Waste Literacy Education in a Virtual World

How we adapted classroom programs for virtual learning

Aligned with our mission at the U of T Trash Team, one of our goals is to engage young minds about waste literacy. Teaching plastic pollution is a meaningful way to help future generations learn to prevent waste and choose more sustainable lifestyles. Participation in environmental education activities can improve children’s environmental knowledge and attitudes[1]. It may also help shift behaviour. With all of this in mind, our team designed a series of lessons for Grade 5 students to improve scientific and waste literacy and to foster a sense of curiosity about the natural world and human impacts on the planet.

Our lessons were co-created among our team of young volunteers, many actively researching plastics in aquatic environments. In total, we created four lessons: 1) plastic cycle, 2) watersheds and their relationship to litter, 3) impacts of plastic on ecosystems and 4) solutions to plastic pollution. These lessons were created in 2019 and piloted in the classroom in early 2020.
They were initially created to be delivered in person with all sorts of fun hands-on activities. Little did we know that the COVID-19 pandemic would change our plans.

From the classroom to the computer


As many groups around the world also experienced, we had to quickly adapt to the virtual world. It wasn’t easy at first and there were many new technological skills to learn in this new online learning environment. We also had to reconsider our activities – because elementary students could not share materials. This meant experiments, games and activities couldn’t be done in groups and had to be provided for them to play independently. A lot of planning and effort was put into redesigning the lessons to make sure we could keep the same learning objectives while providing interactive activities that would still be just as fun remotely.  For example, in one activity we explore how plastic travels in a watershed with a game called Float, Sink or Suspend. Students create a hypothesis about how different types of plastic behave in the water column and test this out by dropping them into a container of water and observing the results. To adapt to online, we had students share their hypotheses through fun movements: a backstroke for float, an anchor for sink, and wiggling their arms like a jellyfish for suspend, and created a video to show what happens to each item. Not only did this activity allow an opportunity for play, but it also provided time to get up and stretch.  

Teaching in a virtual world

Another important piece of this process was adapting to online teaching. In our program, students are taught by our incredible Waste Literacy Instructors – a team of undergraduate students, graduate students and early-career scientists who volunteer their time to mentor Grade 5 students. These volunteers embraced the task, and were excited and ready to deliver high-quality peer-to-peer lessons with high energy in a virtual classroom. To achieve this, we trained our instructors for each lesson with a focus on four things: content, pedagogy, engaging a class online, and the tech. This provided a unique opportunity to learn new communication skills. Our instructors did great, and had a lot of fun while doing so. Su’aad Juman-Yassin and Anusha Srinivasan both echoed those sentiments:

“I thought it would be a great opportunity to work on my science communication skills. I also find it very fulfilling to be able to understand a concept and facilitate that understanding for someone else.” (Anusha)

“It is a super fun way to connect with lots of amazing students and teachers and I have definitely learned an interesting fact or two from the lesson plans myself!”[…] “The final lesson in our classroom series is all about finding solutions to plastic pollution. Students are tasked with coming up with a creative way to combat plastic pollutants and the amazing ideas they come up with, from a Jet ski contest … to a giant mechanical fish that eats plastic …, are always so exciting to hear about!” (Su’aad)

Landing in a virtual classroom

Teachers welcomed us into their virtual classrooms, and provided our volunteers and their students with a great experience. They went above and beyond by providing guidance and feedback to improve our lessons and keep students engaged. Although we would have loved to have been together in person, an online classroom still provided the space we needed to have positive impact.

Looking back, there was a lot to be gained from this virtual school year. As a result, we are confident and prepared for whatever scenario comes this fall. The truth is, we can’t wait to be back in the classroom again, whether in-person or remote! With the support of the teachers, the talent of our instructors and the engagement of the students, our team was able to deliver 31 lessons across the Greater Toronto Area during the 2020/2021 school year, inspiring kids and teachers to continue the discussion about plastic pollution despite a global pandemic.

Blog written by Rafaela Gutierrez, Program Lead of Social Science and Educational Programs for the U of T Trash Team and Susan Debreceni, Program Lead of Volunteer Engagement and Community Programs. For more details and to book a classroom visit, please email Rafaela.

[1] Hartley, B.L; Pahl, S., Holland, M.; I. Alampei, J.M. Veiga, R.C. Thompson. Turning the tide on trash: empowering European educators and school students to tackle marine litter. Marine Policy, 96 (2018), pp. 227-234, 10.1016/j.marpol.2018.02.002

Liefländer, A. K., G. Fröhlich, F. X. Bogner, and P. W. Schultz. 2013. “Promoting Connectedness with Nature through Environmental Education.” Environmental Education Research 19 (3): 370–384. doi:10.1080/13504622.2012.697545.

Owens, K.A. Using experiential marine debris education to make an impact: collecting debris, informing policy makers, and influencing students. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 127 (2018), pp. 804-810, 10.1016/j.marpolbul.2017.10.004

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