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Science at the Seashore: Marine Debris and Albatross Stomachs

Science is best done in a hands-on/minds-on, immersive way.  We learn best when we go out and touch, experience, participate in and observe anything in its natural environment: its context.  That’s the premise of everything from outdoor education to internships.  (Note: the “natural environment” of a software company is the office, the lunchtime meetings, the social gatherings, etc.  A natural environment is not just the natural world.)

albatross-plasticIf in-place isn’t possible, there’s nothing wrong with learning in a classroom (really, I don’t want to visit a black hole), but it’s always best to learn in an immersive environment.  So when it was time to learn about plastic and marine life, we headed straight for Point Reyes and the seashore.

Our guide, Leslie, the head of the Science at the Seashore program, introduced the project by showing nasascientificus what the inside of an albatross looks like: 90% of young albatross have plastic in their stomachs.  This happens because albatrosses live almost their entire lives at sea, and their migration patterns constantly take them across a giant plastic island, called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, about the size of Texas in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.  (Leslie had sent us the Winged Ambassadors curriculum in advance, which helped us prepare for our visit.)

IMG_4401A bird with a stomach full of plastic was somewhat shocking, but the part that really made this a gut-level understanding was when Leslie had us mark out a random area along the beach, called a transect, and we scoured it, a small section at a time, for little pieces of plastic.

We picked up and counted all the bits of plastic along a ten-foot wide strip from the edge of the dune all the way to the water.  The kids were surprised at just how many tiny pieces of plastic there were to be found along what is a relatively clean beach.  (Hint: over a hundred.)  These tiny pieces are particularly dangerous because animals eat them, thinking they are food.  Sea turtles, for instance, frequently eat plastic bags, thinking they are jellyfish (a favorite food of sea turtles).

Once the cleanup was finished, we sat together and figured: if the whole beach has about this many pieces of plastic along a ten-foot wide strip, how many tiny pieces of plastic are there along this roughly one-mile stretch of beach?  The answer was staggering: over 188,000 small pieces of plastic.  We looked at the albatross again and realized: birds and fish are eating these, and dying.

IMG_4388The kids were immediately filled with a sense of purpose: how could we do a better job of reducing plastic?  Chatter ensued, and ideas for reducing, recycling, reusing, and even refactoring plastic in our lives took over the afternoon.

It’s deceptively simple when you think about it, because it is good science: create a meaningful, testable hypothesis (“How much plastic is on this beach?”); gather data; and finally analyze the results.  All science asks us to figure out what is important, and what to ignore, as we try to answer difficult questions.

This could never have happened in classroom.  It took seeing the challenges inside the beauty to understand, at a gut level, what the underlying dangers of such a gorgeous ecosystem means for all of us.

Candace • July 26, 2016

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