Plastic Pollution to Solution: A cross-curricular PBL unit where second graders engineer solutions for a real-world problem in a school makerspace

At Almaden Country Day School, it's not only the students who are encouraged to collaborate. Teachers often co-create projects together across subject matters to enhance their curriculum. Such was the case with the year-long, second grade project-based learning unit about ocean plastic pollution. Homeroom teachers, Mrs. Tina Davis and Mrs. Elizabeth Pombo, and STEM teacher, Mrs. Laura Kitagawa, were inspired to develop a meaningful project for their second grade students after attending a project-based learning conference that was part of their professional development.

Project-based learning (PBL) has been a focus for the school for a number of years now and is an effective approach for teaching the mission skills, also known as the six skills that will predict success in academics and beyond. "Project-based learning engages students to solve real-world problems and take ownership of their learning," Mrs. Kitagawa explained. "It's a hands-on way for students to practice 21st century skills like critical thinking, creativity, communication, and collaboration."

In this cross-curricular PBL unit, students learned about plastic pollution and its impact on the environment. After visiting a local recycling center where they observed the magnitude of the problem first-hand, students wanted to take action and do something to help reduce plastic pollution at our school. They divided into teams where they came up with concepts for encouraging other students and adults to recycle their plastic water bottles. They worked through the engineering design process in the school's Imaginarium makerspace to design and build fun, arcade-like plastic bottle recycling bins. Throughout the year, students collected and recycled the water bottles from their bins and kept track of the profits earned. At the end of the year, students went on a field trip to Santa Cruz where they picked up trash at Natural Bridges State Beach and donated the funds collected to the Seymour Marine Discovery Center for future marine education and research.

After the PBL unit ended, students continued to be concerned about the negative effects of plastic pollution on ocean animals. "Students were inspired to extend their environmental actions outside the classroom, such as cleaning up plastic pollution at local parks and beaches. One student even asked to pick up trash on the beach for his birthday," said a proud Mrs. Pombo. Another way the students surprised their teachers was how they persevered through much trial and error to create their final recycling bins. Mrs. Pombo explained, "They showed resilience and they produced high-quality products. They were also able to work in committees to sustain this year-long recycling project."

And the teacher collaboration didn't stop there. Last year, working with the art teacher, Mrs. Esther Trejo-Milioto, students created colorful fish made from recycled plastic bottles. With music teacher, Ms. Corinne Leary, students designed and played musical instruments made from recycled materials. This year, working with drama teacher, Mr. Ian Leonard, students are putting on a musical about recycling.

The teachers had some parting words of encouragement for other teachers who are considering a cross-curricular, project-based learning experience. Mrs. Davis shared, "Don't be afraid to start a PBL project, big or small. We believe that an integrated curriculum provides students with a deeper learning experience."

This environmentally-friendly PBL unit, titled "Plastic Pollution to Solution," was just featured in the March 2018 issue of NSTA's Science & Children journal.

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