Empowering Youth Civic Action on Plastic Pollution (2021-2022)


Millions of metric tons of plastic are deposited annually into waterways, causing problems with implications for climate change, ecosystem health and human well-being. Governments have a critical role to play in solving this problem, particularly at the local level where waste management and recycling policies are designed, funded and implemented. 

Unfortunately, few Americans engage in local policy matters. Action needs to be taken to empower youth to engage their communities and drive meaningful local policy action to reduce plastic pollution. 

The Civic Action Project (CAP) was launched in 1992 to promote youth-led community healing and engage youth in civic action. Its transformative curriculum leads high school students through the process of civic engagement, from issue discovery and research to public engagement and advocacy. 

Project Description

Inspired by the Civic Action Project, this project team will develop and pilot an action-civics curriculum on ocean plastic pollution for high school students, empowering young people to engage together in meaningful civic action and focus on the problem of plastic pollution and its impacts on the ocean. 

Team members will develop a curriculum for an action-civics education outreach program on ocean plastic pollution. Using existing partnerships and curriculum development framework (HackBio), they will develop educational materials on ocean plastic pollution. The team will draw on different disciplines to create modules for the outreach program to help high school students understand the problem of ocean plastic pollution and creatively think about solutions.

The team will then pilot its action-civics materials in the Durham Public Schools and host a one-week virtual boot camp with high school students, aiming to translate learning into extended action over a year-long civics project. The program will culminate with a hackathon where students will work in groups to develop a local solution to the ocean plastic pollution problem. This will all lay the groundwork to expand the team’s efforts nationally as a Civic Action Project in partnership with the Constitutional Rights Foundation.

Learn more about this project team by viewing the team's video.

Anticipated Outputs

Ocean plastics curriculum; peer-reviewed paper; foundation and company partnerships

Student Opportunities

Ideally, this project team will be comprised of 4 graduate students and 10 undergraduate students. Interested undergraduate students will likely be from majors spanning environmental science, biology, public policy, engineering, chemistry and mathematics. The team would also benefit from having students who are working toward a minor in education. Graduate students and project managers will likely have expertise in education, environmental science, environmental justice, biology and public policy. 

Team members will be given the opportunity to gain an interdisciplinary understanding of ocean plastic pollution by drawing on a broad range of experts. This understanding will be gained by teaching others and engaging with the problem directly. Team members will develop a curriculum to introduce youth to the plastic pollution problem. They will work with local youth in service opportunities, functioning as peer mentors and building skills in science communication. 

For graduate students, the project offers the opportunity to organize teams working toward a time-bound deliverable that can be distributed to schools nationwide. 

Rachel Karasik will serve as project manager. 


Fall 2021 – Summer 2022

  • Fall 2021: Research and develop plastic action-civics educational materials (“CAP Plastics”); develop pre- and post-event surveys for HackBio 2022; obtain IRB approval for conducting HackBio surveys; complete Duke’s working with minors training
  • Spring 2022: Deliver CAP Plastics at HackBio 2022; conduct follow-up surveys for lessons learned
  • Summer 2022 (optional): Package HackBio bootcamp and curriculum for wider distribution to other high schools and potentially international partners


Academic credit available for fall and spring semesters; summer funding available


Image: Wild giant otter plays with plastic bottle in the Pantanal, by Paul Williams, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Wild giant otter plays with plastic bottle in the Pantanal.

Team Leaders

  • Zoie Diana, Nicholas School of the Environment–Marine Science and Conservation–Ph.D. Student
  • Meagan Dunphy-Daly, Nicholas School of the Environment-Marine Science and Conservation
  • David McAdams, Fuqua School of Business
  • John Virdin, Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions

/graduate Team Members

  • Akash Chopra, Analytical Political Econ - AM
  • Rachel Earnhardt, Master of Environmental Management, Environmental Economics/Policy
  • Juliette Lee, Master of Environmental Management, Coastal Environmental Management

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Madison Griffin
  • Alicia Medina
  • Olivia Polemeni
  • Lydia Sellers, Environmental Sci/Policy (AB)
  • Jillian Senk
  • Emma Shuppert
  • Amber Skinner, Environmental Sci/Policy (AB)
  • Deven Stewart
  • Katie Tan
  • Zixin Zhao

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Nicolette Cagle, Nicholas School of the Environment-Environmental Sciences and Policy
  • Rachel Karasik, Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions
  • Michelle Nowlin, Duke Law
  • Amy Pickle, Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions
  • Kelly Reilly, Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions
  • Jan Riggsbee, Arts & Sciences-Program in Education
  • Stephen Roady, Duke Law
  • Jason Somarelli, School of Medicine-Medicine: Medical Oncology
  • Jessica Sperling, Social Science Research Institute
  • Daniel Vermeer, Fuqua School of Business

/zcommunity Team Members

  • Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University
  • Duke University Marine Lab
  • Nicholas Institute for Enviornmental Policy Solutions
  • Durham Public Schools
  • East Durham Children's Initiative
  • Fuqua School of Business
  • Duke Law School
  • Durham Science Alliance
  • Keri Doggett, Constitutional Rights Foundation
  • Laura Wesley, Constitutional Rights Foundation