MESSAGE IN THE WAVES: Two Earth Day Lessons for Middle School Students

After viewing a short video clip, students consider the effect all our waste has on the environment and develop a 'reduce, reuse, recyle' action plan.

A question for teachers: The two classroom lessons below draw from a 9-minute video clip available on the web. Is it easy or difficult for you to access the web in your classroom? Do you find it useful to incorporate web-based media with your students? Please let us know:


Lesson 1: 

Message in the Waves

Students will:
  • be introduced to Earth Day
  • learn about the nesting colony of Midway
  • watch online the clip "Message in the Waves" 
  • be introduced to the effect our waste has on wildlife in general and on albatrosses in particular
Materials needed
(5 minutes) What is Earth Day? 
Give students a quick overview of the history of Earth Day by sharing the following: April 22 is Earth Day. It is a special day to learn about our planet and the environment. In 1969 a Senator named Gaylord Nelson was getting worried about our planet. He had noticed how dirty the planet was getting and how many animals were dying. He knew that he couldn't solve these problems by himself, so he decided to teach other people about what was happening so that they too could help solve the planet's problems.
He wrote many letters to his colleagues in Washington and published articles to convince people around the country to have a special day on which everyone would learn to care about the planet. On April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day was held and people across the country learned about our planet and the environment. It was so popular that very soon the idea of Earth Day spread around the world and now every April 22, people around the world make a special effort to learn about the planet and do things to help improve the environment.
(4 minutes) Gathering

Ask students to talk in pairs about a time that they asked for help because they couldn't do something by themselves. What was that like? What happened? Give them two minutes to share and let them know when the time is about half way up so that they can switch. Afterwards, ask a few volunteers to share what they said "popcorn style" with the class.

(2 minutes) Check Agenda

Explain that April 22 is Earth Day, and that students will join others around the world in learning about the planet and how to help improve the environment.

(25 minutes) Message in the Waves
Show students on a map where Hawaii is. Midway is the best known of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. During World War II, Midway served as an important naval air station and submarine base. These days it's a different scene. Nearly two million birds of 19 species nest on Midway. Among them isthe largest colony of Laysan albatrosses in the world, which is what today's lesson will focus on.
Watch the Message in the Waves clip with your class:
Split the class into groups of four. Ask each group to spend a few minutes talking about what struck them in the clip. What did they learn? What surprised them? Then ask some volunteers to share what they said with the whole class.
Next, ask students to think back to the things that Megan laid out on the beach after walking around the nesting grounds. Ask each group to come up with a list. Back in the big group, compile a combined list as a class, getting different volunteers from the groups to share. When the list is completed ask students what they think of this list. How many of these products do the kids use themselves? Have they ever heard of the term "reduce, reuse, recycle"? What do they think it means?
List of items for the teacher:
  • Fishing gear, lines, floats
  • Lighters
  • Golf balls
  • Roller balls from deodorant
  • Kids' toys
  • Combs, brushes
  • Juice boxes
  • Glue sticks
  • Print cartridges
  • Pens
  • Toothpicks
  • Door handles
  • Clothes pins
  • Lip balm
  • Plastic forks
  • Toothbrushes

(4 minutes) Closing
Ask students to talk in pairs about ways in which they think they might be able to cut down on the things they use or prevent them from ending up in the ocean somehow. Ask a few volunteers to share what they said with the class.
Tell students that this is something they'll explore further in tomorrow's class.



Lesson 2: 

Reduce Reuse Recycle

Students will
  • be introduced to American consumption and wastefulness
  • define "life cycle" 
  • look at the "life cycle" of a plastic bag and other consumer products
  • explore the notion of "reduce, reuse, recycle" 
  • brainstorm ways in which they might improve the environment
Materials needed
  • today's agenda on chart paper or on the chalkboard
  • yesterday's list with the items from the beach
  • sheet of chart paper for each group to illustrate their item's life cycle
  • chart paper and markers to chart the "What can we do?" list
(4 minutes) Gathering

Ask students to talk in pairs: Can they think of a time when they helped to clean something up? How did it make them feel? Get a few volunteers to share what they said with the class.

(2 minutes) Check Agenda
Go over the day's plan and ask if it seems okay.

(20 minutes) Life Cycle Activity
Split the class into groups of four and ask each group to pick one item from yesterday's list.
Explain that in today's lesson they'll be working on what is known as the "life cycle" of the product they chose from the beach. What do the students think the life cycle of a product might be? Listen carefully to the words "life" and "cycle." What do they think these words mean when they are applied to a consumer product?
Life cycle is the total process of creating, using and getting rid of consumer products.
A plastic bag can illustrate the entire life cycle process. We all use plastic bags, often for no longer than an hour, sometimes even less. So what is the life cycle of this plastic bag?
As you talk your students through the life cycle described below, consider charting the states to provide a visual (click here for a sample chart). Explain that energy is used every step of the way, which further pollutes the environment. You may want to illustrate this by drawing clouds, lines, etc. at different points in the chart.
(1) Petroleum and natural gas, which are the raw materials for plastic, must be extracted from the earth. 
(2) These raw materials are then transported to the factory, where
(3) they are turned into a resin that is heated, shaped and cooled, at which point the plastic sheets are ready to be flattened, sealed, punched or printed on. The plastic bag is born! From here it is
(4) transported to the store, where
(5) it is given to customers to
(6) carry groceries or other items. After that, it might
(7a) be used again or 
(7b) thrown in the trash. More likely though, bags end up tossed on the street when people are done with them—getting caught in fences, trees, even the throats of birds, fish and turtles. Few plastic bags end in landfills and only 0.6 percent is recycled.
Now consider the 1,000 bags used per American family per year.
Fact: 14 billion (14,000,000,000) bags are used in the US alone each year. When tied together these bags could be wrapped around the world 26 thousand (26,000) times! Think about it.
All consumer products have life cycles like this. So let's turn to your item from the beach. Think about the different life cycle stages your item may have gone through, from extracting raw materials from the earth to being thrown away. Ask each group to brainstorm together, and when they are ready, to illustrate the life cycle of their item on chart paper. 

(10 minutes) Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
At the end of the clip the sailor tells us: "Throwaway living may be profitable, but the consequences are intolerable. It's certainly a problem for everyone and it will require all facets of society to solve it. The ocean itself eventually will spit this stuff out. But we have to stop putting it in. If we don't stop putting it in, it will never be able to spit it all out and that's the situation we're in right now."
In their small groups, ask students to think about what ends up in the garbage at school or at home, that they might be able to reduce, reuse or recycle. Think about school lunches for instance (the sandwich bags, juice boxes, styrofoam trays, etc.) as well as the classroom garbage (lots of paper). Also think about home: What ends up in the garbage there?
Talk about the waste of other things as well. Is there a way to save some of the water we use, the heat or cooling of our classrooms or homes, the gas for the family car, the power for machines like fridges, freezers, lamps, computers, phones, MP3 players, and anything else your students come up with?
Ask students to discuss this, first in their small groups. Then have students bring their ideas to the large group. On chart paper titled "What can we do?" make a list of their responses, using the three categories 1. Reduce, 2. Reuse, and 3. Recycle.
Consider this list a work in progress. You can check in with your students over the coming weeks to see which of the actions on their list they are implementing at home or at school. Consider adding actions to the list as your students become more aware about how to better care for the environment. 


(4 minutes) Closing
In pairs ask students to finish the following sentence:
The earth is our home, we need to ____________________________________________
Ask a few volunteers to share what they said with the class.

Additional Activity:

Low-Waste Lunch Day

Ask your students to do research in the lunch room, investigating the waste produced during lunch. Then, based on the research, help students figure out a plan of action. Divide up the various tasks among your students. Consider informing the rest of the school of the garbage problem by making posters, announcements, presentations, etc. Have students share their ideas for how to reduce waste during school lunch.
How did this activity work in your class? Please share your stories and other feedback with us! Email: