliably and honestly inform others so that decision making is improved. This experience exposes students to a real-life engineering challenge that gives them a concrete experience of what engineering is like and makes them more literate in understanding engineering-related issues in their community and world.

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • Articulate in verbal and in written form some basic information about the Great Pacific garbage patch (GPGP).
  • Express and support an opinion about the conditions, causes, or solutions for the GPGP.
  • Demonstrate the skill of gathering online (or other) sources of information on the GPGP without plagiarizing either in the form of 1) directly copying text from articles (that is, improper paraphrasing) or 2) providing imcorrect or absent citations.
  • Mix pictures and explanatory text into a short simple format that is both eye-catching and informative while explaining the GPGP environmental impacts and posing environmental engineering solutions to the problem.

Learning Standards

Next Generation Science Standards

Construct an argument supported by evidence for how increases in human population and per capita consumption of natural resources impact Earth’s systems.

International Technology and Engineering Educators Association

  • The management of waste produced by technological systems is an important societal issue.
  • Technology, by itself, is neither good nor bad, but decisions about the use of products and systems can result in desirable or undesirable consequences.

Common Core Literacy Standards: Writing

Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research. [Grade 7-9]

Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, using search terms effectively; assess the credibility and accuracy of each source; and quote or paraphrase the data and conclusions of others while avoiding plagiarism and following a standard format for citation. [Grades 8]

Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence. [Grades 9-10]

Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas, concepts, and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content. [Grades 9-10]


Each group needs:

  • Computer with Microsoft Word (or other word processing software) and an Internet connection
  • Paper or note cards to organize thoughts and ideas (optional)


The Great Pacific garbage patch (GPGP) is a large and far-reaching modern environmental issue related to many different scientific phenomena and having multiple human at actors. You’ve had some good exposure to the GPGP through the lesson, but you might now be wondering, “What can I do about it?” One of the more important things that you can do for this issue or any engineering-science-technology issue is to create awareness. That’s exactly what has already happened to you through learning about the GPGP. Now you will learn still more about the GPGP and communicate it to a wider audience.

Pretend for a moment that you would like to get the word out at places that use and dispense plastics to the average consumer. Let’s use the fast food chain McDonald’s as our example, though many businesses commonly dispense plastic products to consumers, including grocery stores, sit-down restaurants, cellphone stores, large-scale electronics vendors, department stores. This restaurant is one important distribution point for plastics that can end up in the GPGP because 1) many people and many different kinds of people frequent McDonald’s, 2) plastics are used in many of the food products dispensed (such as straws, burger boxes, cutlery), 3) many of these plastics are not bioplastics or biodegradable, and 4) these plastics are often found as trash in visible locations such as streams, lakes and docks–places, from which they are likely to gradually make their way to the GPGP.

If you wanted to cause a stir, you could stand up on a chair in McDonald’s and start speaking aloud to customers about their plastics and the GPGP. It is, however, unlikely that this will be effective. So you will do something more subtle. You will create a one-page newsletter that is short, quick to get someone’s attention, and still informative about the important issues surrounding the GPGP. It will also pose possible environmental engineering solutions to the problem. Think of the newsletter as something that you would offer to customers at McDonald’s as they walk out of the restaurant.

As you write your newsletter, keep a few concerns in mind. The first is accuracy and usefulness of information, and the second is plagiarism. Whenever you read something on the Internet, a newspaper, a flier etc., you hope that what you are reading is useful and accurate. You want it to be useful because you are spending your time reading and understanding it, and you want it be accurate because you do not want to learn information that is wrong. So as you begin to read further online information about the GPGP, be sure that you focus on understanding what you are reading. Don’t just find clever pictures, and don’t just try and find large quantities of information. If you read an article, or a section of the article, write out a summary or a few bullet points of what you have read. Perhaps you could simply write the parts that are most interesting and useful to you? As you do this, strive to not write word-for-word what you are reading. Instead write it in your own words. This helps to ensure that you actually understand what you are reading.

A second concern is plagiarism. Plagiarism is defined as “to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own: use (another’s production) without crediting the source .” [1] The most obvious form of plagiarism is to use someone’s words and/or ideas without giving credit. A common way of running into this error when using online information is to directly copy and paste a section of text from an online source. Because it is so quick and easy to do this, you may find that you wish to do it to save time. But – you cannot do this! You have two options in this situation. The best option in most circumstances is to take the ideas from what is being said (that is, summarize it or write it out in bullet form as stated earlier) and write it out in your own words. Then make note of the source because you will need to list it at the end of your newsletter. The second option you have, which should be used sparingly, is to copy the words exactly but set them off in quotation (“_____”) marks. If y ou do this, you still need to cite the author and source of the information at the end of your newsletter. A second form of plagiarism is to improperly give credit to some information. If the wrong source is given or the source is incomplete, then this is problematic. The goal of citing any information is so that a reader is able is able to go back and find exactly what you found if they want to check to make sure what you have written is accurate. Remember that in this activity you want to inform people of the GPGP and how plastics relate to it. Some of them may not believe you and may be skeptical. So you need to be sure you have referenced your information correctly so that you have a better chance of convincing them. As a general rule, if you are not sure if you need to cite something, then cite it anyway. Too much citation won’t hurt.

Here are the specific requirements of your newsletter for you to think about as you plan and write.

It needs to have the following important elements.

Newsletter Title

Something that will catch the attention of a person you hand it to outside of McDonald’s. A good example might be something like, “How did plastic burger boxes end up in the middle of the Pacific Ocean?” Something more generic like “Plastic Garbage” may not be as effective but is still okay.

Name and Date

You want people to know that you did the scientific and information research, especially so that you get credit for your original work.

Three Articles

These articles do not and should not be too long. Three to 12 sentences is probably enough. Make sure that each article has its own separate title apart from the main newsletter title, and make sure each covers a separate Garbage Patch related topic. Here are some examples. As you read these examples, remember that you do not already have to be an expert on these topics. It is better if you are not because you will find information to teach you about them.

  • What is the Great Pacific garbage patch?
  • How was the GPGP discovered?
  • How does plastic from (insert US state) get to the middle of the Pacific Ocean?
  • Why would fish confuse plastics for food?
  • Why is the GPGP mostly plastic?
  • How does rain move plastics to the ocean?
  • How long does it take plastics in the ocean to degrade?
  • What kind of photodegradation can occur in plastics?
  • Why are there ocean gyres?
  • Why don’t plastics just sink out there?
  • What kinds of chemicals attach to plastics in the GPGP?
  • How do plastics move up the food chain?
  • Can plastics in fish hurt people?
  • Can plastics in the GPGP be recycled?
  • How would you clean up the GPGP? (This is the environmental engineering connection!)
  • How fast is the GPGP growing?
  • What are bioplastics and how would they help the GPGP?


Include no more than two pictures in the newsletter. Where possible, include a small caption below the image explaining what it is and why it is relevant to the GPGP. Be sure to note the source of your image so that it can be included in the citations section.

Sources and Citations

At least four distinct citations are needed for the newsletter. It is best to put markings/source notes in the text to match information with source, but it is not required. Each citation needs to have these main elements organized in a consistent fashion: author, dates (of the source [if available] and the date of your access of the source), title (of webpage or article) and URL.


One way to present the newsletter content is in two or three columns on a single page, but it does not have to be this way.


Before the Activity

  • Make certain that the word processing software and Internet access are available and working on all student computers.
  • Create a short handout that gives a rubric of what is required for the students or write it on the board so that students can refer to it often.
  • (optional) To help in the plagiarism explanation, prepare some common examples of plagiarism from websites.
  • (optional) Bring in books or printouts of other information that students could use so that they do not have to rely solely on Internet lookup information.
  • (optional) As an example. write your own small newsletter in the format that you would prefer students to use. Or show students the Example GPGP Newsletter. Click HERE for PDF.

With the Students

  1. If the GPGP lesson is not given in the same class period as the beginning of the newsletter activity, then provide a brief oral review of the GPGP. As an alternative, show a short video clip of something about the GPGP to get students’ minds once again on the topic.
  2. Explain the reasoning, hypothetical situation and elements of the newsletter to the class. Solicit examples from the students about topics they might want in a newsletter. To draw them in from the hypothetical, it may be helpful to bring in some plastic products from stores that you know that students often go to, or even from their own cafeteria.
  3. Have students begin independent work on the newsletters. Be available for questions and walk among the computers to offer comments and suggestions.

Troubleshooting Tips

Some students may find this task to be overwhelming if given all at once. An alternative to giving the assignment all at once is to break it up into small mini-assignments that they complete in sequence. An example breakdown: 1) Write a title and article topic list (with brief explanations of each topic), 2) choose 1-2 images and write captions, 3) choose four or more sources and write down source citation information, 4) write significant facts from sources, and 5) put all pieces together into a newsletter.

If students have little experience with information citation, expect them to find it very tempting to plagiarize, or they may simply not understand well-enough what is meant by plagiarism. To make certain they completely understand, it helps to give students many examples and receive feedback from them before work begins. Also, it helps during writing to monitor progress and check with them specifically on plagiarism. A powerful and simple demonstration to illustrate to students that you can tell that they are plagiarizing is to type in a section of their text into an Internet browser to search for it, to show them how easy it is to find their source.


Pre-Activity Assessment

Discussion: Ask the class to provide some information on aspects of the GPGP and plagiarism to assess how well they learned the GPGP lesson and gauge their level of experience with plagiarism.

Activity Embedded Assessment

Newsletter Preparation: Use the newsletter assignment, either as a large project or as a series of mini-assignments, to assess how well students are learning GPGP-related concepts. Frequently question students on what they are writing, which helps them grasp more of what they are reading (expressing what they are learning in their own words) and how they can use it more effectively in the newsletter.

Post-Activity Assessment

Newsletter Critiques: Read and mark up newsletters. Focus most on judging the accuracy and informative nature of the text as well as correct source citations. If time permits, brief consulting time with individual students helps the assessment of student understanding and gives students helpful feedback.

Activity Scaling

  • For lower grades, the prospect of writing three separate articles may be too much. In this case, shorten the assignment or do it differently. Possible alternative approaches: 1) having students pick just one information source and use it for just 1-2 topics, 2) have students do more of a photo-based newsletter that provides information with four or more photos that have informative captions rather than a text-heavy newsletter (a more “photo journalism” style), or 3) have students design a brief PowerPoint presentation that includes some information and images with citations provided (in slide notes or on the last slide).
  • For upper grades, require that only certain kinds of sources be used (such as science-based news outlets, well-known news outlets, etc.). If time permits, require the assignment be done in the form of short PowerPoint presentations that students give to the rest of class. This allows them to focus more on the ability to speak about the information that they have learned.

Activity extensions/modifications [contributed by eGFI Teachers] 

  • Have students research and evaluate proposed solutions and/or advocacy efforts for cleaning plastic from the oceans.
  • Have students illustrate their flyer or create graphical novel/comic book-style newsletter.
  • Have students create video presentations or websites about plastic pollution and solutions.
  • Have students catalog the plastic waste in their school or home neighborhood and take action, either by writing letters to their local legislators, organizing a clean-up day, or present their findings at a school assembly. See Penn State’s Plastic Pollution Curriculum Guide and Activities for plastic waste audit activity and other lessons.

Additional materials [contributed by eGFI Teachers]

An Educator’s Guide to Marine Debris. Produced by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the industry-led North American Marine Environment Protection Association, this short handbook includes lessons for students in elementary, middle, and high school along with a glossary, Plastics Pledge, and Marine Debris Survey.

How We Can Keep Plastics Out of Our Oceans. National Geographic video on how human use of plastic products affects Earth’s ecosystems and ways to mitigate the damage. [YouTube 3:10]

Plants to Plastics. Engineering is Elementary, the Museum of Science, Boston’s engineering design curriculum, has developed a free downloadable lesson for middle school after-school programs on replacing plastic with materials made from plants.

Planet Protectors. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency activities for kids.

Plastic Awareness Info. Videos, websites, activities, and a plastics awareness and recycling curriculum compiled by One More Generation, a conservation group founded in 2009 by then-8 year old Carter Ries and his 7-year-old sister, Olivia.

Ocean Plastics Pollution.  The Center for Biological Diversity’s information and petition for EPA to monitor and regulate plastics as a pollutant.

The Ocean’s Circulation Hasn’t Been This Sluggish in 1,000 Years. That’s Bad News. Washington Post article (4/11/18) on two new scientific studies that link climate change to dramatically slowed-down Atlantic currents, resulting in temperate weather in Western Europe and record lobster harvests in Maine even as cod are dwindling fast.

Plastic Pollution Curriculum and Activity Guide. Lessons in this Penn State resource include analyzing plastic ingested by an albatross, identifying types of plastic, and a pollution and waste audit.

The Surprising Solution to Ocean Plastic. In this February 2018 TED Talk, David Katz explains The Plastic Bank: a worldwide chain of stores where everything from school tuition to cooking fuel and more is available for purchase in exchange for plastic garbage – which is then sorted, shredded, and sold to brands who reuse “social plastic” in their products. [YouTube 11:53]

Talking Trash and Taking Action: An Instructor’s Guide. Ocean Conservancy and NOAA’s Marine Debris office developed activities and information to help individuals and groups of students learn and do something about ocean pollution.

Ten Ways to Reduce Plastic Pollution. The Natural Resources Defense Council’s top 10 simple ways to cut back on plastic – such as carrying a washable, reusable water bottle instead of buying bottled water.

What is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? NOAA video explains that it’s not a vast, visible pile of plastic.

National Science Foundation researcher Julia Parrish explains the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – and clean-up prospects:

Contributors Nathan Howell; Andrey Koptelov

© 2013 by Regents of the University of Colorado; original © 2010 University of Houston

Supporting Program

National Science Foundation GK-12 and Research Experience for Teachers (RET) Programs, University of Houston’s College of Engineering.

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