Toward a Plastic Responsible Future Unit Driving Question: What can we do to reduce the effects of plastic pollution?

Solutions to Plastic Waste Lesson Driving Question: How do we measure and remove plastic from the waste stream?

1. Activate students’ prior knowledge of research with a sketch and share activity.
  • Ask students to close their eyes and think quietly about what comes to mind when they hear the phrase: People conducting research.
      • Who do they see?
      • Where are they?
      • What are they doing?
      • For what purpose are they doing it?
      • What kind of data is collected for the research?
      • What kind of information is in the data?
  • On a piece of paper, have students quickly sketch what they were thinking about.
  • Have students share their sketches with a partner. Discuss:
      • What do your sketches have in common?
      • What is different about your ideas about research?
2. Introduce students to the model researchers.
  • Remind students that they are using the work done by researchers on the “Sea to Source: Ganges” river expedition as a model for their own efforts toward plastic waste reduction.
  • Tell students that they will be using some of the research done on the Ganges River to learn how to create a research and data collection plan for their project.
  • Two of the specific types of data used by researchers on the “Sea to Source: Ganges” river expedition are interview data and geospatial data.
  • Define and explain these two types of data as a class.

3. Have students watch the video about Lilly Sedaghat to learn about social science research.

  • Before watching the video, ask students to share with their project group:
      • Have you ever interviewed anybody?
      • Who?
      • What did you ask?
      • What can interviews help us understand?
  • Inform students that they will be watching videos from the “Sea to Source: Ganges” river expedition today, and one of the key methods of data collection that the first researcher is using is interviewing. 
  • Distribute the Plastic Waste Research Packet and read the introductory paragraph on the front page.
  • As a class, watch the video Sea to Source – Collecting Socioeconomic Data (5:32) featuring Lilly Sedaghat.
  • Have students take two-column notes as they watch.
  • Students discuss the following questions in their groups:
      • What kind of information can you collect about plastic pollution in our community using interviews?
      • How can this help you understand how plastic pollution affects the community?

4. Lead students in an exercise to focus their research.
  • In their project groups, have students take five minutes to brainstorm as many questions as they can about plastic waste in the community.
  • Have students categorize their questions as closed or open-ended.
  • Have students select the three most important questions from the list that will help them understand and research plastic waste in the community.
  • Tell students that these are the broad, high-level research questions that they will want to address with their data collection.

5. Teach students how to develop interview questions.

  • Use the Instructions for Conducting an Interview in the Plastic Waste Research Packet to explain that a good interview gets people talking.
      • Students should avoid questions with only yes/no or one-word answers.
      • Students should ask people about their experiences and opinions.
      • Write on the board some sentence stems such as:
          • What do you think about …?
          • How do you think people in your community feel about …?
          • Tell me what you know about it…
  • Have students read through the Instructions for Conducting an Interview in their Plastic Waste Research Packet and answer clarifying questions.
  • Students continue reading the Tips for Writing Good Interview Questions section. Answer clarifying questions. 
  • Have student groups develop and record interview questions in their Plastic Waste Research Packet.

6. Show students a video to learn about Jenna Jambeck and geospatial data collection.
  • Frame the video by reminding students that they will be collecting both interview and geospatial data in this project.
  • In this video, students learn from another National Geographic Explorer on the “Sea to Source: Ganges” expedition who is collecting data to track the places that plastic waste shows up in the Ganges River.
  • Explain that Jenna Jambeck’s geospatial data collection involves collecting data about how much plastic is in the river, and also where the plastic is.
  • As a class, watch the video Sea to Source – Collecting Geospatial Data (5:40) featuring Jenna Jambeck. Have students take two-column notes as they watch the video.

7. Have students explore the Marine Debris Tracker as a model for a data collection plan.

  • Student groups access the Marine Debris Tracker online.
  • Have students click through the Home page and view the Tracker Photos page of the website.
  • Have students discuss the following question in their groups:
      • How could you collect data about plastic that could give you similar information as the Marine Debris Tracker for your school?

8. Have students complete an exit ticket to connect research methods with civic action.

  • Have students respond to the following questions:
      • How do data sources like those used on the Sea to Source expedition support civic action?
      • Which might be most useful for our own research?
      • How can research lead to civic action in our community?
  • Collect the exit tickets.

Informal Assessment

In an exit ticket, explain how research can lead to civic action in different places in the world.

Subjects & Disciplines

  • Geography
  • Social Studies

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Discuss how to use interviews and geospatial data collection methods to support their policy proposal.
  • Explain how research supports civic action.

Teaching Approach

  • Project-based learning

Teaching Methods

  • Multimedia instruction
  • Research
  • Writing

Skills Summary

This activity targets the following skills:

Connections to National Standards, Principles, and Practices

The College, Career & Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards

  • D1.5.6-8:  Determine the kinds of sources that will be helpful in answering compelling and supporting questions, taking into consideration multiple points of views represented in the sources.

What You’ll Need

Materials You Provide

  • Handout: Plastic Waste Research Packet

Required Technology

  • Internet Access: Required
  • Tech Setup: 1 computer per classroom, 1 computer per learner, Monitor/screen, Projector, Speakers

Physical Space

  • Classroom


  • Large-group instruction
  • Small-group instruction
  • Small-group work

Background Information

The research question informs which research method is best for the results desired. Social scientists use a wide array of research methods, including interviews, surveys, geography, information spread, and demographics. Sometimes more than one method is used to gather enough data, and these studies are called mixed-methods designs. Below is a short introduction to each of the methods previously mentioned:

Interviews and Surveys: A method to collect data on a wide array of questions from multiple people. Interviews and surveys can be in the form of yes/no, short response, graded (i.e., rate on a scale of 1-10), or categorization questions. It is often used to explore human behavior and in social sciences. They can be done in person or written.

Geography: The method of describing aspects of where a place is. In social sciences, geography can help researchers understand differences in populations and policies.

Information spread: The study of assessing how information spreads and if there is a pattern associated with it. Through utilizing information spread and network analyses, we can assess how much things like geography or demographics dictate how information spreads among people. 

Demographics: The study of human populations, specifically gathering and interpreting information on size, density, distribution, births, ages, and gender. Often times, these data can be used in combination with other research methods to understand the human aspect of information collected.


Plural Noun

(singular: datum) information collected during a scientific study.


area of land that has been prepared for agricultural use.


scientific studies done outside of a lab, classroom, or office.


having to do with geography and location.

geospatial technologies

computer hardware and software which allows users to evaluate geographic data.


the process of getting data by asking people questions.


scientific observations and investigation into a subject, usually following the scientific method: observation, hypothesis, prediction, experimentation, analysis, and conclusion.

research scientist

person who studies and tries to discover facts about a specific problem, question, or field of learning.

scientific method

method of research in which a question is asked, data are gathered, a hypothesis is made, and the hypothesis is tested.

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