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February 2, 2022

Designing Earth-Friendly Solutions To The Plastics Problem


Editor’s Note: In honor of Earth Day 2016, Teaching Channel asked science teacher Kathryn Davis to describe her work teaching a biopolymers unit that resulted from a partnership between Tch and The Boeing Company.

According to the United Nations, each year enough plastic is thrown away to circle the earth four times, and these plastics can take over 1000 years to degrade! Sobering facts such as these and images illustrating the devastating effect of plastic waste on wildlife can leave many feeling paralyzed and hopeless.

While there are startling examples of the negative impact humans have had on the earth, there are also stories of innovation and incredible problem solving. I shared with my students the story of the engineer in India who created edible utensils, replacing plastic forks and knives with cutlery that is both delicious and eco-friendly, and the graduate student designing biodegradable clamshell containers from actual clamshells. I want my students to be inspired by these stories, and to feel hopeful that through human innovation and design, we can begin to tackle problems and make changes that can alter our current environmental trajectory.

This is why I’m so excited about the Engineering Design Performance Standards from the NGSS. These standards are the perfect way for students to learn how to design solutions to real problems we face as a society. Often in science classes we bring awareness to issues such as climate change and pollution, but we may fail to arm students with the tools they’ll need to design solutions to these problems. Engineering provides these tools and is also a way to engage even the most reluctant students. This year, I’m working with a group of high school students who have been unsuccessful in science in the past, and I was looking for a new way to help them connect with their learning.

Why Are We Learning This?

When I was introduced to Science and Innovation — The Boeing Company and Teaching Channel collaboration — through my work with the Tch NextGen Science Squad, I couldn’t wait to test drive the engineering-focused units with my own students. The ten units are geared toward middle school, the “sweet spot” for curriculum development. This curriculum can be easily adapted to fit both elementary and high school needs as well, by making modifications that will serve your students where they are academically.

I chose the Polymers for the Planet unit because it had a direct connection to what my students were already learning about photosynthesis, yet provided a real world application. In this unit, students use biopolymers (starches) to develop and test a bioplastic. Yes, we’ve all learned that plants make food, but what else can we do with those glucose molecules? What useful products can be developed from the starches created by plants? And how can this help solve a major environmental problem?

This unit allows me to answer that ever-present question in the classroom: Why are we learning this? How does this apply to my life?

I reached out to Jessica Levine, one of the authors of the curriculum and the teacher highlighted in the unit’s accompanying Polymers video, for tips and suggestions. She brought to my attention a great number of resources highlighting the environmental impact of plastics that allowed me to provide my students with some much-needed perspective on the state of our environment. It was so helpful to be able to reach out to her via Teaching Channel, and later to chat on the phone, exchanging ideas for how to best teach this unit.

Prepping for the polymers experiment

Considerations For My Students

With any curriculum, teachers will always consider the unique needs of their students. Here are a few things I had to consider about my high school sophomores:

  • The majority of my class is considered “at-risk,” in addition to being comprised of a high percentage of special education students and English language learners
  • Collecting and analyzing data is challenging and they lack experience
  • Using mathematical operations to analyze data will be difficult
  • My students have reading skills that are at or below the eighth grade level

Conclusion: My students need a lot of scaffolding!

Prepping for the polymers test

In order to scaffold, I provided tools to help my students “read to learn,” including an anticipation guide and Frayer model to guide them as they read about bioplastics. These strategies helped my students focus on what they already knew about the topic before reading, and then directed their attention to specific details while reading for background information. Instead of the provided notebook materials from the downloadable Polymers for the Planet unit plan, students continued to work in their classroom interactive notebook, where we recorded vocabulary, formulas, and data throughout the project.

We used the engineering design process diagram to keep us focused throughout the project. Each day we revisited this image and talked about where we were in the process, and where we were going next.

Engineering Design Process

The CER Framework

Arguing from evidence using the CER (Claim, Evidence, Reasoning) format is another new aspect of the NGSS Science and Engineering practices. To help my students, I provided graphic organizers to record their evidence, and used sentence frames to guide their reasoning to support a claim for their redesign. The opportunity for students to use evidence to drive their redesign was powerful — this process helped to solidify for them the importance of using data to drive decisions. After their prototypes were tested, they were eager to find out which formulas yielded the best results, and used this information to make new iterations to their design.

Surprising Outcomes

Here’s what we’ve discovered so far:

  • When testing tensile strength of the bioplastics, the testing setup failed due to the large amount of weight that the plastics were able to withstand. This led to students engineering and redesigning the test itself! When the provided protocol failed them, they came up with creative solutions and collaborated in ways that I haven’t previously observed. When one group observed another struggling with the same issues, they collaborated to build new solutions and test ideas.
  • Of course, not all of the bioplastics were easy to test for various reasons. But because students had a sense of ownership and wanted to test the product they designed, the level of problem solving I observed was far beyond that in previous lab activities. The students were motivated to test and gather data for their samples, and figured out how to make this possible, with very little help from me.
  • I saw opportunities for individual students to shine who didn’t usually do so in class. One particular student became a creative problem solver and designed multiple ways to test tensile strength. He also helped other groups, showing an interest in class that I hadn’t previously seen.

We’re now at the stage of putting it all together. Students are creating presentations, and in an effort to motivate them to do their best, I’ve invited other adults (teachers, administrators, instructional assistants) to serve as an authentic audience to view the students’ presentations about their engineering design process. Wish them luck!


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