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Primary Sources in Science Classrooms: Microbeads, Nanomaterials, and Federal Legislation

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This post was written by Trey Smith, the Library of Congress 2015-16 Science Teacher in Residence.

The Library of Congress is home to millions of historical primary sources, including documents related to the work of Congress. Teachers can explore, the official website for U.S. federal legislative information, and consider how federal legislation can launch science learning.

Screenshot of PDF version of H.R.1321, Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015
Screenshot of PDF version of H.R.1321, Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015

Take a look at the legislative text of H.R.1321, the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015. The bill became law on December 28, 2015, and is only two pages long.

  • What does the law change?
  • What scientific concepts are in the legislative text?

Teachers can facilitate an analysis of the text with students using the Library’s Primary Source Analysis Tool.

After students review the law and record observations, reflections, and questions, they might research plastic microbeads and the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. Students might read scientific texts to learn more about the sizes and properties of microplastics, products that contain microbeads, absorption of chemicals by microbeads, bioaccumulation in food chains, or biodegradation. They might read news articles for historical and political context. 

Screenshot of sample search results

The legislative text provides an entryway into learning science—learning shaped and extended by students’ observations, reflections, and questions.

To find more science-related legislation, go to, type “nanotechnology” into the search bar, and search “All Legislation.”

After the results display, check the “Became Law” box under the tab “Status of Legislation.” The site can render results to include bills that never became law and that were at various stages in the legislative process. Results can also display according to specific date ranges.

Scroll through the list of laws and find S.3187, the Food and Drug Administration Safety and Innovation Act passed by the 112th Congress. includes summaries written by the Congressional Research Service, text of bills introduced since 1989, lists of legislative actions taken, and information on amendments. S.3187 is the most recent authorization of the work of the Food and Drug Administration. The Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 amended but did not fully replace the text of the Food and Drug Administration Safety and Innovation Act.

Find Section 1126 of the law, which discusses nanotechnology. Some teachers might prefer to show only one portion of the law instead of sharing the entire document with students. An excerpt from the first paragraph of Section 1126 is enough to kick off conversation about nanotechnology.

Screenshot of PDF version of S.3187, Food and Drug Administration Safety and Innovation Act
Screenshot of PDF version of S.3187, Food and Drug Administration Safety and Innovation Act

Students might wonder:

  • What is a nanomaterial?
  • What is the status of research on therapies that use nanomaterials?
  • What else do scientists and engineers know about nanomaterials? What do they not know?

Encourage students to explore this emerging technology by consulting other primary and secondary sources, developing questions for further investigation as they construct new understandings.

Earlier posts on lead paint and concussions incorporated legislation. What other topics might you research on to initiate questions and research in science class?



  1. Fascinating,thought-provoking and a wonderful addition to the growing number of these science-related posts!

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