Hands-on Activity Plastic in the Ocean:
Get the Word Out at McDonalds!

Quick Look

Grade Level: 8 (7-9)

Time Required: 2 hours 45 minutes

(three 55-minute periods)

Expendable Cost/Group: US $0.00

Group Size: 1

Activity Dependency:

Subject Areas: Data Analysis and Probability

NGSS Performance Expectations:

NGSS Three Dimensional Triangle

A shiny McDonalds fast food restaurant storefront in a mall setting.
Figure 1. A McDonald's in Romford, Essex, UK, the kind of hypothetical location where one might hand out a Great Pacific Garbage Patch newsletter about consumer plastics.
Copyright © stock.xchng [PD} http://www.sxc.hu/photo/183681


Students take part in a hypothetical scenario that challenges them to inform customers at a local restaurant of how their use and disposal of plastics relates/contributes to the Great Pacific garbage patch (GPGP). What students ultimately do is research information on the plastics pollution in the oceans and present that information as a short, eye-catching newsletter suitable to hand out to restaurant customers. This activity focuses on teaching students to conduct their own research on a science-technology related topic and present it in a compelling manner that includes citing source information without plagiarism. By doing this, students gain experience and skills with general online searching as well as word processing and written and visual communication.
This engineering curriculum aligns to Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

Engineers are often relied upon to be technical experts for their project managers, the public at large, and government officials. The background knowledge they acquire and the type of thinking they use is essential to understanding issues that affect many people and have many technical facets that must be thoughtfully understood to elucidate causes and consequences of the issue at hand. In this activity, students learn how to gather information about a topic of importance and reliably and honestly inform others so that decision-making is improved. This experience exposes students to a real-life engineering challenge that gives them a concrete experience of what engineering is like and makes them more literate in understanding engineering-related issues in the world.

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • Articulate in verbal and in written form some basic information about the Great Pacific garbage patch (GPGP).
  • Express and support an opinion about the conditions, causes or solutions for the GPGP.
  • Demonstrate the skill of gathering online (or other) sources of information on the GPGP without plagiarizing either in the form of 1) directly copying text from articles (that is, improper paraphrasing) or 2) providing imcorrect or absent citations.
  • Mix pictures and explanatory text into a short simple format that is both eye-catching and informative while explaining the GPGP environmental impacts and posing environmental engineering solutions to the problem.

Educational Standards

Each TeachEngineering lesson or activity is correlated to one or more K-12 science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) educational standards.

All 100,000+ K-12 STEM standards covered in TeachEngineering are collected, maintained and packaged by the Achievement Standards Network (ASN), a project of D2L (www.achievementstandards.org).

In the ASN, standards are hierarchically structured: first by source; e.g., by state; within source by type; e.g., science or mathematics; within type by subtype, then by grade, etc.

NGSS Performance Expectation

MS-ESS3-4. Construct an argument supported by evidence for how increases in human population and per-capita consumption of natural resources impact Earth's systems. (Grades 6 - 8)

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This activity focuses on the following Three Dimensional Learning aspects of NGSS:
Science & Engineering Practices Disciplinary Core Ideas Crosscutting Concepts
Construct an oral and written argument supported by empirical evidence and scientific reasoning to support or refute an explanation or a model for a phenomenon or a solution to a problem.

Alignment agreement:

Typically as human populations and per-capita consumption of natural resources increase, so do the negative impacts on Earth unless the activities and technologies involved are engineered otherwise.

Alignment agreement:

Cause and effect relationships may be used to predict phenomena in natural or designed systems.

Alignment agreement:

All human activity draws on natural resources and has both short and long-term consequences, positive as well as negative, for the health of people and the natural environment.

Alignment agreement:

Scientific knowledge can describe the consequences of actions but does not necessarily prescribe the decisions that society takes.

Alignment agreement:

  • The management of waste produced by technological systems is an important societal issue. (Grades 6 - 8) More Details

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  • Analyze how the creation and use of technologies consumes renewable and non-renewable resources and creates waste. (Grades 6 - 8) More Details

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  • Examine the ways that technology can have both positive and negative effects at the same time. (Grades 6 - 8) More Details

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  • Earth and space. The student knows that natural events and human activity can impact Earth systems. The student is expected to: (Grade 7) More Details

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Materials List

Each group needs:

  • computer with Microsoft Word (or other word processing software) and an Internet connection
  • (optional) paper or note cards to organize thoughts and ideas

Worksheets and Attachments

Visit [www.teachengineering.org/activities/view/uoh_dig_mapping_activity3] to print or download.


The Great Pacific garbage patch (GPGP) is a large and far-reaching modern environmental issue related to many different scientific phenomena and having multiple human at actors. You've had some good exposure to the GPGP through the lesson, but you might now be wondering, "What can I do about it?" One of the more important things that you can do for this issue or any engineering-science-technology issue is to create awareness. That's exactly what has already happened to you through learning about the GPGP. Now you will learn still more about the GPGP and communicate it to a wider audience.

Pretend for a moment that you would like to get the word out at places that use and dispense plastics to the average consumer. Let's use the fast food chain McDonald's as our example, though many businesses commonly dispense plastic products to consumer (such as grocery stores, sit-down restaurants, cell phone stores, large-scale electronics vendors, department stores). This restaurant is one important distribution point for plastics that can end up in the GPGP because 1) many people and many different kinds of people frequent McDonald's, 2) plastics are used in many of the food products dispensed (such as straws, burger boxes, cutlery), 3) many of these plastics are not bioplastics or biodegradable, and 4) these plastics are often found as trash in visible locations such as streams, lakes and docks--places, from which they are likely to gradually make their way to the GPGP.

If you wanted to cause a stir, you could stand up on a chair in McDonald's and start speaking aloud to customers about their plastics and the GPGP. It is, however, unlikely that this will be effective. So you will do something more subtle. You will create a one-page newsletter that is short, quick to get someone's attention, and still informative about the important issues surrounding the GPGP. It will also pose possible environmental engineering solutions to the problem. Think of the newsletter as something that you would offer to customers at McDonald's as they walk out of the restaurant.

As you write your newsletter, keep a few concerns in mind. The first is accuracy and usefulness of information, and the second is plagiarism. Whenever you read something on the Internet, a newspaper, a flier etc., you hope that what you are reading is useful and accurate. You want it to be useful because you are spending your time reading and understanding it, and you want it be accurate because you do not want to learn information that is wrong. So as you begin to read further online information about the GPGP, be sure that you focus on understanding what you are reading. Don't just find clever pictures, and don't just try and find large quantities of information. If you read an article, or a section of the article, write out a summary or a few bulleted points of what you have read. Perhaps you could simply write the parts that are most interesting and useful to you? As you do this, strive to not write word-for-word what you are reading. Instead write it in your own words. This helps to ensure that you actually understand what you are reading.

A second concern is plagiarism. Plagiarism is defined as "to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one's own: use (another's production) without crediting the source ." [1] The most obvious form of plagiarism is to use someone's words and/or ideas without giving credit. A common way of running into this error when using online information is to directly copy and paste a section of text from an online source. Because it is so quick and easy to do this, you may find that you wish to do it to save time. But - you cannot do this! You have two options in this situation. The best option in most circumstances is to take the ideas from what is being said (that is, summarize it or write it out in bullet form as stated earlier) and write it out in your own words. Then make note of the source because you will need to list it at the end of your newsletter. The second option you have, which should be used sparingly, is to copy the words exactly but set them off in quotation ("_____") marks. If y ou do this, you still need to cite the author and source of the information at the end of your newsletter. A second form of plagiarism is to improperly give credit to some information. If the wrong source is given or the source is incomplete, then this is problematic. The goal of citing any information is so that a reader is able is able to go back and find exactly what you found if they want to check to make sure what you have written is accurate. Remember that in this activity you want to inform people of the GPGP and how plastics relate to it. Some of them may not believe you and may be skeptical. So you need to be sure you have referenced your information correctly so that you have a better chance of convincing them. As a general rule, if you are not sure if you need to cite something, then cite it anyway. Too much citation won't hurt.

Here are the specific requirements of your newsletter for you to think about as you plan and write. It needs to have the following important elements.

Newsletter Title

Something that will catch the attention of a person you hand it to outside of McDonald's. A good example might be something like, "How did plastic burger boxes end up in the middle of the Pacific Ocean?" Something more generic like "Plastic Garbage" may not be as effective but is still okay.

Name and Date

You want people to know that you did the scientific and information research, especially so that you get credit for your original work.

Three Articles

These articles do not and should not be too long. Three to 12 sentences is probably enough. Make sure that each article has its own separate title apart from the main newsletter title, and make sure each covers a separate Garbage Patch related topic. Here are some examples. As you read these examples, remember that you do not already have to be an expert on these topics. It is better if you are not because you will find information to teach you about them.

  • What is the Great Pacific garbage patch?
  • How was the GPGP discovered?
  • How does plastic from (insert US state) get to the middle of the Pacific Ocean?
  • Why would fish confuse plastics for food?
  • Why is the GPGP mostly plastic?
  • How does rain move plastics to the ocean?
  • How long does it take plastics in the ocean to degrade?
  • What kind of photodegradation can occur in plastics?
  • Why are there ocean gyres?
  • Why don't plastics just sink out there?
  • What kinds of chemicals attach to plastics in the GPGP?
  • How do plastics move up the food chain?
  • Can plastics in fish hurt people?
  • Can plastics in the GPGP be recycled?
  • How would you clean up the GPGP? (This is the environmental engineering connection!)
  • How fast is the GPGP growing?
  • What are bioplastics and how would they help the GPGP?


Include no more than two pictures in the newsletter. Where possible, include a small caption below the image explaining what it is and why it is relevant to the GPGP. Be sure to note the source of your image so that it can be included in the citations section.

Sources and Citations

At least four distinct citations are needed for the newsletter. It is best to put markings/source notes in the text to match information with source, but it is not required. Each citation needs to have these main elements organized in a consistent fashion: author, dates (of the source [if available] and the date of your access of the source), title (of webpage or article) and URL.


One way to present the newsletter content is in two or three columns on a single page, but it does not have to be this way.


Before the Activity

  • Make certain that the word processing software and Internet access are available and working on all student computers.
  • Create a short handout that gives a rubric of what is required for the students or write it on the board so that students can refer to it often.
  • (optional) To help in the plagiarism explanation, prepare some common examples of plagiarism from websites.
  • (optional) Bring in books or printouts of other information that students could use so that they do not have to rely solely on Internet lookup information.
  • (optional) As an example. write your own small newsletter in the format that you would prefer students to use. Or show students the Example GPGP Newsletter.

With the Students

  1. If the GPGP lesson is not given in the same class period as the beginning of the newsletter activity, then provide a brief oral review of the GPGP. As an alternative, show a short video clip of something about the GPGP to get students' minds once again on the topic.
  2. Explain the reasoning, hypothetical situation and elements of the newsletter to the class. Solicit examples from the students about topics they might want in a newsletter. To draw them in from the hypothetical, it may be helpful to bring in some plastic products from stores that you know that students often go to, or even from their own cafeteria.
  3. Have students begin independent work on the newsletters. Be available for questions and walk among the computers to offer comments and suggestions.


Great Pacific garbage patch: A mass of floating debris, mostly plastic, in the Northwest Pacific Ocean that spins around central point. It is hundreds to thousands of miles long, floats just below the surface, and extends to a depth of about 10 meters.

plagiarism: In writing or speaking, "to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one's own; to use (another's production) without crediting the source." [1]


Pre-Activity Assessment

Discussion: Ask the class to provide some information on aspects of the GPGP and plagiarism to assess how well they learned the GPGP lesson and gauge their level of experience with plagiarism.

Activity Embedded Assessment

Newsletter Preparation: Use the newsletter assignment, either as a large project or as a series of mini-assignments, to assess how well students are learning GPGP-related concepts. Frequently question students on what they are writing, which helps them grasp more of what they are reading (expressing what they are learning in their own words) and how they can use it more effectively in the newsletter.

Post-Activity Assessment

Newsletter Critiques: Read and mark up newsletters. Focus most on judging the accuracy and informative nature of the text as well as correct source citations. If time permits, brief consulting time with individual students helps the assessment of student understanding and gives students helpful feedback.

Troubleshooting Tips

Some students may find this task to be overwhelming if given all at once. An alternative to giving the assignment all at once is to break it up into small mini-assignments that they complete in sequence. An example breakdown: 1) Write a title and article topic list (with brief explanations of each topic), 2) choose 1-2 images and write captions, 3) choose four or more sources and write down source citation information, 4) write significant facts from sources, and 5) put all pieces together into a newsletter.

If students have little experience with information citation, expect them to find it very tempting to plagiarize, or they may simply not understand well-enough what is meant by plagiarism. To make certain they completely understand, it helps to give students many examples and receive feedback from them before work begins. Also, it helps during writing to monitor progress and check with them specifically on plagiarism. A powerful and simple demonstration to illustrate to students that you can tell that they are plagiarizing is to type in a section of their text into an Internet browser to search for it, to show them how easy it is to find their source.

Activity Scaling

  • For lower grades, the prospect of writing three separate articles may be too much. In this case, shorten the assignment or do it differently. Possible alternative approaches: 1) having students pick just one information source and use it for just 1-2 topics, 2) have students do more of a photo-based newsletter that provides information with four or more photos that have informative captions rather than a text-heavy newsletter (a more "photo journalism" style), or 3) have students design a brief PowerPoint presentation that includes some information and images with citations provided (in slide notes or on the last slide).
  • For upper grades, require that only certain kinds of sources be used (such as science-based news outlets, well-known news outlets, etc.). If time permits, require the assignment be done in the form of short PowerPoint presentations that students give to the rest of class. This allows them to focus more on the ability to speak about the information that they have learned.


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Merriam-Webster Online. Accessed March 18, 2010. http://www.merriam-webster.com/


© 2013 by Regents of the University of Colorado; original © 2010 University of Houston


Nathan Howell; Andrey Koptelov

Supporting Program

National Science Foundation GK-12 and Research Experience for Teachers (RET) Programs, University of Houston


This digital library content was developed by the University of Houston's College of Engineering under National Science Foundation GK-12 grant number DGE 0840889. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the NSF and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Last modified: March 15, 2020

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