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EarthEcho Expeditions: PlasticSeas Recap

EarthEcho Expeditions: PlasticSeas took place in Melbourne, Australia, October 1-5, 2018 thanks to the support of the presenting sponsor the Northrop Grumman Foundation. For our first international Expedition, the EarthEcho team took great pride in recruiting 25 middle-grade teachers ("Expedition Fellows") from Melbourne and surrounding areas. Melbourne is the fastest growing city, as well as, the capital of Victoria. The EarthEcho team chose Melbourne as a city by the sea to examine the cause, impacts, and solutions of plastics pollution.  

The EarthEcho team and Fellows started the week by exploring a marine protected area with pristine seas within Parks Victoria. We learned about the importance and of marine protected areas and the positive impacts that they have on the ocean and its marine life. We also learned about the threats to MPA’s, focusing in on plastic, a dangerous and common source of litter in the ocean. We then took to the sea and dove in the water with Australian fur seals, Australasian gannets, marine fish, and more!  The chance to have a face to face encounter with the marine life of Port Phillip Bay was a wonderful way to start our Expedition and become well acquainted with our surroundings.

On our second day, we were ready to look at litter at its source. We started the day at the Port Phillip Bay Eco Centre, where we learned about where plastic comes from, the most common types that plague our environment, and microplastics.  We explored the Eco Centre, which has ingenious upcycled solutions to everything from playgrounds to gardening and composting. The group went for a walk to St. Kilda Beach, during which we collected plastic trash. Once at the beach, we learned the skills to use quadrants and collect data on microplastics on the beach. Our team worked to clean up things like nurdles and even plastic dinosaurs.  The amount of plastic we found, on what from afar looked like a “clean” beach, was astonishing and eye-opening for us all. We spent the afternoon at Sustainability Victoria, a local government agency. Here we learned about what Melbourne and the state of Victoria is doing to help solve the plastic problem in the area and beyond. We also heard from a nonprofit called Tangaroa Blue about how to move past the beach clean up to more innovative events and solutions.

Our third day was focused on the impacts of plastics on marine animals. We spent the day with the Marine Mammal Foundation, learning about the newly discovered Burrunan dolphin, and the other animals of Port Phillip Bay. The Marine Mammal Foundation team taught us about what impacts they have seen from plastic pollution and what they are doing with their community, youth, and more, to help raise awareness and protect these animals. The afternoon was a wonderful adventure out on the water in observation of marine mammals and birds aboard the Polperro. Connecting with marine life was another invaluable experience for our team and fellows.

We started our fourth day by taking a plastic pledge with a group called Plastic Pollution Solutions. We learned about a program that taps into students' values and creates behavioral change. We explored the theory behind learned behavior and what educators can do to guide students to make these changes in their behavior. The Fellows then spent the afternoon in their first collaborative curriculum development session. We worked in groups and found something that inspired us throughout the week to help start our STEM design challenge development. That evening our team traveled to the St. Kilda pier to observe the little blue penguins of Port Phillip Bay come home to their urban dens. The penguins are called the urban penguins of the area because they live in and around a very popular pier for people.  

We were fortunate enough to spend the last day of our Expedition at the Melbourne Zoo. We heard from a researcher who studies the little blue penguins. She described these birds as bioindicators of the area, because of their closeness to the urban city.  Another researcher presented to our team on seabirds and the impacts plastics have on these important animals. She brought along gull bolus (dried bird vomit), which our Fellows were able to dissect to find the microplastics inside.  This was a hands-on and eye-opening experience for us all. We ended the day with another session for curriculum development. The Fellows worked on our STEM design lessons which, along with our videos highlighting our adventures, will be released in early 2019! Stay tuned!