Building Student Empathy Around the Plastic Pollution Crisis

Justine Ammendolia is a marine biologist, a National Geographic Explorer, and, for a brief time, an expert in bird poop. It all began in 2014 when she traveled to Greenland with a grant from National Geographic to study the feeding habits of arctic seabirds. Unable to locate their food source, Ammendolia began looking in the next best place: their poop. That’s when she found something truly shocking. 

After finishing fieldwork, Ammendolia learned something from other research—that the parent birds were bringing plastics back for their chicks to eat. “That was a ‘whoa, what are we doing to our animals?’ kind of moment,” she said.

Looking around she found that even in the most remote, pristine parts of Greenland, there was plastic on the beaches. And that’s when her research focus shifted. “One thing I’ve always been concerned about was, ‘How do we stop this synthetic material from permeating every area of the Earth?’”

Now, Ammendolia lives and breathes plastic. Working with Memorial University of Newfoundland, she’s building “plastic profiles” for seven of Newfoundland’s beaches, surveying and recording the plastics she finds on the shoreline. She surveys the beaches monthly, finding a wide variety of plastic items: water bottles, plastic bags, straws, ribbons, fishing line, balloons, toys, and, ironically, plastic plants. Her plastic profiles will track this pollution over time in the hopes of finding out where the pollutants are originating and how human activity influences the plastic landscape.

When she isn’t in the field, Ammendolia is sharing her work and findings with audiences around the world in an effort to raise awareness about the world’s plastic crisis and to inspire others to confront the issue.

The September issue of Explorer magazine features an article about Ammendolia’s work. Full year subscriptions are available until October 15, 2019.  Look inside the September issue (Grade 4, Pathfinder, Lexile 450L-850L).

On September 26, Ammendolia will lead an Explorer Classroom, giving students the chance to interact with her via live video. You can register here to participate for free. Apart from educating young people on the environmental effects of plastic pollution, Ammendolia’s story offers teachers the opportunity to cultivate empathy for the natural world within their students — a critical step in developing the next generation of planetary stewards.

Here are a few exercises to build student empathy and awareness around plastic pollution: 

  • Read the Explorer magazine article about Ammendolia’s work with your class using our sample projectable (Grade 4, Pathfinder, Lexile 450L-850L). 
  • Take your students outside and count snack wrappers, water bottles, or other plastic products you find on the ground. Investigate storm drains and explain that with heavy rains, plastic items wash away into the storm drain and eventually deposit into the ocean. Ask students how they feel knowing that all this trash will enter the ocean and harm marine life living there.
  • Have students work in groups to create signs or posters encouraging others to decrease their use of single-use plastics. 
  • Create a class data log documenting the amount of plastic found outside each time the schoolyard is surveyed. Analyze these trends as a class over time to look for improvement. 
  • To go further, have students work in groups to brainstorm alternatives to plastic use within their school community.

For more resources, activities, and articles to help your students solve the plastic pollution problem, make sure to check out National Geographic’s Tackling Plastic! resource page.

This article was written by Eleonore Evans, Explorer magazine 2019 summer intern. 

3 thoughts on “Building Student Empathy Around the Plastic Pollution Crisis

  1. totally agree with the other reply from Claudine to this story.
    The solution isn’t just inventing new technology to clean the mess up from our planet. Manufacturers need to do their bit to reduce single-use plastics especially the food industry. Some kind of environmental levy should help that along. It’s also about educating people around the world that recycling is the only way to prevent more suffering to wildlife and the fragile ecosystems of the planet. Our children do have a major part to play in this fight back they can make their voices heard.

  2. A praise! But it is not the students who need this kind of awareness… but rather the adults, the people who sit high in the social pyramid, the politicians and especially an ignorant president who makes the big voice, while the world burns and the climate crisis unfortunately it is a reality!

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