Penguins, Plastics, and Poo

This week’s guest blog post is from Dr Gemma Hall, who is leading a range of Zooniverse educational outreach initiatives in the UK. Read on to find out about the activities she led earlier this month during British Science Week.

– Helen



Penguins, Plastics, and Poo

Science Week, a week when we scientists gush about our favourite subject, attempt to explain to others what we do all day or just get plain messy with icky, sticky crowd-pleasing experiments. I think I successfully covered all these things during Science Week. And I have Zooniverse to thank for (most of) this.

I’m a STEM Ambassador (, which means I do lots of science outreach. And I’m a huge Zooniverse fan. Whether it’s bashing bugs, elephant expeditioning or galaxy-gazing, I love that anyone with a computer/internet connection can help with real people-powered research, including children.

So, for Science Week, instead of just talking about what scientists do, I used Zooniverse to get primary school children being the scientists. Children like feeling important, so key to engaging them from the outset meant emphasising the importance of helping real researchers make the world a better place. Cue dramatic gasps and disbelieving looks all around the ICT Suite!

Children also like being able to relate to what they’re learning about. And so, I introduced them to the researchers they would be helping…



 Scene: Children transfixed by a PowerPoint presentation showing a picture of Dr Tom Hart, of Penguin Watch, wrapped up against the harsh Antarctic elements, surrounded by penguins.

Tom is a Penguinologist, and I almost had to stop the teachers stampeding out of the ICT Suite in an effort to re-train so they too can get such a great job title. The children, meanwhile, were more captivated by the wondrous site of the hundreds of penguins.

I told the class that Tom’s laboratory is the Antarctic and he wears hefty, cold weather gear rather than a white lab coat. He studies penguins because they give us a really good indication of the effects humans have on the Antarctic. Tom needs to keep an eye on the penguins across many Antarctic sites, all day, every day of the year. However, I continued, Tom can’t live in the Antarctic all year because it’s too harsh and he’d miss his family. He has cameras taking hundreds of photos every day and now has so many that he needs help to analyse them.

And with that, the children keenly set about tagging penguins: Adelies, King, Gentoos, Chinstraps; adults, chicks and eggs. They were careful to observe the behaviour of the penguins and their habitats, which both gave indications of whether the penguins might be incubating eggs or caring for chicks. They imagined what working in the harsh Antarctic environment would be like and they were intrigued about what penguins get up to in the night!

The energy in the classroom could have powered the computers the children were using! And the concentration levels and tagging skills were higher than I’ve seen many adults apply (sorry, Adults!). Furthermore, they asked if they could continue helping to spot penguins at home, so huge was their passion to help.

If you want spot penguins too, go to:



Scene: Children looking at a PowerPoint presentation picture of a beach, with Peter Kohler and Ellie McKay of The Plastic Tide flying their drone.

Plastics have been in the news lots recently and these children were very clued-up, so they needed little introduction to the plastic problem. Already sufficiently motivated to help clean up our planet, they were spurred on even more by hearing that the The Plastic Tide project is the official project of British Science Week and that it was featuring on Sky News and the BBC!

I explained that Peter and Ellie needed help to tag plastic or litter in beach pictures taken by drones. Tagging the pictures teaches a computer program to recognise plastic. The more pictures that are tagged, the better the program will become. Soon, computers will be able to find the plastics themselves, aiding the creation of a global inventory of marine plastic pollution.

The children set to the task with determination, but it soon became apparent that they were not all totally happy; some were frustrated that not all the images had plastics in. After a gentle reminder that we really shouldn’t be hoping to find plastics and that it’s better to have plastic-free beaches, they returned to the task, only to exclaim later that tagging plastics was making them angry. However, this time, they were annoyed that they had spotted so much plastic and litter. Among their finds we had shoes, old toys, many bottle tops, rope, plastic bags, scores of fragments and even an old, gnarled “danger” sign.

We calculated that in one class of 30 children, each child had tagged between 10 and 20 images, so all together they had helped tag an outstanding 300–600 images. With many other schools around the country also tagging plastics, no wonder the Science Week target to tag over 250 000 images was smashed within days. In fact, by the final day, The Plastic Tide had a record-breaking 1.5 million tags—6 times their original target! That equates to 290 000 a day or 800+ tags a minute!

I spoke to Peter at the end of Science Week and he was blown away by the energy and support:

“Science Week has been a huge boost to tagging. The more tags we get, the better the computer algorithm becomes at detecting plastic. Each tag could help find millions more of the same item and will help us clean up our beaches”.

Peter also confided that there are some very exciting announcements coming soon from The Plastic Tide, so keep an eye out for those, and KEEP TAGGING!



I bet you’re wondering where the “poo” in the title comes from? Well, that’s the icky sticky crowd-pleaser I was referring to at the start. Let’s just say that soggy Weetabix squeezed through nylon tights with a hole in the toe end is a really great way to demonstrate the intestine and how it results in… poo! And I’m also told that before you see a penguin colony in the Antarctic, you smell it first.

For a cleaner approach to science, use Zooniverse!


Get tagging!

Get your children tagging!

Help with REAL research and make the world a better place.




Dr Gemma Hall is a Science & Technology Writer and STEM Ambassador. She loves explaining complex things simply, and enthusing people about the importance of science to their everyday lives. Gemma is working to develop Zooniverse in schools, enabling young people to perform real research so that they better understand what scientists do.



Twitter: @Gemma_STEM

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s