Microplastics and marine environment

Giulia Realdon,
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Marine micro-plastics are a relatively recent issue in research (Thompson et al. 2004), in the media and in education and, due to novelty and relevance, they are a suitable topic for addressing Ocean Literacy within science teaching to different age groups.
In fact marine micro-plastics can be used to introduce Ocean Literacy and environmental science, but also traditional science subjects like biology, chemistry and Earth science, with a system approach focused on "understanding the Ocean's influence on humans and human influence on the Ocean".

Inspired by the growing public interest for marine micro-plastics and by the lack of specific teaching activities in our country (Italy), we developed a vertically articulated curriculum on micro-plastics for students aged 5-15 years.
Our proposal is based on a number of practical activities realized with different language and communication styles to be suitable for different age groups.

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Age 5-7: common curriculum
Age 8-13: common curriculum
Age 14-16: common curriculum

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

According to the different ages different skills and concepts are requested in advance.
Age 5-7: basic concepts about the sea and food chains (bigger fish eat smaller fish)
Age 8-13: to be able to read different plastics symbols, to perform simple practical experiences (floating, bending,...) to fill in worksheets
Age 14-16: to be able to read the composition on personal care products,
to perform simple lab procedures (dissolving, filtering), to make simple calculations based on proportions

How the activity is situated in the course

The activities address environmental education within (natural) sciences curriculum for different ages. They can be used to complement the study of theoretical issues by means of practical activities.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

ecosystems and food chains
bio-geo-chemical cycles
organic chemistry
natural resources

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

For older students (14-16): to see the global picture of the use of natural resources and the impact on the environment within an Earth Systems approach.

Other skills goals for this activity

According to the age: perform dramatization, group working, active participation in group discussion, recognize problems and propose solutions.

Description and Teaching Materials

For younger students (age 5-7) we use drama to address micro-plastics bioaccumulation in marine food chains: children act as fish of different trophic levels who pretend to "eat" micro-plastics models (built from plastic bottles) until the biggest fish is captured and ends up as a "meal" shared by other pupils. Teachers guide the performance and stimulate observations and remarks about the origin of micro-plastics and the correct management of plastic objects.

For students aged 8-13 we propose observation and manipulation of common household plastic objects, followed by physical/chemical testing of different polymers to understand plastics characteristics that make these materials valuable but troublesome at the same time.
Students then observe sand samples, taken from a local beach, containing natural components and man-made fragments (including micro-plastics), so they can directly experience the fate of dumped plastic, discussing more sustainable management of plastic objects.

For older (14-16) students we introduce primary micro-plastics by means of personal care products containing micro-beads: students learn to recognize the presence of micro-beads by reading the product's composition, then measure micro-beads content of one of these products and calculate a possible annual dispersion of micro-beads from their town to the sea. Also this activity is followed by classroom discussion about possible solutions to micro-beads water pollution.

Lesson plans containing these activities have been published - and are freely accessible - in European and in Italian science teacher's journals (EIROforum Science in School, Pearson Italia Science Magazine).
Microplastics: small but deadly: article with activities for ages 8-16 (Acrobat (PDF) 381kB Jun5 17)
Going Fishing: activity for ages 5-7 (Acrobat (PDF) 1.9MB Jun5 17)

Teaching Notes and Tips

The first experiment should be carried out in a fume cupboard or, if this is not possible, close to an open window.


Age 5-7: classroom discussion + test on correct separate collection of waste for recycling
age 8-13: work-sheet (on different polymers characteristics probed through simple physical/chemical tests) + classroom discussion on correct plastics management and disposal
Age 14- 16 work-sheet (calculations on micro-beads dispersion) + classroom discussion on how to address micro-beads water pollution.

References and Resources

Article published in the European teachers' journal "Science in School", issued by EIROforum, the partnership of the 8 main European inter-governmental research institutions (CERN, EMBL, ESA, ESO, ESRF, EUROfusion, XFEL, ILL)