UCL Engineering


Ocean Health Challenge 2024

National schools engineering design challenge taking place in Autumn 2024.

YouTube Widget Placeholderhttps://youtu.be/WHgk7NUT15M


Do your students have an innovative idea that will reduce the amount of plastics entering the world’s oceans?

If so they have the chance to win a grand prize worth £2000 towards enriching engineering education in your school and £500 for themselves. Additionally, you will have the option to enter your students for a Bronze CREST award!


The UCL Ocean Health Challenge 2024 is a national engineering design challenge for 11-18 year old secondary school and college students.

The competition invites students to design, prototype and pitch engineering solutions aimed at preventing plastic pollution getting into our oceans. Example entries include physical solutions such as a smart recycling bin which scans and sorts rubbish to improve rates of plastic recycling, digital solutions such as a reminder app to encourage the use of reusable shopping bags, and behaviour change initiatives such as an advertising campaign to encourage people to use resuable cups when they purchase takeaway tea and coffee.

The challenge will be led by renowned UCL academics and broadcasters Dr. Fiona Truscott, Dr. Helen Czerski and Dr. Zoe Laughlin, who will provide expert guidance on the engineering design process, plastic pollution in the ocean environment, and the science of materials. 

Key information: 

  • The Ocean Health Challenge will take place over 8 weeks between October 7th and November 30th 2024 
  • It is part of UCL’s Festival of Engineering, which celebrates of 150 years of engineering education
  • The whole activity takes roughly 10 hours to complete  
  • Students can complete the work at any point in the 8-week period providing their entry is submitted by the deadline on November 30th
  • Entries will take the form of a short simple design portfolio and poster showcasing the design


To take part, a teacher from your school needs to register your school for the challenge.

Please note: Unfortunately, it is not possible for students to take part independently of their school. 

Teachers - register here

Why take part?

More than 170 trillion pieces of plastic are now estimated to be floating in the world’s oceans and it could nearly triple by 2040 if no action is taken (Source: Plos One). Plastic pollution is fatal to fish, marine animals and sea birds and takes hundreds of years to decompose. The main motivation of the Ocean Health Challenge is to raise awareness around this issue and the impact plastic pollution is having on marine life. 

Here are just some of the reasons why your school should take part:  

  • High-quality learning resources: documentary-level video and university-style resources designed and delivered by UCL’s expert academics.  
  • Flexible: ten detailed one-hour lesson plans mean the challenge can be run as part of timetabled lessons or during lunch and after-school clubs. Learning resources will be available online to both teachers and students. Teachers can also download resources to use separately in lessons. See below for ideas on how you could run it at your school.
  • Interdisciplinary: the challenge aligns with STEM and Non-STEM subjects from Maths, Science, Computing and Design Technology, to Geography, Citizenship, Sociology and Media Studies. See below section on curriculum mapping for more details.
  • Hands-on: at UCL we believe in a hands-on, project-based approach to teaching. By encouraging students to design and build their own prototypes, we aim to give students a taste of what our current students and engineers do on a daily basis.
  • Gatsby benchmarks: the challenge can help schools meet ‘Benchmark 3: Addressing the needs of each pupil’, ‘Benchmark 4: Linking the curriculum learning to careers’, and ‘Benchmark 7: Encounters with further and higher education’. See section on Gatsby Benchmarks for an in-depth explanation of how it meets each benchmark.
  • CREST qualifying activity: the challenge lasts a minimum of 10 learning hours meaning students will be able to use it as evidence to enter for a Bronze CREST award.  
  • Prizes: winning entries from each age group will receive prizes for both their school and themselves. There will also be a grand prize for the overall winner.

Dr. Fiona Truscott standing behind a metal table in the middle of a set which looks like a scientific laboratory.

Entries will be shortlisted by a UCL Engineering team. Shortlisted entries will then be assessed by a judging panel that includes at least two UCL academics against an assessment criteria, which will be shared with teachers in advance of the challenge kick-off. 

The winning entry for each year group will receive a prize equivalent to £500 for their school, and a prize equivalent to £100 for the student. Runners-up in each year group will receive a prize equivalent to £100 for their school, and a prize equivalent to £50 for the student.  

The best overall entry will receive a grand prize equivalent to £2000 for their school, and a prize equivalent to £500 for the student. The grand prize winner will not receive this in addition to a year group prize i.e. they will not receive a prize for their school equivalent to £2500, and a prize equivalent to £600 for the student.  

Prize winners and runners-up must redeem their prize within 6 months of their receipt. Please note, we will follow up with winning schools to find out the impact participating in the project has had for the school and the winning student. 

Learning outcomes

By the end of the Ocean Health Challenge, learners will be able to:

  1. Discuss the complexity of the ocean ecosystem and recognise its importance for the health of our planet
  2. Describe the key properties of plastics and their benefits
  3. Explain how plastics enter the ocean and summarise the ways in which they cause harm to the ecosystem and the species that inhabit it
  4. Outline the role of waste and demonstrate why we should think about it as a starting point rather than an end point
  5. Explain the key characteristics and responsibilities of engineers and discuss the role they can play in tackling global problems
  6. Adopt a reflexive approach when defining problems, taking into account the scope, trade-offs, stakeholders and their personal values
  7. Practice planet-centred design and apply the engineering design cycle
  8. Build a prototype and evaluate it to gain insights on their design
  9. Plan and deliver a pitch in the form of a poster to effectively communicate their solution 

Dr. Helen Czerski sitting on a rock in front of the ocean at Newhaven.
Curriculum Mapping

The Ocean Health Challenge links to the curriculum in Key Stage 3, Key Stage 4 and Key Stage 5 across a number of subjects. Please see below for further detail on each subject.



  • Relationships in an ecosystem - how organisms affect, and are affected by, their environment, including the accumulation of toxic materials. The effect of unwanted materials in the oceans impacting on ocean ecosystems.


  • Photosynthesis - factors affecting the rate of photosynthesis. Students could investigate the effect of plastics on algae in the identification of evidence to support the reduction of plastic flow into the Oceans.
  • Ecosystems - the role of microorganisms (decomposers) in the cycling of materials through an ecosystem. Investigating the impact of plastics on Ocean microorganisms.


  • Ecosystems - microorganisms play a key role in recycling chemical element. The potential engineering application of microorganisms to help with the breakdown of plastics.
  • Biodiversity - adaptations of organisms to their environments can be behavioural, physiological and anatomical. The effect of plastics on environmental adaptations of organisms in the oceans as a pretext for engineering a solution to mitigate these effects.
  • Research and referencing - use online and offline research skills including websites, textbooks and other printed scientific sources of information. When identifying a problem and communicating the proposed solution developing researching and referencing skills.


  • Earth and atmosphere - Earth as a source of limited resources and the efficacy of recycling. The effect that plastics entering the ocean have on the availability of the ocean’s resources.
  • Chemical reactions - defining acids and alkalis in terms of neutralisation reaction. The effect of changes in the Ocean’s chemistry because of human activity. Acidification of the oceans.


  • Organic chemistry - reactions classified as addition, elimination, substitution, oxidation, reduction, hydrolysis, addition polymerisation and condensation polymerisation. The challenge could investigate alternative polymerisation processes around either reusable plastics or biodegradable plastics.
  • Research and referencing - use online and offline research skills including websites, textbooks and other printed scientific sources of information. When identifying a problem and communicating the proposed solution developing researching and referencing skills.


  • Responsibilities of citizens, community engagement, and environmental protection. Evaluate the role of individuals, communities, and governments in addressing plastic pollution and promoting sustainable practices.
  • Politics, democracy, and justice. Sustainable development and the environment. Evaluating the societal and environmental implications of policies can help students understand the broader impact of their design choices on communities and the planet.


  • Democracy and Justice. Explore the role of government policies and international agreements in addressing plastic pollution in the ocean.
  • Rights and Responsibilities. Discuss the environmental rights and responsibilities of individuals and corporations in relation to plastic pollution.


  • Algorithms. Develop algorithms to analyse data on plastic pollution in the ocean, such as calculating the rate of pollution increase over time.
  • Computational models. Create a computational model to simulate the effects of plastic pollution on marine ecosystems
  • Programming. Write programs that track and visualise data on plastic pollution in oceans, potentially including features for predicting future pollution levels based on current trends.


  • Computer Systems. Potential to research the role of computer systems in monitoring and managing ocean health, including the use of sensors and networks to detect and track plastic waste
  • Impacts of Digital Technology on Wider Society. Evaluate the environmental impact of plastic pollution through the lens of digital technology, exploring how technology can be leveraged to reduce waste and improve sustainability efforts


  • Data Representation. Work with real-world datasets on plastic pollution, creating data visualizations to identify trends, hotspots, and the effectiveness of cleanup efforts
Design Technology


  • Sustainable Materials. Explore the use of sustainable materials in product design to reduce ocean pollution.
  • Design principles, material choices, and sustainability. Design sustainable products considering the lifecycle of materials to reduce plastic waste.


  • Identifying and Investigating Design Possibilities. Investigate the impact of plastic pollution in the ocean and identify design opportunities to create sustainable packaging or alternatives to single-use plastics
  • Evaluating. Evaluate existing products' environmental impact and consider how redesigning them could mitigate plastic pollution, engaging in peer reviews and feedback


  • Designing and Making Principles. Explore the environmental impact of materials, focusing on the lifecycle of products and the importance of designing for sustainability
  • Technical Principles. Investigate the properties of alternative materials to plastics and their potential use in reducing ocean pollution


  • Human and physical geography – coasts. Explore the physical characteristics of oceans, including waves, tides, and marine ecosystems
  • Human and physical geography – how human activity relies on effective functioning of natural systems. Investigate the role of oceans in climate regulation and the impact of human activities on marine environments.
  • Geographical skills and fieldwork - use Geographical Information Systems (GIS) to view, analyse and interpret places and data. Potential to use software to analyse the geographical distribution and environmental impact of plastic pollution on land and in oceans.


  • Place: processes and relationships – geography of the UK, environmental challenges. Investigate the causes and consequences of environmental issues such as plastic pollution in the ocean
  • Human geography: processes and change - The causes and consequences of uneven development at global level. Explore strategies for sustainable development and management of marine environments affected by plastic pollution


  • Global systems and global governance - global systems shape relationships between individuals, states and environments. Explore the global distribution and impact of plastic pollution in the oceans, considering international agreements and governance structures aimed at tackling this issue.


  • Develop fluency - move freely between different numerical, algebraic, graphical and diagrammatic representations. Ability to use and translate data when defining a problem then designing a solution.
  • Statistics - construct and interpret appropriate tables, charts, and diagrams, including frequency tables, bar charts, pie charts, and pictograms for categorical data, and vertical line (or bar) charts for ungrouped and grouped numerical data. When identifying their problem or communicating about their proposed solution students can develop their ability to utilise charts.


  • Algebra - plot and interpret graphs (including reciprocal graphs {and exponential graphs}) and graphs of non-standard functions in real contexts. Graphical analysis of plastics entering the Earth’s oceans could be conducted as a real context.
  • Statistics - use and interpret scatter graphs of bivariate data; recognise correlation and know that it does not indicate causation; draw estimated lines of best fit; make predictions; interpolate and extrapolate apparent trends whilst knowing the dangers of so doing. Coherently and precisely utilise interpretative skills to identify causation of effects caused by plastics in the Oceans.


  • Aims and objectives - apply mathematics in other fields of study and be aware of the relevance of mathematics to the world of work and to situations in society in general. Mathematical analysis could be carried out on the effect of plastics on the oceans within a sociological context.
  • Use of technology - The use of technology, in particular mathematical and statistical graphing tools and spreadsheets, must permeate the study of AS and A level mathematics. Data analysis and graphing tools could be used by students to compute summary statistics or access probabilities from computing statistical distributions.


  • Energy - conservation of energy in a closed system, dissipation. The ability to use more efficient processes to change the way we use plastics to reduce the quantity required. Students could design a solution that creates more efficient plastics or analyse the energy involved in manufacturing plastics.


  • Mechanical properties of matter - stress, strain, Young modulus , force-extension graphs, energy stored. The material and engineering challenges around plastics and how changing their properties to have a longer lifetime and reusability could reduce unwanted plastics in the Ocean.
  • Research and referencing - use online and offline research skills including websites, textbooks and other printed scientific sources of information. When identifying a problem and communicating the proposed solution developing researching and referencing skills.


  • The nature of sociological thought – the relationship between sociology and contemporary social policy. The impact of policy on how Ocean Health can be preserved.
  • Presentation of evidence and argument - organise evidence and communicate arguments in a coherent manner. Ensuring the efficacy of their proposed solution is communicated coherently with clear links between evidence and the argument for policy change.

Gatsby Benchmarks

The Ocean Health Challenge can help schools meet a number of the Gatsby Benchmarks.

See a breakdown of the Gatsby Benchmarks below

As mentioned, the challenge meets three key Gatsby benchmarks:  

Benchmark 3: Addressing the needs of each pupil
The challenge encourages participation from students across various academic abilities and backgrounds, providing an inclusive platform where every student can contribute their unique perspectives and skills. By addressing the global issue of ocean pollution, the challenge connects with students' values and concerns. The flexibility in project ideas, ranging from developing a reusable bag reminder app to designing a smart recycling bin, ensures that students with a wide array of skills can find a meaningful way to participate and make an impact. 

Benchmark 4: Linking curriculum learning to careers
The challenge has been mapped to key aspects of the UK National Curriculum. By integrating principles from subjects like Science, Citizenship, and Design Technology, the UCL Ocean Health Challenge shows students the real-world applications of their classroom knowledge. The hands-on, prototype-based approach mirrors the work of engineers and innovators, giving students a practical understanding of how their studies can lead to careers in engineering, environmental science, and technology.  

Benchmark 7: Encounters with further and higher education
The challenge provides students with insights into further and higher education opportunities. Through this initiative, students gain exposure to the type of project-based learning and innovative thinking that is central to university programs like UCL's Integrated Engineering Programme. By working on this project, students can see how UCL, and other higher education institutions, can support their ambitions to tackle global challenges, encouraging them to consider pursuing further studies in engineering, environmental sciences, and related fields. 

Data Privacy


In order to register for the UCL Ocean Health Challenge, teachers will be required to provide their name, the name of their school, and their work email address and telephone number. This data will be used to communicate with teachers about the Ocean Health Challenge and other pieces of UCL schools outreach and engagement that may be of interest.  

In order to access the videos and learning resources, teachers will need to register for UCL Extend, UCL’s outward facing virtual learning environment (VLE). Before registering, please read UCL Extend’s Terms of Website Use and UCL’s Privacy Policy.  


There is the option for students to register for UCL Extend and access the learning resources using their school email. This allows teachers to set activities for completion as homework and independent study. Teachers will be provided with a link that they can share with students, which gives them access to the course page for the challenge.  

As per UCL Extend’s Terms of Website Use, the use of the platform by a minor is subject to the consent of their parent or guardian. Many schools have a blanket consent form that parents/guardians fill out when their child is in Year 7, allowing the student to register for third-party websites connected to teaching and learning as part of their studies. However, please do not assume this is the case and check for your school.  

When students register for UCL Extend, only UCL staff will be able to view the student email addresses. The student email addresses will only be stored and processed so that students can access the learning materials on the UCL Extend platform. Students will be able to request to be unregistered from the platform at any time. Students will only be able to view learning materials and will not be able to communicate with other students or UCL staff. If you wish for your students to sign up to the platform, please ensure they only do this using their official school email address. 

If you do not wish for your students to sign up to the UCL Extend platform, that is fine, they and you will still be able to fully participate in the challenge.
Important: Please note, schools are responsible for their own safeguarding procedures and risk assessments.

Competition entry submission

Competition submission will take place on the UCL Extend platform. Students will not be able to submit their entries directly. Instead, they will submit their entries to their teacher, who will check them, compile them and submit them to a submission inbox on the UCL Extend platform.  

Entries must be received no later than 11.59 on Saturday 30th November 2024.

Join the challenge

We invite teachers from across the UK to join us in this critical effort to protect our oceans and showcase the creativity and engineering skills of their students.

Please note: Unfortunately, it is not possible for students to take part independently of their school. 

Teachers - register here

Is there a cost to participate?

There is no cost to participate in the challenge. However, there is a centre cost for submitting student entries as part of a Bronze CREST award. It will be the responsibility of individual schools to enter and pay for CREST award entry for their students. 

Do I need materials and equipment?

Not at all. This is a multidisciplinary challenge. Students could design a mobile app that prompts people to dispose of their waste responsibly, a plastic labelling system that machines can recognise in recycling centres, or a social media campaign to discourage the use of single-use plastics. Creativity is key!

Is this a curricular or extracurricular activity?

It can be both. Some schools might run this in STEM clubs, while others may use it as part of a class or as a cross-subject piece of project-based learning. 

Are there lesson plans available?

Yes, lesson plans will be provided as part of the challenge resources.

Is specialist knowledge required?

No specialist knowledge is required. The project is designed with all the necessary information included in the lessons.

Can I adapt the resources?

Certainly. You are encouraged to adapt the resources to best fit the needs of your students and school.

How many students can I enter?

You can enter as many students as you like!

Can the prize winnings be used on anything?

No, both school and student prizes will need to go to furthering the engineering education of the school/student. More guidance will be provided at a later date.

Can I run this challenge after December?

From a learning perspective, absolutely. The resources will be available for schools to run at alternate times during the year, such as during British Science Week. If you do run the activity past the competition deadline (30th November 2024), you will not be able to submit your student’s designs for entry and will not be eligible to win any of the prizes.

Where can I find additional support?

For additional support, please contact ucleo@ucl.ac.uk