Sustainable Development Goals


Tackling the ocean’s plastic problem through engineering

Students set to join the UCL Faculty of Engineering were invited to spend some of their summer developing a solution to improve the health of the world’s oceans.

SDG Case study 14.1-Teaching-OceanHealthChallenge-final

7 October 2020

UCL Faculty of Engineering asked incoming students to spend some of their summer before starting university taking part in the UCL Ocean Health Challenge: to devise a world-changing idea that will reduce the amount of plastics entering the world’s oceans. 

“We wanted to enthuse students about joining UCL, so we set them a huge challenge that could be addressed by the different disciplines within the faculty,” explains Christopher Neil,  Head of Strategy & Operations for the faculty’s Digital Innovation Unit. “Before they even arrive at university we wanted to inspire them to change the world.” 

By the end of August, more than 250 prospective students across the faculty’s ten departments had engaged with the course.   

“Before they even arrive at university we wanted to inspire them to change the world.” 

“Our approach to teaching is very hands-on and application based and we wanted to bring that approach to an online course” explains Dr Fiona Truscott, a senior teaching fellow on the faculty’s Integrated Engineering Programme (IEP) who co-designed the course with the faculty’s learning technologist, Matthew Seren Smith.  

“By getting them to design and build their own prototype, we hope to give potential students a taste of what our current students and engineers do on a daily basis,” she adds.  

The innovative solutions that were proposed included a self-recycling bin, which scans and sorts rubbish to improve rates of plastic recycling, and a beach cleaning app that rewards people for collecting waste. Other participants proposed creating alternative materials using recycled plastics for the construction industry and a machine that convert plastics into oil for reuse. 

“The health of the world’s oceans provided the perfect scenario for the kind of interdisciplinary challenge the students will be faced with as engineers, as well as providing us with the opportunity to highlight the issues our oceans currently face,” says Matthew. 

The faculty’s Digital Innovation Unit encouraged students to collaborate and discuss their solutions in online forums, and even developed a set of ocean-related holograms for students to view using their very own homemade hologram viewer. Furthermore, UCL Engineering’s careers team arranged a set of interviews with some of the faculty’s former students to discuss potential career paths.   

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