Educator Spotlight: Investigating the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Blade Shepherd-Jones led students through a hands-on study of the hazards of marine debris. Students explored the effects of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch on the marine animals native to the Hawaiian islands and their beachfront community. Their study culminated in student-led nature clean-ups, after which students used debris to create sculptures depicting animals affected by marine pollution.

Blade Shepherd-Jones
Blade Shepherd-Jones is a middle school science teacher at Waimānalo Elementary and Intermediate School in Waimānalo, Hawaiʻi. Photo by Ayako Shepherd-Jones

What inspired you to develop a unit on marine debris?

Since we are in Hawaiʻi, the ocean is critical to us, and we see the effects of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. In addition to the main Hawaiian islands, about 1,000 miles northwest of us there are the other Hawaiian islands, designated the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. This area is very remote and protected, but it is still heavily influenced by the Garbage Patch.

Most of my students didn’t even know that there are more Hawaiian islands. Learning about the endemic species found only in this archipelago gave them pride. Knowing how endangered a lot of the species are, despite little to no direct contact with humans, had a big impact on my students.

Kaiona Beach is a favorite spot for many of the students of Waimānalo. Photo by Lorna Kawakami

It was important for me to open my students’ eyes to the marine debris on the beaches in our community. The ocean is a big part of their lives. They bodyboard, fish, paddle, and snorkel. While they have seen plastic all over the beach, I don’t think they realized—before this project—that it’s part of a huge garbage patch out in the Pacific Ocean.

What role did culture play in the project?

Culture played a huge role in the project. Since most of my students are native Hawaiian, they see the ocean as a place not just for recreation but also for cultural connection. Many kids have an ‘Aumakua, a god revered by their families. An ‘Aumakua is usually a deified ancestor who can take the form of an animal, like a turtle or a shark. Seeing something like a turtle caught in plastic affects students personally. It hits home. They realize this isn’t a far-off issue from the mainland that doesn’t affect us.

Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle
One student made a sculpture of a Hawaiian green sea turtle (honu, in Hawaiian). Photo by Blade Shepherd-Jones

How did you hook students at the beginning of the marine debris project?

On the first day of the two-week unit, I showed my students a picture of a dead albatross with its stomach full of plastic, and we had a big community circle (Philosophy for Children) about it. At first, the kids were shocked, and they didn’t understand what they were seeing. As we talked, they realized they were looking at plastic and the bird died from it. They wondered why a bird would eat so much plastic. Using observations and inferences, they concluded it had thought the plastic looked like food. They were appalled. It sparked their curiosity to learn what caused this and how they can stop it.

How did the project impact your students?

They were shocked and surprised about the issue of marine debris. They didn’t know how big an issue it truly is, and they were eager to initiate nature clean-ups. I asked them to choose a place in nature that was special to them; many chose the beach. They involved family and friends. Their clean-ups gave them a sense of empowerment.

Hawaiian hawk
The student who made this sculpture of a Hawaiian hawk (‘io) completed a beach clean-up with her family. Students displayed the sculptures around the school and the local library as a way to build awareness. Photo by Blade Shepherd-Jones

Could you tell me about your background and inspiration as a teacher?

Being surrounded by water, I’m always either surfing, paddling, or scuba diving. I’ve always had a very personal connection to the ocean. I studied marine biology as an undergrad and learned about marine debris. When I started teaching, I wanted to share this knowledge with the kids. It’s a huge problem and it doesn’t seem like there are a lot of viable options, so we have to put our heads together to think of the best ideas to improve this issue.

A phrase that inspires my teaching is ad astra per aspera, which is Latin for “a rough road leads to the stars.” Teaching isn’t going to be easy, but as long as you try hard and work at it, you can accomplish great wonders. If you’re going to fail, fail forward.

Educators: Download full lesson plan here

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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