Plastic Ocean

1.1   Description

This event is based around the documentary “A Plastic Ocean”, but can be adapted for any kind of science related documentary that encourages behavioural change. We took a shortened version of this documentary (approx. 20 minutes) to schools for a double lesson, integrating it with an activity in order to reinforce what was shown on screen. Using a multi-pronged approach to learning, and having different activities prepared for different ages / subjects, means that this is a versatile event to run and can benefit a wide range of school audiences.


1.2   Objective

One goal particular to Plastic Ocean is tackling a societal challenge and learning about the underlying science. This is achieved by watching a documentary that presents the challenge, and combining it with an activity that reinforces the science behind it. The activity should be centred around inquiry based learning, a form of active learning that starts with the problem scenario presented in the film screening and leads schoolchildren to question for themselves what is behind the problem and how it can be addressed.
For the organiser (or a volunteer going into a school), this can help to engage with the issue as well, since they need to prepare for the lesson: by interacting with children and allowing them freedom in the way the problem is tackled, an element of co-creation of knowledge is introduced and this can serve to give both parties a deeper understanding of the subject.


1.3   Structure

General Structure: Single Event

Plastic Ocean is a single event, split into two distinct parts: watching the documentary followed by a brief discussion, and the activity part. The structure of the latter depends on the lesson plan that is appropriate for the age group and subject. For example, with older kids it might be suitable to lead an extended discussion using Edward De Bono’s “Thinking Hats”, while little experiments may be better suited to a younger target audience, e.g. recreating a Plastic Ocean inside a water bottle!
The event requires clear communication with the teacher, who needs to support the activity and take a backseat for the double lesson. They can also aid in preparing their students, e.g. if they need to bring some of the materials, or learn about particular scientific issues immediately before or after.


1.4   Duration

Main Event Duration: A few hours
Project Duration: Indefinitely repeated

The event will take up a double lesson in school, and as such can be repeated with different / schools classes as often as desired. Leaving an arts based assignment for the class is also possible, meaning their learning process is extended after the event itself.

2.1    Staff & Volunteers

Volunteer Requirements: Core organising team only

As only one demonstrator is required for each class, this event can be prepared and run by a single organiser. If other people are on board (a teacher helped develop lesson plans for different age groups in Malta based on the national curriculum), this can help in the process, but is not essential. If the event is held at many schools, recruiting volunteers that can run the activity is also helpful.
As the organiser, you need to be comfortable developing the activities and liaising with teachers to integrate this double lesson into their schedule. Any experiments need to be prepared in advance, and you should be comfortable working with children of various ages.


2.2    Venue Hire

Venue: School / Laboratory
Capacity: 1 – 20 people

There is no venue hire required, as the event is brought into schools. Depending on the setup of the activity, a normal classroom or a science classroom with laboratory equipment might work best, check with the teacher what is available to you. If any materials used can be supplied by the school, this would aid the event as well.
While Plastic Ocean should reach as large an audience as possible overall, each individual event is restricted by the class size. Keeping this under 20 is recommended, in order to make sure everyone’s voice is heard and all children can participate in the discussion and group activities.


2.3    Partner Institutions

Partner Institutions: Required

This activity must be run within a school, and it is crucial to contact teachers early on in the process, as the event cannot be run otherwise. Try and integrate the double lesson with the school curriculum, as this will make it easier for teachers to justify giving away a double lesson for this. Working with and through local education departments can be a good strategy as well to maximise your reach and make the project more appealing for individual schools.


2.4    Budget

Yearly / Project Budget: 0 – 500€

Each individual event can be held at minimum expenditure, but if repeated at many schools it might accrue costs of a few hundred euros. This is mainly for any licences required for the documentary screening, as well as demonstration materials and printing.

Budget Point Details Event Cost
Personnel Fees No volunteers are required beyond the organiser 0€
Venue Hire There is no need to pay for venue hire, as this will be held at school facilities 0€
Marketing As the event requires liaising with schools, there will not be a traditional marketing campaign for promoting this 0€
  • Licences might be required to show the film in a classroom setting, check this beforehand
  • The activities may require experimental materials, or even printing cost for any worksheets
Other There should not be any other costs involved. 0€
Total 100–500€

3.1   Target Audience

Target Audience: Secondary School (12 – 17)

In order to fully address the societal issues at stake, as well as the science behind the challenges we face, it is most appropriate to conduct Plastic Ocean or similar activities with a secondary school audience. Always make sure to check the background knowledge of students, as integration with your national curriculum is more important here than with other events.
Even within this age range, significant differences can arise in approaching the event. Older children might be expected to lead a more nuanced discussion using several concepts already learned, while the younger end of the age range will need more guidance and potentially experiments to illustrate aspects of the documentary.


3.2   Marketing

Plastic Ocean can not be marketed like other events, as you depend on the support of schools as partner institutions. Approaching teachers or heads of school on an individual basis has been proven the most effective solution, using allies to kick start the project and gain a wider reach. Initials pilots can be used to generate photos and other promotional materials that can be shown to teachers at other schools afterwards, demonstrating that Plastic Ocean has already been implemented with some success for other students.
If multiple schools can be contacted at once, e.g. through your local Department of Education or a similar institution, this would also be very useful. Mailshots etc. can be used to great effect, over and above any traditional marketing campaigns offline and online.


3.3   Dialogic Strategy

Starting with the documentary as problem scenario, the remainder of the double lesson should be made as interactive as possible. Initially, feedback on what they saw can be obtained from students to put the main problem into sharp focus. Asking what they observe and allowing them to form opinions means that the lesson plan follows the IBSE model: inquiry-based science education. In a fairly standard approach to this, questions can be answered through experiments, for which you can ask school children to describe and explain the evidence following the prepared demonstration.
If an extended discussion is desired, Edward De Bono’s thinking hats are a great way to get kids to play different roles and think about different aspects of the problem (see “Added Benefit” for a discussion of this method). Your role in any of these scenarios will be that of a moderator, as the lesson will be more of a dialogue and not involve and top-down teaching methods.

4.1   Project Timeline

Time Activity
Months in advance
  • Develop lesson plans centred around documentary to match your national curriculum, using help from teachers
  • Make contacts at local schools in your area to start with the implementation of the project in the classroom
Weeks in advance
  • Prepare individual workshops / demonstrations by getting the required materials or checking with the school what can be provided there on the day
On the day
  • Meet teacher before the lesson to discuss how they can assist and how lesson will be run; set up activities


4.2   Single Event Structure

Time Activity
30 mins
  • Screening of documentary extracts, short initial discussion
60 mins
  • Demonstrations or extended group discussion to come up with solutions for problem posed in documentary


4.3   Personnel roles

Person Activity
Core Team
  • Develop lesson plans and liaise with schools
  • Set up the classroom with film / experiments
  • Moderate discussion and engage children in a dialogue about societal challenge and the underlying scientific concepts
  • Can assist in facilitating discussion as they know the students best; e.g. can help split into groups as well if needed


4.4   Materials

For Plastic Ocean, a classroom with a screen and projector is required to show the documentary. Any other materials needed depend on the activity, potentially requiring laboratory facilities in the school and thus a different room.
Make sure to liaise with the school about purchasing materials as well: you may be able to use certain chemicals, or common lab equipment from their end. Any basic facilities such as tables and chairs will be in the classroom and arranged by the school.


4.5   Other Logistics

Plastic Ocean does not require any larger scale logistics outside of what has been described in previous sections.

The idea of tackling societal challenges, in particular those in the environmental sector, through a trans-disciplinary approach that places emphasis on the co-creation of knowledge, has been pointed out in the literature.(1) While this mainly concerns the research needed to tackle these issues, it can be argued that starting at an earlier stage and engaging school children with these topics as well as the relevant processes can set about an important cultural change.

Allowing students to take a more active role in their education has become more commonplace in the last decades. The idea of inquiry-based learning is now deeply rooted in the mind of many science educators, and a recent meta analysis of studies that have investigated the efficacy of inquiry-based learning confirms that there is a positive effect on learning outcomes.(2) A possible way to bring about an extended discussion is the use of Edward De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats: one group manages the discussion; one group focuses purely on facts, another purely on emotions; one group applies logical thinking to potential benefits, another applies it to potential concerns; and finally, one group takes care of creative, outside the box, thinking.(3) This process can be introduced and managed carefully, and can lead to results even the moderator does not expect.


  1. Mauser, W. et al. Transdisciplinary global change research: the co-creation of knowledge for sustainability. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 5(3-4), 520–531 (2013).
  2. Lazonder, A. & Barbagallo, F. & Harmsen, R. Meta-analysis of inquiry-based learning: Effects of guidance. Review of Educational Research. 86(3), 681–718 (2016).
  3. De Bono, Edward. Six Thinking Hats (Book). Penguin (2016)

To evaluate whether the activity increased understanding of the subject matter as well as the scientific confidence of children, it is easiest to distribute a pre- and post-questionnaire. The former can be given at the beginning of the lesson, while the latter can be distributed by teachers a few weeks later, after students had time to reflect on the lesson and complete any follow-up assignments.

This allows for direct comparisons in attitude, e.g. whether children have seen the use of scientific concepts in real-life issues, consider plastic pollution of the oceans a serious problem etc. Any other feedback on the event itself will be useful as well and can be used to tweak the lesson plan for future events in a continuous self-evaluation process.

While the documentary is now available via Netflix, find information about the process behind it, along with more about the foundation “Plastic Oceans”, on their website:

Download as PDF


Event Duration

Project Duration


Location Capacity

Partner Institutions

Target Audience


Cite this Activity

Sonntag, H., & Styles, C. (2020, August 12). Plastic Ocean. Retrieved from

First published: August 12, 2020
Last modified: August 12, 2020