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    Plastics have changed the way we live. They’ve revolutionised how we preserve food and store liquids, how we move and even how we dress. Plastic products are durable, lightweight and resist corrosion – making them ideal for so many modern applications.

    But their toughness is also what makes them problematic – what do we do with the plastic we produce but no longer choose or are able to use?

    Plastic is a wicked problem – one that is difficult to solve and where no one single solution will fix the problem. Wicked problems often involve environmental, economic and political issues, and they require people to change their thinking and behaviour. We know that plastic will continue to be a commonly used material as it is incredibly convenient and fit for so many purposes. The issue becomes how we balance the impacts that plastic pollution has on aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, food chains and even human health.

    Teaching in context

    The use of plastics – as a wicked problem – can form a rich real-life context for developing students’ thinking, visioning and problem-solving skills as well as developing their action competence and an array of key competencies.

    It allows students to explore:

    • science concepts – properties and changes of matter (recycling, microplastics), materials and their uses, how ecological systems respond to environmental changes, impacts on food webs
    • technological knowledge – alternatives to plastics, improved recycling technologies
    • socio-scientific issues and cross-curricular connections – using science knowledge as part of decision making and behavioural change
    • nature of science and the science capabilities – collecting and interpreting data, using and examining evidence, using visual and numerical literacy
    • taking action – the ‘Engage with science’ aspect of the curriculum and science capabilities.

    Interactive planning pathways

    Teachers can use Hub resources as starting points for context-based learning. The planning map below provides a gateway to collections of articles, multimedia, student activities and stories of New Zealand’s science research. By using a combination of these resources, teachers can combine conceptual understanding and capabilities development into relevant learning experiences.

    New Zealand Curriculum information

    Plastics and issues associated with their use span several aspects of the NZC.

    Material World – properties and changes of matter

    • Group materials in different ways, based on observations and measurements of their chemical and physical properties.

    Material World – chemistry and society

    • Find out about the uses of common materials and relate these to their observed properties.

    Living World – ecology

    • Explain how living things respond to environmental changes, both natural and human-induced.
    • Investigate the impact of human actions on a New Zealand ecosystem.

    Nature of science

    • The need to collect evidence to support or refute arguments about plastic use, reuse, recycling and disposal.
    • Consider issues of concern to students and make decisions about possible actions.

    Technological knowledge – technological products

    • Understand the relationship between the materials used and their performance properties.
    • Understand the implications of materials and their disposal.

    Nature of technology

    • Technology reflects and changes society and the environment.
    • Technological development expands human possibilities.
    • Technological outcomes are fit for purpose in terms of time and context.

    Science capabilities

    The use of plastics – as a wicked problem – offers many opportunities to use and strengthen students’ science capabilities. For example, citizen science projects such as litter surveys provide opportunities for students to gather and interpret data and critique the evidence they’ve collected. Infographics and images about marine plastic pollution and recycling symbols and codes provide practice in interpreting representations. Perhaps most importantly, thinking about how we use plastic enables students to engage with science in a real-life context and offers pathways for changing behaviours.

    Related content

    New Zealand science organisations Royal Society Te Apārangi and the Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor have created reports and resources to help us rethink plastic.

    Useful links

    The Royal Society Te Apārangi resource Plastics in the Environment – Understanding plastic waste in Aotearoa has useful infographics and reports about the country’s plastics problems.

    TKI has text and a diagram on the action competence learning process.

      Published 18 September 2019 Referencing Hub articles