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Plastics and Our Oceans

A Learning Module Unit on Plastics and Our Oceans

Learning Module


The following learning module is designed for a high school level biology, environmental science or marine science class. The module can be used as part of a face-to-face class, or incorporated into a hybrid or online class. The content includes an introduction to plastics, their use, their movement into the ocean, and affects to the sea life and their habitat.


plastic, ocean, sea life


As a high school science teacher one of my courses I teach is marine science. I have been able to pilot a hybrid version of this marine science class using our learning management system. When creating the course I have developed both in class (face-to-face) activities as well as online content. When students complete the online work ahead of time they have the option of attending class. This allows for students to have a more flexible schedule while staying on top of their work, as well as it motivates the students to complete work in a timely manner to help build time management skills. Throughout the two years that this class has been in operation I have been fairly successful overall, but certain content areas I feel I can do better. The unit on plastics and our oceans is one unit where I would like to improve and allow the students to complete the unit more on their own as well as enhance their learning with a large-scale project that incorporates real world problems. 

The following affordances were the concentration when developing the learning module.  These affordances are part of reflective pedagogy described by Cope & Kalantzis (2017).

Ubiquitious Learning: Due to the nature of the hybrid class, the content is delievered as a self-paced learning module where students can complete the activitites at their own pace. Many students will use their own personal device, whether it be a laptop computer, iPad or tablet, and/or cell phone. 

Multimodal Mearning: Within each update different types of media are used including, text, images, audio and/or video. Additionally, the project at the end of the learning module includes student multimodal usage.

Recursive Feedback: Throughout the learning module and updates students are asked to not only reflect on their learning but also reflect on their way of living in terms of plastic usage and disposal.

As mentioned above, students gain time management skills and learn to balance their schedule with the fleixbility of a hybrid class.  However, there are benefits to teachers as well.  According to Vaughan et. al (2017) that compared four different universities' blended learning programs, the main benefit for teachers was that those faculty involved became more reflective of their teaching practice.  They began to make adjustments to their role from being a content provider to a designer and facilitator of student learning.  By allowing students to become not only the learners but to curate their own content, this allows the teacher the flexibility to reflect upon their lessons and improve in the future.  

Vaughan et. al (2017)



Intended Learning Outcomes

The following learning module is targeted to learners that are in either 11th or 12th grade and have already been successful in biology and chemistry.  The following learning standards are based on the currciulum standards taken from the Florida State Standards for Marine Science Honors:

  • SC.912.N.1.4 Identify sources of information and assess their reliability according to the strict standards of scientific investigation.
  • SC.912.N.4.1 Explain how scientific knowledge and reasoning provide an empirically-based perspective to inform society's decision making.
  • SC.912.N.4.2 Weigh the merits of alternative strategies for solving a specific societal problem by comparing a number of different costs and benefits, such as human, economic, and environmental.
  • SC.912.L.17.8 Recognize the consequences of the losses of biodiversity due to catastrophic events, climate changes, human activity, and the introduction of invasive, nonnative species.
  • SC.912.L.17.16 Discuss the large-scale environmental impacts resulting from human activity, High including waste spills, oil spills, runoff, greenhouse gases, ozone depletion, and surface and groundwater pollution.

Intended Learning Outcomes (Learner)

As a learner, you will move at your own pace through this learning module.  Once completed, you will be able to:

  • understand plastics and the history of plastic use
  • describe how plastics end up in the oceans
  • discuss the ways plastics affect the ocean and its ecosystems
  • theoretically develop a way to help the ocean plastic problem

After completing this learning module you will have a deeper understand of what plastic is and the history of plastic use by humans that has led us to the plastic pollution problem of today.  You will understand the concept of currents and be able to describe how plastic ends up in particular parts of the ocean in higher concentrations and how plastics can travel the world.  Using this information you will be able to discuss different ways in which plastics have affected the ocean as a whole, different ecosystems within the ocean, and the organisms living in oceanic habits. At the end of this module you will be expected to develop a realistic idea on how to either decrease the existing plastic in the oceans or decrease the use of plastics around the world.

Including the completion of the project it is anticipated that the learning module will take you approximately 3 weeks to complete.

Intended Learning Outcomes (Teacher)

As a teacher, you will assist students moving through the learning modules.  Students will be able move through the learning module at their own pace but it is critical that you, as the teacher, make sure students are not falling behind because they are struggling with the content.  As the learning module progresses, the information gets increasingly difficult.  At the end of the learning module students will be able to:

  • understand plastics and the history of plastic use
  • describe how plastics end up in the oceans
  • discuss the ways plastics affect the ocean and its ecosystems
  • theoretically develop a way to help the ocean plastic problem

While many students will be able to complete the beginning modules with little struggle, the last two modules that pertain to the project and real world scenario can become difficult for students as it is theoretical in nature with no right or wrong answers.  As a teacher, it is important to recognize that this can be overwhelming but guide the students through each of the updates to ensure and support them throughout the project for the students to be successful.  The students have to use critical thinking and creativity to engineer a theoretical idea to benefit the ocean and thus society.  This large-scale idea about the real world tends to be overwhelming for students.  

Including the completion of the project it is anticipated that the learning module will be completed within 3 weeks.  However this can be tailored if you have a high-achieveing honors class (shorten to 2 weeks) or a lower-level standard class (extended to 4-5 weeks).

Update #1 - Intro and Pre-Knowledge Survey

Update #1 (Learner)

We have now come to our unit in our marine science class concerning plastics and how plastic has affected our oceans.  We will learn about the history of plastics and how we have become dependent on plastics throughout our daily lives, increasing the production and thus waste.  We will learn about recycling, or the lack thereof, and then begin discussing the affects plastics have on the ocean ecosystems.  

At the end of this module you will be completing a project that includes demonstrating your knowledge gained throughout this module and developing a unique idea to either decrease the plastics in our oceans currently or decrease the use of plastics on land, thus preventing plastics from entering the oceans.  As you move through each module, take notes on content and let your mind question how we can possible solve the plastic pollution problem.

Prior to beginning our module it is important for you to take this pre-unit survey so we can assess your previous knowledge on plastics and their effect on the ocean.  Please take this pre-unit survey prior to beginning the next update.


Update #1 (Teacher)

This update is to introduce the module and the expectations of the students, as well as collect pre-knowledge from the students on plastics and the ocean.  This survey is important as it gives the teacher an idea of where the students are individually with their knowledge, as well as asks what the students may want to know more of in terms of plastics.  

The teacher should look at these results immediately to determine if any of the updates need to be altered or changed in any way to increase or decrease the rigor.  In most cases the survey will help you understand the students previous knowledge, but there will not be a need for any type of major edits.  However, teachers need to be willing to tweak or alter any update if they feel it could be improved for their students.  

Update #2 - History of Plastics

Update #2 (Learner)

In order to understand our current and present problem with plastics and our oceans, we need to understand how we got to this time where we are reliant on plastics.  Therefore we need to go back and look at the history of plastics.  

Media embedded October 4, 2019
Media embedded October 21, 2019

COMMENT: Make a comment on something that you learned from the video and infographic on the history of plastics.  Did anything surprise you? 

Update #2 (Teacher)

This second update is pretty standard in terms of knowledge.  It is important that students have a some knowledge about the history of plastics to get the full picture of how we, as humans, have created the problem with plastics.  The main points are:

  • plastics were developed for WWII
  • after war ended, companies needed another way to earn profits
  • convenience and ease are what drives plastic use
  • the problem of plastics in terms of garbage has been known since the early 2000s.

Students typically understand this update but also discover something that they didn't know about plastics.

The use of the national geographic video and the infographic allow students two types of media to help understand the history of plastics.  By using these tools they will be able to understand the basics of plastics and how we have arrived at our current problem.

Ideally this update allows students to begin thinking about the plastic pollution problem and to begin using our history and learning from our past mistakes.  This is a good skill for students to learn and take to other classes.

Update #3 - Ocean Plastic

Update #3 (Learner)

Now that you have a better understanding of the history of plastics, let's begin talking about the plastic that we find in our oceans.  

Media embedded October 4, 2019
Media embedded October 21, 2019

UPDATE: Select one of the three ways that plastics get into our oceans to explore.  Make an update on this way on our course page (not your individual page).  In your update you need to include information from at least three different sources and one scholarly journal article.  Make sure that you include images and videos when applicable.  Any sources you use must be referenced at the end of your update.  After making your update, make a comment on at least three other peers' updates.  

You will be scored not only on your update but on your comments as well.  The following rubric will be used as a formative tool to ensure you are mastering the content.

Rubric for Update and Comments

If you need help with your citations, please reference PurdueOwl website for online help.  

Update #3 (Teacher)

This update allows the students the choice of exploring of the ways plastics get into our oceans. It also allows them to explore the topic more in-depth and to find their own information and sources.  They are the information producers with their updates and can interact with their peers with commenting on each others updates.  

This update usually goes well as long as the students stay on task.  The repeated problem with this assignment is usually the citation and referencing.  Students tend to copy-and-paste as well as not understand APA formating and therefore struggle with citations.  Making sure they have reference to PurdueOwl as well as referring them to the citation method they have used in their english class (as well as other classes) may help.  

Update #4 - Plastics in Ocean Ecosystems

Update #4 (Learner)

Now that we have learned about the history of plastic and how it gets into our oceans, now lets explore the effects it has on marine ecosystems.  Jennifer Lavers, an ecotoxicologist at the University of Tasmania, gives a talk about plastics and their affects in the marine ecosystems.  Take a look...

Media embedded October 5, 2019

COMMENT: Make on comment below on something new you learned from this video.  Include an additional or future question that you would like to explore that has not been addressed or answered so far in the updates.

COMMUNITY SERVICE: To fulfill the school's requirement for community service, students in this class have the opportunity to join a beach clean-up in the area.  Please email the community service coordiantor for details.

Update #4 (Teacher)

Students typically enjoy learning about this because it becomes relevant to them and their future.  It's important for the teacher to interact with the students in the comments to continue the conversation to help them understand some of the problems that different ecosystems are having because of plastics. 

You can also use the questions that are posted in the comments to build discussion in class.  Have the students break into groups and present them with one question for them to work on together as a collaboration project.  This can be a face-to-face activity if your class is hybrid but can also work as a group project if the class is online only.   

Update #5 - Infographic Project

Update #5 (Learner)

Now that you have completed your knowledge updates, it is time for you to produce your knowledge for others to see.  You will be completing a project over the information that you have learned about plastics in our oceans and the effects of plastics on marine ecosystems.  You will be creating an infographic that demonstrates your knowledge.  After you submit your infographic you will peer-review two other infographics of your peers.  The peer reviews need to help your peers and provide meaningful feedback.  Please do not include generic feedback such as "that's good" or "great job".  While you may say these things if true, you need to back them up with details and helpful feedback for them to improve your work.  You then will receive your feedback on your infographic and using that feedback revise your infographic before you submit the final version for a grade.

Feel free to use any type of infographic maker you are most familar.  If you are struggling to find an infographic maker tool online, you can use any of the following: Canva, Piktochart, AdobeSpark

Peer Review Rubric Used in Infographic Project


Update #5 (Teacher)

This project will allow you, as the teacher, to see the knowledge that your students have now gained about plastics and our oceans.  By allowing students to give feedback, receive feedback and revise before submitting for a grade you have allowed them to improve prior to it being "counted".  

If this is the first time students have completed peer reviews you may see them struggling with their comments.  Typically students struggle with peer-review, specifically cirtical feedback.  They do not want to appear as if they are "mean" and therefore are too nice, not holding the student work to the expectations.  They also seem to struggle with critical feedback if it is in a nagative connotation.  It may be necessary to complete a practice peer-review prior to this project, or complete the first one of their peer-reviews in class to go over it with the students.


Update #6 - Now what?

Update #6 (Learners)

You now have completed your knowledge on plastics and what is happening in our oceans.  So now what?  Watch this video describing one idea on how to help the plastic problem.

Media embedded October 5, 2019

COMMENT: Now that you have heard of one idea, be creative and come up with one way that you can help the oceans and decrease our plastic problem.  This idea can be big or small and nothing can be wrong!  It can be something on a larger-scale that will require mulitple people or countries to work together or it can be small-scale that requires just you to change something to decrease your plastic usage.  

Update #6 (Teacher)

This is definitely the fun update where the students get to be creative and come up with their own ideas.  This allows them to take the knowledge that they have learned and apply it to a read world problem.  This allows them to be critical thinkers and to problem-solve.

This is an open-ended question or comment that allows students to just relax and be creative.  No grade is assigned so this should allow students to relax and be as creative as they would like to without fear of "being wrong".  Without the pressure of a grade, ideadlly students are able to be risk-takers.

By allowing students to complete this assignment at the end you are allowing student to come up with solutions to a real world problem.  Some may be very simple but some may surprise you!

One of the things that a teacher may run into with this update is the students worry about "right or wrong".  Students seem to only want the correct answer and they do not want to put down the wrong one.  When completing this update it is important that the teacher interact with the students within the comments to reassure them that there is no grade assigned to their idea and that as long as they provide evidence of critical thinking and problem solving, that they will earn a pass for this assignment and thus complete this module.


Chalmin, Philippe. (2019). The History of Plastics: from the Capitol to the Tarpeian Rock.  The Journal of Field Actions, Field of Actions Science Reports [Online].  Global Plastic Production [digital image].  Retrieved from

Cope, B. & Kalantzis, M. (2017). Conceptualizing e-Learning. In B. Cope, & M. Kalantzis (Eds.), e-Learning Ecologies: Principles for New Learning and Assessment (pp. 1-47). New York, NY: Routledge.

Greenpeace UK. (2014, Aug 24). How Does Plastic End Up in Our Oceans. YouTube [Video File].  Retrieved

Katz, David. (2018, Feb 16). The Surprising Solution to Ocean Plastic. Ted Talk. Retrieved from

Lavers, Jennifer. (2017, Nov 24). How Marine Ecology Reveals the Collapse of an Ecosystem. Falling Walls Foundation. Retrieved from

National Geographic. (2018, May 22). A Brief History of How Plastic Has Changed Our World. YouTube [Video File].  

Nelson, Mike. (2015, Jan 26). Fish swim near a plastic bag off of Egypt’s Red Sea coast [digital image]. Retrieved

Northwest Polymers. (2015, Sept 17). History of the Plastic Bags [digital image]. Retrieved from

Plastikourgeio Shop and Lab. (2019). Unknown [digital image]. Retrieved from

Thompson, Richard. (2019, April). Untitled [digital image]. Retrieved from,404

Vaughan, N., Reali, A., Stenbom, S., Van Vuuren, M. J., & MacDonald, D. (2017). Blended Learning from Design to Evaluation: International Case Studies of Evidence-Based Practice. Online Learning, 21(3), 103–114. Retrieved from