Students address the complex, real-world problem of marine debris through multiple academic subjects.

What is Marine Debris?

"Marine debris is defined as any persistent solid material that is manufactured or processed and directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally, disposed of or abandoned into the marine environment or the Great Lakes." 

- NOAA Marine Debris Program


Marine Debris STEAMSS Curriculum

MWEE units focused on marine debris provide opportunities for students to address problems through engineering design, contribute to prevention and removal stewardship actions, work with community partners, and use technology and art to effectively convey stewardship messages. The Marine Debris STEAMSS curriculum includes a host of interdisciplinary lessons related to the composition, abundance, sources, transport, impacts and solutions for the marine debris problem.

Classroom Activities

Beach Box Exploration

The Beach Box Exploration lesson comes from the Oregon Sea Grant created Marine Debris STEAMSS curriculum, and is an excellent introduction to the topic of marine debris. By bringing the beach into the classroom, students determine what kinds of objects make up marine debris. Students explore contents of ‘beach boxes’ in groups at tables, sorting contents into “marine debris”, “NOT marine debris” and “not sure”.

Guided questions include: What evidence did you use to decide if an item was marine debris or not? Did you detect any similarities or patterns in the box contents? Were you surprised to find particular objects in the box? Could you sort materials by other criteria such as materials, size, possible origin, etc?

Teachers can make their own classroom sets of beach boxes. Alternatively, Oregon Coast educators can borrow Marine Debris Beach Boxes at no cost for up to two weeks from any of the Oregon Coast STEM Hub resource trailers.

trash traits

In the Trash Traits lesson from NOAA's lesson Turning the Tide on Trash students perform experiments to examine whether or not trash can float, blow around, or wash away. Based on their experiments, they determine which items have the greatest potential to become marine debris and why. Similarly, in Monterey Bay Aquarium's Plastics in the Water Column lesson, students explore the densities of different plastics to see where in the water column they would likely be found. Then they relate the location of plastics in the water column to the feeding behavior of various marine organisms and discuss how marine debris can cause problems for different animals inhabiting a variety of ocean depths.

Field Experiences


Through a survey of the schoolyard or local riverbank, students can make connections between trash found inland and marine debris found at the beach. Encourage students to think about how the materials found inland could make their way to the ocean to become marine debris.

Guided questions:

  • What were the main types of marine debris found at your study site?
  • How could materials from your study site make their way into the ocean?



Beach Clean UP

Students can partner with community organizations and participate in a cleanup of the school campus, a local waterway or beach, or join another community cleanup project. They can quantify the materials they remove (type, weight, etc), add submit data to NOAA.


Create a graphical representation of the types and quantity of marine debris collected. What kind of conclusions can student draw from their results?

Nature journaling

A beach clean up is the subject of the beautifully illustrated children's book Ellie's Strand: Exploring the Edge of the Pacific. Designed for readers in grade 4-6, this OSU Press publication is a sequel to Ellie's Log and Ricky's Atlas.

Book Description: "Ellie and Ricky travel to the Oregon coast from their home in the Cascade Mountains to help with a one-day beach cleanup. Hoping to find a prized Japanese glass float, they instead find more important natural treasures and evidence of an ocean that needs its own global-scale cleanup. Ellie and Ricky are amazed by their discoveries at the edge of the world’s largest ocean. Together, they realize the power of volunteering and grapple with the challenges of ocean conservation. In her journal, Ellie records her observations of their adventures in her own words and pictures."


Discoveries at the Edge of the Pacific: In 2019, Oregon Sea Grant held a professional development series focused around the book Ellie's Strand, nature journaling, and student-led ocean stewardship actions. Participating teachers implemented many activities that tie in well with marine debris focused MWEE units.

Visit Discoveries at the Edge of the Pacific

More Resources:

Prevention and Outreach

Everyday Choices

At school, students can form "Green Teams" analyze school waste, work with school and community partners to reduce, reuse and recycle materials, and set goals to make a difference locally and globally. Get involved with one of these programs:


Photo: Hundreds gather for Rise Above Plastic Pollution Day in Oregon - Oregon Surfrider Foundation

Marine Debris Art

Students can use art to convey what they have learned about Marine Debris in a meaningful and impactful way. Art media can allow them to synthesize what they have learned about marine debris and incorporate their knowledge into a presentation or display that helps others both 1) understand the problem and 2) take actions that contribute to solving the problem. Explore drawing/painting, marine debris mosaics and sculptures, photography, or more. Students can create video or poster Public Service Announcements or submit artwork to regional or national competitions such as the NOAA Marine Debris Art Contest.


More Marine Debris Resources

NOAA Marine Debris Program

The NOAA Marine Debris Program is the U.S. Federal government's lead for addressing marine debris. Their website contains introductory resources to help learners discover the issue of marine debris, and much more:

  • Activities and Curricula  - Includes educator guides, toolkits, and marine debris curriculum.
  • NOAA Marine Debris Program - Pacific Northwest Region - Learn about activities taking place in our region.
  • Oregon Marine Debris Action Plan - This is a compilation of recommended strategies and actions to prevent, research, and remove marine debris in Oregon. It is a collaborative effort of federal and state agencies, tribes, local governments, non-governmental organizations, academia, and industry. Bringing together the Oregon entities working on marine debris, the Plan aims to increase coordination and collaboration in executing on-going and future actions, and to help track progress over time.

Student Stewardship and Action Projects

SPOTLIGHT: Gold Beach 5th Graders Explore Watershed Issues