The Great Pacific Garbage Patch – A 5th Grade Learning Sequence

Removing plastics from the ocean – Nevada Engineering Fellows Program

I am part of a team that is facilitating the “Nevada Engineering Fellows Program” for 5th grade teachers in Nevada. The funding for the program came from the Nevada Governor’s Office of Science Innovation & Technology. A major goal of the program is for teachers to learn how to design and build NGSS aligned STEM units with an emphasis on engineering, and to be able to evaluate the quality of units they find elsewhere.

The plastic pollution problem in our oceans has become catastrophic. Plastic never goes away it just breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces (micro plastics) that are ingested by sea life (and then us).

Chris Jordan http://www.parley.tv/updates/2016/3/17/chris-jordan-midway-message-from-gyre








We started by having the participating teachers experience a model unit we designed on removing plastic from the ocean. They spent all day on a Saturday in October learning the unit. Then we provided all the materials required for the teachers to take the unit back to their classrooms to do with their students. We visited every classroom to observe how things were going and to consult. The phenomena that kicked off the unit is the video below (there are many others to choose from BTW if you search the web). Teachers and students reported to us during our classroom visits how compelling watching and re-watching the video and making/sharing observations of what they saw and heard … really motivated them to want to take on this engineering challenge.

The trays of water were somewhat problematic in that they were small (so they could be utilized more easily in moving to and from student tables) and students struggled with scale. One big suggestion based on our experience, after the initial trial of their design have a complete debrief that includes a discussion of size of both the plastic debris (which should be cut much smaller than you see here) but also that the devices students build need to be smaller than you see here as well. In addition discuss how the trays represent a tiny, tiny part of the ocean. Also we suggest after the initial experience have students brainstorm materials that they believe should be included in the materials they have available – then gather them from the school and have students find things at home to bring in to provide themselves more options.

We had an all day class for the teachers after most of them had completed most of the unit. They all reported that they and their students were highly motivated by the experience (and we noted the same during our classroom visits). Next teachers are designing their own units to match up with their curriculum using this experience as a model. I really feel I’m sharing only a sliver of the potential for this lesson and how it went here, so feel free to ask questions in the comments.

Learning is messy!


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