Bring real-world, current events into your classroom by discussing the Great Pacific Garbage Patch with your students.

Some envision it as an island, a vast collection of trash that has piled up in the middle of the ocean. But this misconception reduces the severity and massive reach of the plastic within the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to a simple issue of trash that can be collected and disposed.

STEM professionals, such as scientists, conservationists, and environmentalists recognize this as one of the scariest issues threatening the ecosystem, harming marine life, and leaving the future of our planet uncertain. What exactly is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and how do you discuss it with your students to encourage them to fight the problem through pursuing STEM jobs?

Identify The Patch, Dispel the Misconceptions

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the size and location of patches (yes, multiple patches exist) change with the ocean current. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch isn’t a singular entity: while areas of concentrated trash exist within the Pacific, the more frightening threat is plastic waste floating throughout the water, often unseen, hidden below the surface as boats glide along the sea, their crews ignorant to the refuse through which they are passing. STEM professionals who focus on this issue remain hopeful regarding educating the public about its severity. “Framing the magnitude of plastic in the ocean is a great place to start a discussion,” advises Douglas McCauley, Assistant Professor of the University of Southern California, Santa Barbara’s Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology. “It’s estimated that there are 5 trillion pieces of plastic in the ocean. If they piled up the plastics in the ocean, how far would it reach around the world?”

Engage Students and Invite Experts

Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons

During the 2013 documentary “Plastic Paradise: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” Anna Cummins, co-founder of 5 Gyres – a nonprofit dedicated to fighting plastic ocean pollution – explains, “Kids have a natural sense of justice when we show them what our plastic trash is doing to animals out in the middle of the ocean. They get really angry and they want to do something about it.” Many marine-focused STEM experts and organizations offer tools to teachers who would like to discuss saving the ocean from the threat of plastics. “One of the neatest things I’ve seen in the classroom is contacting someone at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to get the bolus from a seabird,” reveals McCauley. A solid mass of undigested matter that has been regurgitated, a dissected bolus shows exactly how much plastic waste is ingested by wildlife. National Geographic offers a more accessible version of this experience through its Laysan Albatross Virtual Bolus Dissection.

Inspire Students to Become the Change

Teaching students about this problem will encourage them to make better choices regarding waste management, but once they understand the issue, finding a solution is still necessary. Many ideas to gather and contain the ocean’s plastic waste have been proposed, yet proven solutions have yet to be implemented. “There are probably many ways to approach the problem and we need many young minds at work to tackle the problem of plastics in the ocean,” says McCauley. Regarding the branches of science most suitable for helping solve the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, he references marine scientists, chemists, oceanographers and industrial engineers as some of the professions that will combat this problem.  “It’s great to run down to the beach and clean up the garbage. Getting into a branch of science that speaks to students will have far greater impact.”

Are your students interested in The Great Pacific Garbage Patch? Show them how ocean-focused STEM jobs can change the world by sharing our list of “5 Things to Do With a Marine Biology Degree” and revealing “5 Sea Creatures You Have Never Heard Of.”