New state curriculum teaches ways to reduce impacts of plastic pollution

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WATERTOWN — A new curriculum published by New York Sea Grant focuses on environmental stewardship and curbing plastic pollution.

“Plastic Pollution and You” is a 126-page, 15-lesson curriculum focused on a human-induced threat to the health of New York’s marine and freshwater aquatic ecosystems.

The curriculum is designed to be appropriate for multiple grade levels, meets state and Next Generation Learning Standards, and aligns with the state Department of Environmental Conservation, New York Ocean Action Plan and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Marine Debris Program initiatives in New York’s coastal regions.

The curriculum is co-authored by Kathleen Fallon, a coastal processes and hazards specialist with New York Sea Grant, and Nate W. Drag, New York Sea Grant Great Lakes literacy specialist and Great Lakes Program associate director at the University at Buffalo.

“There’s a lot of curriculum and activities around trash and plastic once it gets in the water and where it can impact animals,” Mr. Drag said. “We wanted to build on that to bring it back to the individuals and the humans that really are the source of this problem, but also potentially the solution.”

He said one of his favorite parts of the curriculum is that it’s statewide, and his summer 2022 teach-the-teachers professional development workshops include at least one lesson from the Plastic Pollution and You curriculum. On the Sea Grant website, where educators can access the free curriculum, there’s a request form that teachers fill out so the organization can understand who’s using the curriculum, where they are geographically, and can follow up with them to ask questions.

“I think in general, it’s a really accessible and relatable issue to get kids into environmental topics,” Mr. Drag said. “Plastic is something that we all use every day and unfortunately, litter and trash is something that we see almost every day as well. We want them to be empowered to feel like it’s not completely hopeless, because it’s really not, but it takes all of us to do some work on an individual level, on a community level, and then on a society level.”

In addition to several teachers from across New York, representatives from DEC, the NOAA Marine Debris Program, Michigan State University Extension, Maryland and New York Sea Grant programs, and Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker participated in reviewing the curriculum. Among the educators who participated in the review were Fred O. Kowanes of P.V. Moore High School in Central Square; Heather Haskins of Trinity Catholic School in Oswego; Lindsey Steblen and Andrea Inserra of the Indian River Central School District; and Janet M. Burrows, a retired teacher from Thousand Islands.

Mr. Kowanes, a New York state master teacher and science department coordinator for Central Square schools, has already used the curriculum with his classes. He said they analyzed samples from Southwick Beach State Park, a private beach, and Black Creek Preserve using USB microscopes and said it was “eye-opening” for him and the students when they saw the amount of plastics, particularly in the preserve’s sample.

“It’s certainly an issue that we’ve talked about in my class as a current events kind of issue, but I had wanted to bring it into my course this year,” Mr. Kowanes said. “I think a lot of my kids aren’t even aware of plastic pollution; they’re always carrying their disposable water bottles, and so when we started looking at some of these things, they got really interested and it sparked a lot of conversation in class.”

The Plastic Pollution and You lessons and activities urge students to think about what plastic is, how they use it, and about the consequences of plastic pollution in the environment. They learn about different types of plastics, their impact on marine and freshwater ecosystems, and about the recycling process and trash capture technology.

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