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  • Teacher Dianne Christenson incorporated the online citizen science (OCS) project The Plastic Tide as part of a year 2–4 unit on sustainability. Here, she reflects on what she and her students learned.

    Note: Although The Plastic Tide is now a completed project, other similar projects have been developed, for example, Litterati, Litter Intelligence, Backyard Battle and Mizuiku Upstream Battle.

    Online citizen science meets environmental care

    Teacher Dianne Christenson explains how she used an online citizen science (OCS) project as part of a primary school unit on kaitiakitanga.

    Inspiration for the unit

    I had noticed that our children’s lunches were generating a phenomenal amount of rubbish, most of it plastic or foil. I wanted to help the children notice the links between lunchbox foods and the increasing amount of litter in our playground. What was the impact of lunchbox litter? Did it stay in our playground until we picked it up, or was there a bigger issue?

    The wider unit was based around sustainability. We had been conducting a long-term kaitiakitanga project looking at the health of our local waterways. There is often a lot of rubbish in the local stream. I wanted to broaden our learning to include the impacts our individual choices or actions have on the environment. In doing this, I was able to integrate science and social science as well as maths and literacy.

    I used an OCS project called The Plastic Tide. It was a project that linked strongly to our themes of sustainability and the impact of rubbish on our local environment.

    Rights: Dianne Christenson, Koraunui School

    Schoolyard litter

    By starting locally within the school, students can see and understand the scale of the problem that littering creates.

    I was hoping that The Plastic Tide would help students link our local issues with the global problems that plastic waste is creating. I was also confident that it would lead to some change in the quality of food that our children were consuming and lessen the amount of rubbish we were producing through the increase of ‘nude’ lunches.

    Intended learning outcomes

    The unit focused on developing the students’ understanding of sustainability and kaitiakitanga. Extending our existing work around monitoring and caring for our local stream, we used tools such as waste audits and LittaTraps to visually quantify the amount of waste being created within our school and monitor where it ended up.

    It’s a global project and so the children saw the relationship between the photographs that they were looking at and their prior knowledge that there is a lot of plastic on our beaches and so it gave the children a global perspective on a local problem.

    Dianne Christenson

    The Plastic Tide added a global aspect. Beach photos collected by drone needed to be analysed for litter, and that litter needed to be categorised into types. This was a particularly good way to develop students’ ability to look very closely and systematically in order to make meaning from their observations. It also gave the opportunity for the students to realise that litter is a local and global problem. They were able to express their concern about this issue by creating and displaying a poster in our local shopping centre encouraging people to take more care with litter, minimise waste and improve the passage for fish in their local waterways.

    Rights: Dianne Christenson, Koraunui School

    Litter categorising

    Young students sort rubbish and categorise it in a bar chart.

    Teacher background

    I have always loved the natural world and been curious about it, so learning about science was a natural progression for me. For a time, I worked as a field geologist, and eventually, I trained as a teacher. Bringing science into the classroom has helped me to engage students, build hands-on experiences and integrate learning into real-world contexts.

    I enjoy delving deeply into a theme with my students, allowing them to be curious, to explore, to experience, to learn, to care and to make connections between science and the world we live in. My approach usually involves providing a wide variety of opportunities and experts alongside meaningful hands-on experiences, giving students the opportunity to be ‘the scientists’ as they learn, connect and develop.

    My students are increasingly becoming the motivation for developing new ways to access the science curriculum. As digital tools are increasingly used by scientists, I needed to find a way to share these innovations with my students.

    Class background

    At the time of this unit, I was team teaching in a year 2–4 class. Having spent several weeks monitoring and collecting rubbish from around the school and nearby LittaTraps, the students had developed a good understanding of the scale of the litter problem and its effects on our environment.

    In order to prepare the students for using the OCS project The Plastic Tide, they needed to be able to connect to the task of categorising very small pieces of plastic. To help with this, I brought into class buckets of sand from our local beach, complete with varying sizes and amounts of litter. In groups, the students sorted the litter and could see for themselves how plastics break down into smaller and smaller pieces, some of which need very keen eyes to spot.

    This was a real-life experience of what The Plastic Tide would ask them to do and was a vital part of connecting our local work with that of global science research.

    Rights: Dianne Christenson, Koraunui School

    Sorting litter

    Students sort and categorise litter caught using a LittaTrap.

    My students have regular experiences of science but limited digital experiences. I found that I needed to use a tuakana-teina approach to support them in developing these digital skills.

    What happened

    • Students discovered how much plastic waste is thrown away as litter, especially from their lunchboxes.
    • Students then saw how much of this litter goes down drains and into our waterways.
    • This connected well with our ongoing local stream kaitiakitanga work.
    • By observing closely, students became better at identifying plastic litter in samples from a local beach.
    • Students were introduced to the OCS project The Plastic Tide, taking their learning from a local focus to that of a global problem.
    • After careful modelling of how to use the OCS, we used a tuakana-teina approach to taking part in the categorising of litter globally.
    • Rich discussion about the use of drones to gather the OCS data and connections to our own data from LittaTraps and lunchbox surveys gave the students opportunities to connect and apply their learning across several activities.
    • Intermingling our own local data gathering and the use of the OCS over several lessons meant the students’ interest and drive for the unit as a whole was easily maintained.
    • To incorporate an opportunity for the students to take action, they created a poster to be displayed in our local shopping centre using green-screen technology and their own choice of wording.

    What worked well

    The OCS was a small part of a bigger unit. Intentional integration of hands-on learning activities made the online portion of the learning more accessible to the students and positioned them to be successful in this task.

    Once the students began collating data for The Plastic Tide, they began to see themselves as purposeful contributors to a ‘real’ scientific project, and this made them aware of the need for quality data. They tried hard to be accurate in their online identification of plastics. This was also an area that needed careful scaffolding. The students had to learn how to manipulate the tools on the screen and how to be accurate in their identification.

    Using a tuakana-teina method of instruction was both culturally and academically appropriate for the wide age and ability range of our students.

    Using The Plastic Tide supported the students’ development of all five science capabilities but particularly gave the students opportunities to interpret data by developing their ability to observe closely and categorise. The students began to make links between their actions and choices and the solutions to problems we were aware of in our local stream, in the river and at the beach.

    Because The Plastic Tide is a global project, the students saw the real impact of plastic on our beaches. It brought home the size of the problem and exposed them to the problem-solving ideas of others. It supported them to feel connected to and part of a global community. The unit finished with the students developing their digital technology skills and expressing their concern about litter and its effects.

    Rights: Dianne Christenson, Koraunui School

    Keep oceans clean

    A poster call to action created using green-screen technology.

    The challenges

    Part way through our unit, the OCS project closed! There were no longer any new photos to use for plastic identification. There was no timeline to warn us of this. Thankfully, a couple of weeks later, a new batch of photos was added.

    To address students’ lack of precision in identifying types of plastic waste, we did lunchbox and street surveys and stormwater drain monitoring. Practice makes perfect – the students became expert at identifying a wide variety of plastic pollution.

    The level of accuracy required for recording data was a challenge for my students. They found the need for precision in defining the tagging field around plastics challenging. In our final feedback, many acknowledged that practice did actually help them become better at succeeding in this task.

    The level of persistence required to repeat the monitoring and OCS project provided the opportunity to discuss why scientists need to repeat measurements, data gathering and analysis. Students were allowed to opt in and out of the online data identification.

    Another difficulty was the lack of suitable devices within our school. Too many children trying to work on the project at once meant we had to split the class into small groups and limit the number of children working at a single screen. The younger children had difficulty identifying some plastics and accurately mapping them. The lack of devices and consequent need to co-operate and collaborate actually became a positive feature of the work as we used a tuakana-teina model to enable success for all.

    Rights: Dianne Christenson, Koraunui School

    Identifying beach litter online

    Year 2-4 students at Koraunui School used an online citizen science project to link into global data and classify beach litter.

    Students’ learning

    The students easily connected their prior learning about marine environments with their new learning about sustainability, plastics in the environment and litter in our community that gets into our stormwater.

    Using the OCS project gave me a ‘real’ context in which to discuss scientific thinking, accuracy and repetition of ‘experiments’. There was a very real global connection to a local problem, and the children easily related to this. They felt empowered by contributing to a project that was being used by scientists, and their own skills developed as they tried to make a difference to how people treat Papatūānuku.

    I think it allowed the children to see themselves as purposeful contributors to science … The children began to see themselves as change makers.

    Dianne Christenson

    Reflecting on using an online citizen science tool

    It’s important to find a project that is compatible with your learning goals and accessible for your students and also that you try it out first. This allows you to create lessons to introduce and embed the OCS into the unit and to mitigate any barriers before they impact your teaching.

    Ask yourself these questions:

    • What science capabilities is the project likely to support?
    • Can you make the learning apply to your local area?
    • How can you do this?
    • How can you modify it for different age groups or allow success to a range of learners?
    • Are there any New Zealand-based OCS projects or projects you can modify with a local component?

    Researcher’s comment

    This work was carried out as part of the research project Citizen Scientists in the Classroom. A key feature of this unit was the way Dianne planned to embed the upcoming OCS activity by allowing the students to actually do the same activity themselves in class first. She brought in buckets of sand from the local beach, and in groups, the students sifted carefully through the sand, identifying and classifying the litter they found. She fostered careful observation by showing them tiny pieces of sea-worn plastic and encouraging them to be thorough in looking for these.

    Dianne also used a culturally responsive pedagogy to support these very young learners by employing a tuakana-teina approach. In this approach, older students work alongside and guide younger students, providing valuable learning opportunities for both. Having to explain what they are doing and why provides opportunities to clarify and consolidate the older student’s understanding. For younger students, being able to talk, revoice and clarify their ideas with someone closer to their age can be a productive learning experience.

    Dianne was awarded the 2016 Prime Minister’s Science Teacher Prize and a 2018 Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching in recognition of her exemplary practice.

    Related content

    The Science Learning Hub worked with the Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor on the article Rethinking plastics. This includes the interactive timeline Plastics: innovations and impacts – an exploration of plastic technology, impacts and initiatives. Plastic is a wicked problem that offers a rich context for learning – our planning pathway will help you get started.

    This article curates a wide range of Science Learning Hub resources for primary teachers related to recycling and biodegradability in the Material World strand of the New Zealand Curriculum.

    Find out about the Ocean Plastic Simulator – an interactive computer tool that shows where virtual plastic is likely to end up when it is dropped in the ocean.

    Oceans of rubbish provides insight into the breadth of the pollution problem in our seas.

    Read the Connected article Down the drain to see how students in Petone, Lower Hutt, took action to prevent rubbish from entering their local marine environment. They also used LittaTraps.

    Determining the properties of plastic and glass explores similarities and differences in properties of recycling materials with your younger students.

    We have curated information from the Building Science Concepts Book 60 Rubbish: How Do We Deal with It? for use in the early to middle primary years.

    Activity ideas

    Use Dianne’s unit plan as inspiration for a focus on sustainability.

    Use these activities with your students to further investigate litter and the impact it has on our environment:

    Citizen science

    Try these similar citizen science projects with your class:

    Useful links

    The Plastic Tide citizen science project has now finished, but many relevant learnings can still be taken from it.

    See the Royal Society Te Apārangi website for the report Plastics in the Environment and other resources.

    Visit the Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor website for information about Plastics and the environment and the Rethinking plastics report.

    The Building Science Concepts Book 61 Recycling: New Uses for Rubbish supports the understanding that materials can be classified by their properties.

    Find out more about the LittaTrap and how it works.


    Dianne was a teacher researcher in the education research project Citizen Scientists in the Classroom funded through the Ministry of Education’s Teaching & Learning Research Initiative. Read about some of the research outcomes in Using the Web for Science in the Classroom: Online Citizen Science Participation in Teaching and Learning.

      Published 30 October 2020 Referencing Hub articles
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