Environmental pollution is a problem the world over.

Students in Julie Olson’s class are getting a chance to study water quality and the effects of plastics on the environment around the world as she pursues certification as a National Geographic Educator.

Olson and her students were at Lake Mitchell Wednesday and Thursday, sampling water and looking for plastic refuse for the project.

“I’ve gone to workshops and worked with Ann Lewis at the South Dakota Discovery Center in Pierre, and she is heavily involved in environmental issues and things like this. And she is National Geographic Educator certified,” Olson said. “There are several in the state who are. She recommended it. It’s a good program, and I decided to pursue it this fall.”

The National Geographic Educator Certification is a free professional development program that recognizes pre-K through 12 formal and informal educators committed to inspiring the next generation of explorers, conservationists and changemakers, according to its website. The program builds educators’ skills in generating classroom activities that are interdisciplinary and centered around real-world problems at local, regional and global scales.

That’s led Olson and her science students at Mitchell Second Chance High School to explore water quality and the effects of plastics on the environment in coordination with other teachers and students around the globe.

The first phase of the certification involves learning the framework for approval. Olson is in the second phase, in which he has chosen to look at plastics pollution. She teaches her students to test water at various places around Lake Mitchell, measuring quantities of nitrates, phosphates, basic pH levels and dissolved oxygen, which affects fish and water clarity.

“We go and test the water, but I’m also having the students pick up plastics that are lying beachside. Little pieces and big pieces,” Olson said.

Olson and the students are cataloging what they find and then comparing what her students gather in their measurements with what teachers and their students find in comparable environments in other countries. She is working with teachers and classrooms in Japan and Estonia to get a broader picture of water quality and the impacts of plastics.

“We’re sharing that with a school in Estonia and Japan. So the students will be able to look on the map and see what we got. Again, it’s a global view,” Olson said.

Olson said the research will be a good way for students to compare how different countries deal with different environmental conditions. She said Japan has a strong history of sustainability and limiting waste, which will be a beneficial example for her students to see.

“It fits in with the National Geographic Educator Certification, and that’s why we’re asking them to share with plastics. They’re way ahead in the game in Japan when it comes to sustainability,” Olson said.

As a side project, the students in Japan are growing corn and Olson’s students are growing okra. The two groups will then make recipes out of what they grow and shoot videos of their progress and results as part of the cultural and scientific exchange.

Eventually, the students will merge the work with an art project Olson has planned for the plastics they acquire. Inspired by a trip to a museum in Charlotte, North Carolina where she saw an artist’s creation made out of waste plastics, she thought it would be a good way to use art to express a scientific idea.

“We talk about STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics) and we believe art helps convey scientific messages,” Olson said.

Other STEAM projects Olson has had students work on in the past include making Japanese tea cups, which fostered discussions on ceramics and the culture of the Japanese tea ceremony. The number of scientific topics that can be explored through art can be surprising, she said.

“Actually, it also ties into bone structure,” Olson said.

Next week Olson said students would also dissect an albatross bolus - similar to an owl pellet - that she obtained from wildlife officials in Hawaii. Albatrosses often feed their young plastics by accident, thinking they are jellyfish. It’s a good way to see the direct impact of plastic pollution on living creatures, she said.

“A lot of plastics look like jellyfish and feed them to their chicks. And before they take flight, they cough up this bolus,” Olson said.

Olson will use some of these studies as part of her pursuit of certification. She has about two more months to complete her program, and will then be evaluated and she will learn if she will receive certification. There are approximately 5,000 teachers enrolled in the program this fall, and not all of them will receive certification.

She’s working hard to make the grade, but even if she’s not one of those selected, she knows the work is impacting the learning of her students, who she hopes will become citizens who think on a bigger scale when it comes to pollution and the environment.

“It’s going to be getting kids to be more of an explorer. With the advancements in technology the students are actually building these skills, which will hopefully build more of a world view as they get older,” Olson said.