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Heading Microplastics Project Wins Environment Southland Award

A microplastics citizen science project initiated in 2019 through the Southern Institute of Technology’s Bachelor of Environmental Management programme, is going from strength to strength - its latest recognition is winning the Environment Southland 2021 Environmental Action in Education Award, announced at the awards evening and dinner, on 29th October at Ascot Park Hotel in Invercargill.

The project, Micro-Investigators: monitoring of waterway microplastic pollution in Southland, New Zealand through citizen science, first gained national attention when it was selected by New Zealand Institute of Skills and Technology (NZIST) Research Directors in 2020, to be part of a pilot programme across Te Pūkenga | NZIST organisations, where they received specific support in developing grant applications for gaining external funding.

The outcome of that support was realised in June of this year, when Micro-Investigators successfully gained funding from the Lottery Environment and Heritage Committee, which was a first for SIT, and it reinforced the credibility of the project, ensuring its ongoing development locally, as well as further afield.

Dr Christine Liang, Programme Manager for the School of Environmental Management,

has led Micro-Investigators since its inception in 2020 and said from the outset it showed huge potential. If they were able to successfully roll it out locally in the Southland community, the model could be used anywhere, engaging children as the citizen scientists, growing their environmental awareness and positively influencing young budding scientists into the field.

“Since beginning, we’ve seen some real impacts and outcomes. Some schools we work with have formed their own action groups against plastic pollution,” she said.

Being chosen as the winners in the education category of the 2021 awards, was an honour, because the judges had commented on the high calibre of the nominees. “I can’t even begin to express how honoured we are, with all the amazing projects going on in Southland,” she said.

“They (the judges) chose our project because it was so comprehensive – it reaches all different levels of education.”

Primary school students collect the data (samples from local waterways), secondary school students then analyse the data in the lab, and tertiary students lead the project and share the information produced.

“The older students are being role models for the younger ones, and those younger students can see pathways to becoming a scientist - they’re showing interest in having science as a career,” she said.

Dr Liang said whilst the funding they received has been helpful, the success of the project all hinged on the amount of involvement and level of support received from the community.

“Southlanders have been amazing, it has only happened because of the people of Southland and it couldn’t have become what it is without the support of many people and organisations like Wastenet, the community groups and the schools. She used the key role played by Enviroschools as one example: “They were instrumental in us reaching schools, and helped us to engage farther into the region.”

“It’s great to see Micro-Investigators making a positive difference in our community and it’s wonderful to be recognised through this award,” she added.

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