Educator Spotlight: Spreading Awareness for Water Issues through Art

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Cathie Pearson, this week’s Educator of the Week, designed a project called H2O Heroes, in which her students made art out of recycled plastic products to raise awareness about ocean pollution. After learning about how water quality varies around the world, her students decided to continue the lesson with a fundraiser for the Water Project.

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Cathie Pearson teaches students from kindergarten through eighth grade in the Gifted Support program at Woodland Hills Academy in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Photo courtesy Cathie Pearson

How did you come up with your H2O Heroes project, and what did it involve?

After my students used National Geographic resources to learn about the problem of debris in the ocean, particularly plastics, they wanted to do something to help solve that problem. They made connections to their actions at home in regards to plastic and their effect on marine ecosystems. They collected hundreds of pounds of plastic trash from the school community to repurpose into art.

Pearson Project 1
Students created a sea turtle mural from reused bottle caps. Photo by Cathie Pearson

They also wanted to take it a little further and look at water quality issues around the world, so they made plastic piggy banks out of reused soda bottles to collect money for the Water Project, which helps schools in southeastern Kenya and other parts of Africa access clean drinking water. My students are empowered to help save the marine ecosystem and also help with water quality issues for people. Since then, we’ve worked on other environmental projects like creating indoor pallet walls for plants and urging restaurants to stop using plastic straws.

Educators: Download full lesson plan here

This project included activities and roles for students of many grade levels. How did students of different ages contribute to the outcome?

The involvement of different grade levels unfolded as the project went along. Initially, I was working on this with sixth- and seventh-graders, but as soon as they started to create things with plastics and art, my fourth- and fifth-graders wanted to get right in there and make things. When that happened and we started to put their pieces on display, all the younger students loved them! So we decided to make it a teaching opportunity. The older kids themselves wrote up a lesson to teach kindergarten students, first-graders, and second-graders about plastics in the oceans. My philosophy is to have them learn by doing. We have a unique opportunity because we’re a K-8 school, so many times my older students can be educators of my younger students.

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After teaching them about the problems associated with marine debris, sixth-graders taught third-graders to reuse plastic bottles by creating sculptures of marine organisms. Photo by Cathie Pearson

Why did you decide to conclude the lesson with a fundraiser for the Water Project?

Every year, we do a water quality analysis of the three rivers we have here in Pittsburgh. Through that project, we started talking about places around the world that have more issues with water quality than we do here. Knowing that there are people around the world who don’t have access to clean water, students developed a service project called Contributions for Clean Water. After doing research, they chose to donate the money from their project to the Water Project, an organization with the goal of helping children gain access to a healthy life and attain an education.

What was really fantastic about the project was the connection that the Water Project allowed us to make with a school in southeastern Kenya. Kids from the two schools talked about the different customs and traditions that they have and share. It went way beyond finding somewhere to donate; they were also learning about the world and other cultures.

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Students created a public display that reads “‘Chain’ging their lives… one six pack ring at a time!” Photo by Cathie Pearson

Your students learned about this environmental science-related topic through art. What do you think they gained from learning in an interdisciplinary way?

I think it goes along with the idea that STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) activities are all connected. Students can look at their interests and strengths in all of those areas and combine them to create something that’s important to their field of interest, or in this case an environmental issue. They can express their creativity and be responsible for the world in a different way. The skills we focus on in STEAM activities empower them to make a difference on their own.


This interview has been edited and condensed.

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The Educator Spotlight series features inspiring activities and lessons that educators are implementing with their students that connect them to the world in bold and exciting ways.


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