Middle school and high school students across Virginia will work in teams to create a sustainable plan to reduce microplastic pollution in their communities, thanks to a partnership between the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) at Sullivan Foundation partner school William & Mary and JASON Learning.

The Beyond the Plastic Bottle Challenge puts together teams of students with the goal of reducing debris associated with one source of microplastic pollution. It was inspired by research being done at VIMS and highlights the work of the Challenge STEM role model, Meredith Evans Seeley, a Ph.D. candidate and Freeman Family Fellow in William & Mary’s School of Marine Science. STEM—short for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math—is a curriculum based on an applied approach to educating students in these four disciplines.

JASON is an independent nonprofit founded in 1989 by Robert D. Ballard, the now-retired oceanographer and underwater archaeologist who discovered the Titanic. It provides curriculum and learning experiences in STEM for K-12 students and high-quality professional development for teachers. JASON Learning has been used successfully in a wide variety of formal and informal education environments.

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“Most people are aware of the damage that plastic does to the environment,” Seeley said. “Those same people are probably aware of the dangers that water bottles and plastic straws pose to nature. But something that a lot of people don’t think about are microplastics: tiny pieces of plastic that either break down from or break off of larger pieces, which then pollute filtration systems and eventually find their way into our food supply when fish and other animals accidentally eat them.”

The challenge will involve grade 6-12 students in their communities through creative, science-informed problem-solving. This ties in directly with the principles of JASON Learning and the formal and informal curriculum materials developed by marine educators at VIMS.

“We are looking forward to seeing the real-world solutions that students develop, lending to the mission of micro-plastic reduction,” said JASON President Eleanor Smalley. “We’re also thrilled to have such a talented role model spearheading the competition and offering her knowledge on the subject.”

Related: California governor signs “world’s toughest” recycling law covering plastic bottles

The challenge will be an ongoing campaign, encouraging student participation on a local level throughout Virginia. Both organizations see the benefit of local solutions to problems that exist on a global scale.

While there is no grand prize, JASON and VIMS will highlight participants with effective and creative ideas throughout the campaign’s lifetime. Students and teachers can share their progress using the hashtag #VIMSPlasticChallenge.

This article has been edited from the original version appearing on the William & Mary website.

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