Southern Maine June 19, 2023

Microplastics: Impacts on local Ecosystems

Teachers from Southern Maine partnered with local and global scientists to lead youth through a community science investigation around the impacts of microplastics on their local ecosystems.

Diana Allen and Kate Strait led 203 students through a community science investigation on microplastics in their local ecosystems. Through this process, students learned about the plastic waste crisis, how it relates to climate change, and how it affects their community. Students seeked to answer the following two questions: What kind and quantity of plastic waste is present in our community, and how is plastic waste affecting our communities’ ecosystems (both macro and micro)?

The project utilized the Geo-Inquiry process which is an effective five-step method based on acquiring geographic information, investigating and organizing data, analyzing, and finally taking action. It provided a systematic way to understand the world through patterns, processes, and relationships between humans and natural systems so that action can be taken toward positive solutions and change. Student inquiry is based on their interests, as well as issues in their local community.

Early on in the project students had the opportunity for a virtual meet and greet with Scientist Chris Ruff, Principal Investigator of the NASA Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System mission. Originally a mission designed to track hurricane strength, Ruff shared how his team discovered that NASA satellites can also be used to track microplastics from space.

Taking that global perspective to their local communities, the students collected data from two sampling sites, Mousam River Watershed in Sanford, and Back Cove in Portland. To help students document their collection process, teachers showed students how to use the Marine Debris Tracker App. which is designed to record marine debris by geo-tagging each piece of litter found. By acting as local community scientists, students were then able to bring their research back to a global scale as contributors to a worldwide data set on marine debris.

Each group of students then analyzed their geospatial data to determine the kind and quantity of plastic waste. In doing so, they were able to identify patterns of spatial relationships between the two sampling areas. Now that the data is collected and students have learned more of ecosystems effects and pressures, they can begin to look at what data is telling us. What are the similarities and differences in the two data sets? What can we learn about the human activity that is contributing to the pollution? What are the next steps? How can we use this information to create positive change in our local communities and beyond? In addition, students will also use the plastic that they’ve collected to develop art pieces to display in local museums, libraries or throughout their schools. Students will share their data findings and art in a public forum: library presentations, museums or other appropriate venues such as Wells Reserve.

This project engaged various community organizations to help students gain an understanding of how our two ecosystems are being impacted by plastic pollution. Marine Mammals of Maine were eager to partner with us to help educate our students on how plastic affects marine mammals. We also sought guidance from Shaw Institute in Blue Hill and the Gulf of Maine Research Institute to help us further understand marine impacts of plastic. Lakes Environmental Association (LEA) provided us with resources for understanding our freshwater ecosystem in relation to climate change and pollution effects. One of their education specialists also engaged with youth to answer their questions while they were collecting data. We also developed a relationship with The Mousam and Kennebunk Rivers Alliance. Water quality testing, habitat quality and fisheries restoration are all areas of their work as well as looking at the 11 dams between Mousam lake and the ocean. Though they’re not specific to climate change, working with this community organization helps us understand the health of our river and how we can help restore it. The community partner and outreach above provided not only opportunities for students to get outside and participate in community science work and data collection, it also gave them multiple opportunities to learn from experts in the field via live or web based guest speakers with ample opportunities for questions.

The students went on to present their work at the 2023 Maine State Science Fair and won 3rd place in the Environmental Sciences category!