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"Are volunteer beach cleanups effective?" A student designed experiment!

Getting students exploring and investigating the natural environment is a passion of mine as an educator. Studies have shown that when children spend time outside they are more environmentally conscious as adults and may report feeling refreshed and engaged (Sobel, 2008). One of the most powerful yet simple activities I do with my students are beach clean-ups, also known as Marine Debris Surveys. Students have asked, "Are volunteer beach cleanups effective?" This semester, students are going to answer that question with a student designed and led research experiment working with the staff and volunteers at the nearby Tijuana River Estuarine Research Reserve [TRERR].

In order to test this question and reduce our margin for scientific error, we scheduled two survey days in close proximity to the annual October cleanup event. A standing stock shoreline survey right counts and identifies the debris before the cleanup while an accumulation shoreline survey counts, identifies and removes any remaining debris right after. Our research was led by a a current 12th grade student from last year's team who has undertaken the experiment as an honors project for her current science class. The 11th grade students on my team prepared with a small scale shoreline survey at a park by San Diego Bay.

We had intended to repeat a study designed and conducted by my 2016-2017 team which surveyed the arroyo habitat. The arroyo habitat is located in the canyon upstream from the beach within the watershed. Unfortunately, due to heavy rains during that year, the soil was too saturated with fecal matter for safe surveying, especially for high school students! TRERR has relocated all volunteer activities to the beach for this Fall and my crew happily took to the sand between the dunes and waves for our standing stock survey on October 5.

Students were briefed by our 12th grade leader who monitored everything from student safety (layers and gloves!), detailed data collection (be consistent!), laying the survey lines and taking GPS coordinates. The question the students were researching had also been developed by our student leader the year before, her 11th grade peers were invested in continuing the research started by other students in our school.

This protocol was originally derived from the official National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Protocol (check that out HERE). I undertook a series of experimental design iterations to make this more accessible for high school students and to create space for student driven experiments. Steps for application in high school include:

  1. Introduce the problem and show the reach of the problem

  2. Small scale study: Conduct a small scale accumulation shoreline survey to introduce methods, get outside and practice data collection and analysis

  3. Brainstorm questions and concerns: Do more research to understand current issues

  4. Ask a research question: Identify student leader (s) and conduct a larger scale survey (standing stock or accumulation) depending on student questions

  5. Modify the survey: Depending on the site such as with the arroyo habitat where students surveyed between banks as an alternative to the wave break and dunes

Check out pictures from our most recent cleanup day and check back in two weeks for the details on our full experiment as well as what students learned doing this activity!


Childhood and Nature: Design Principles for Educators by David Sobel, 2008.

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