Initial Publication Date: May 16, 2014 | Reviewed: July 11, 2017

Discovering the oil/plastics cycle

Lauren Sahl, Corning School of Ocean Studies, Maine Maritime Academy


Students examine a video clip showing dead albatross chicks with their guts full of plastics. They are asked to write down a list of all the steps that lead to the chicks ingesting the plastic. Through pooling of information and group work the class creates a mind map of the steps including those that are geological, oceanographic and anthropogenic. This mind map becomes the tool for organizing the presentation of material through the course of the semester.


This exercise occurs in the first and second meeting of an introduction to oceanography class. The purpose is to "hook" the students on course content by having them discover the connections between ocean biology, chemistry, geology, circulation and their lives. The product of this exercise is a mind map. The mind map will serve to organize the presentation of course materials and it will be referenced throughout the course to illustrate the impact of humans on the marine environment.

Undergraduate students

Class size: 15-45

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered
No previous skills and concepts are required since this is the first activity in an introductory course.

How the activity is situated in the course

The activity is introduced in the first class meeting. Homework is assigned. Students work in groups in the second class meeting to accomplish the goals of the activity.


The primary goal of this activity is to have students become invested in the course so that they will be active learners. A secondary goal is for students to appreciate that there are real connections between marine biology, chemistry, geology and circulation. This should make them anticipate learning the details of these connections.

Content/concepts goals for this activity

Students will see that plastic ingestion by albatross chicks is one step in a cycle that involves many geological, oceanographic and anthropogenic steps. Science and ethics are involved at many of the steps.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity
For homework students remember/find information about plastic manufacture and transport to the sea. In class students work in groups to organize and evaluate information and then work to discover steps they have missed.

Other skills goals for this activity

If group work is to be an ongoing part of the course instructors may explicitly work on those skills in this exercise.

Ethical Principles Addressed in this Exercise

In this exercise students are introduced to the oil/plastic cycle from marine primary producers through the generation and recovery of oil, the manufacture of plastics and the transport of plastics into the ocean where they impact marine organisms. As students flesh out the steps in this cycle they also discover the human links in the cycle. At this point ethical questions may be raised but not specifically addressed. As the course proceeds these ethical questions will be addressed when students have learned enough of the course content to have the necessary tools.

Description and Teaching Materials

Students are presented with disturbing information on the impact of plastic garbage in the ocean on albatross chicks. They are asked to speculate independently and then in groups on the steps that led to plastic being ingested by the chicks.

Case Study Scenario

In this activity students watch a movie clip showing dead albatross chicks with bellies full of plastic garbage. They are asked to speculate on a chain of events that led to the chicks ingesting the plastic, starting with a homework assignment (below).

Homework assignment (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 13kB May15 14)

After completing the homework assignment students work in groups and as a class to expand the chains to include everything from the production of organic material in the ocean through the formation, concentration and extraction of oil, to the manufacture, disposal and aggregation of plastics. The results of the exercise serve to organize the presentation of the content in the course. Asking students to identify how they fit into the cycle sets the stage for examining the ethics of exploiting marine resources as student progress through the course.

Teaching Notes and Tips

Instructions on how to structure the activity (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 16kB Nov6 14)

See an example of a mind map (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 68kB May15 14), a product of the exercise.


To assess student engagement in the course a one minute paper can be administered on the first day of class and at the end of the class. A prompt such as "In what ways do people interact with the ocean?", can be given for the paper. The difference in depth of answers from the beginning versus the end of the semester can be used as a measure of student engagement in the course. Students may be given some credit for the assignment, based solely on whether or not they completed it.

References and Resources

Coastal Cleanup data from the California Coastal Commission.

International Coastal Cleanup data from the Ocean Conservancy.

An article on plastic debris in the western North Atlantic.

Seabirds and plastic litter.