On Engagement, Motivation, and Marine Plastics

If you were to ask me what science topic I am most passionate about my immediate answer would be marine plastic pollution pollution. It might seem a weird answer from a huge physics fan, but the environmental issues surrounding plastic and other pollution in the oceans is something I’ve cared about for a long time. During the twitter #caedchat this week there was talk about lesson planning and the idea that making your own lessons can be helpful as it encourages you, as a teacher, to be more engaged in the lesson, which makes it easier to engage your students as well. My general plan is, if I care about it and I can at all connect it to my class it is worth making a lesson around it.

This year I’ve had the opportunity to teach a non-remedial science class, this would be the second time in my teaching career. It is a different experience. The students you find in remedial science versus those in a general science class tend to vary in one key detail, motivation. Now, that motivation might be subject matter related, intrinsic, parent pressure, peer pressure, and so forth, but it is that motivation that separates the two groups more than any measure of intelligence or ability.

When teaching Earth Science (which was a remedial class as most students were put in the higher level Biology freshman year) our lesson about marine plastics focused on ocean currents and human environmental impacts. We did this by organizing a trash pick up day with all the classes around our campus. The school is near a creek which runs into the ocean so we focused on how much trash our school produces that can wash into this creek during a storm. I will admit, I wasn’t sure how enthusiastic my students would be in the lesson from the start as it meant a day of picking up trash around the school and a day sorting through the trash to categorizing it by type.

My students amazed me with their engagement in the activity and how much they took it to heart. We picked up a staggering 150 lbs of trash from the ground that day (not even including the trash after snack and lunch that was picked up by those with trash duty before we even got there). And my students that seemed the most engaged with the activity and most moved by the outcome came from the whole range of my class population.

This year I am teaching 8th grade physical science and have two lessons around plastic pollution, one has a written proposal about how to reduce plastic pollution (bioplastics, biodegradable plastics, recycling,…) and focusing on what is the most feasible for our country (with a connection to the topic of polymers and their molecular structure) and a second activity that will focus more directly on marine plastic pollution, its impact on the oceans, and topic wise the idea of differences in plastic density. We will also get into the realistic practicality of some proposals to reduce current marine plastic pollution.

In our first assignment the students were able to show their interest and understanding by writing a proposal that fit their abilities. And there were some that really went above and beyond. My students this year can find that activity motivating, if I did that last year it would have flopped just as a campus trash pick up their year would have flopped (our campus is too clean if nothing else).

While the subject matter twist varied, both activities were successful because they looked at the motivation of the students more than anything else. Both lessons were effective because they made the topic real and let me share my passion about the subject. But, having a lesson that has a good level of teacher buy in will fail without considering what my student’s find motivating and relevant to them. As a teacher who’s taught many different grades and subjects it is fascinating to finally get this glimmer of different types and levels of overall class motivation as well. So I look back at those lessons and our remaining marine plastics one to come thinking about how I can harness student motivation and build it in those who still remain unengaged.

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