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Oil Spill Cleanup

Sharon D. Perez-Suarez, Melissa Straten, Malinda Schaefer Zarske, Janet Yowell, TeachEngineering of Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, CU Boulder

This hands-on activity will provide students with an understanding of the issues that surround environmental clean-up. Students will create their own oil spill, try different methods for cleaning it up, and then discuss the merits of each method in terms of effectiveness (cleanliness) and cost. They will be asked to put themselves in the place of both an environmental engineer and an oil company owner who are responsible for the clean-up.

Activity takes two 45-minute classroom periods.

Learn more about Teaching Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness»

Grade Level

Could be modified to be used with high school students.

Energy Literacy

This Activity builds on the following concepts of Energy Literacy.

Click a topic below for supporting information, teaching ideas, and sample activities.

Excellence in Environmental Education Guidelines

1. Questioning, Analysis and Interpretation Skills:B) Designing investigations
Other materials addressing:
B) Designing investigations.
1. Questioning, Analysis and Interpretation Skills:C) Collecting information
Other materials addressing:
C) Collecting information.
4. Personal and Civic Responsibility:B) Recognizing citizens' rightrs and responsiblities
Other materials addressing:
B) Recognizing citizens' rightrs and responsiblities.
2. Knowledge of Environmental Processes and Systems:2.3 Humans and Their Societies:C) Political and economic systems
Other materials addressing:
C) Political and economic systems.
2. Knowledge of Environmental Processes and Systems:2.4 Environment and Society:A) Human/environment interactions
Other materials addressing:
A) Human/environment interactions.
2. Knowledge of Environmental Processes and Systems:2.4 Environment and Society:D) Technology
Other materials addressing:
D) Technology.
2. Knowledge of Environmental Processes and Systems:2.4 Environment and Society:E) Environmental Issues
Other materials addressing:
E) Environmental Issues.

Notes From Our Reviewers The CLEAN collection is hand-picked and rigorously reviewed for scientific accuracy and classroom effectiveness. Read what our review team had to say about this resource below or learn more about how CLEAN reviews teaching materials
Teaching Tips | Science | Pedagogy | Technical Details

Teaching Tips

About the Content

  • Great hands-on activity that allows students to understand, through experimentation, the most common techniques used in cleaning up oil spills.
  • Students are encouraged to argue for both involved parties, environmentalists and oil company owners. This tactcic can help develop an understanding for each interest group.
  • Educators may want to seek additional background materials to expand on the cleaning methods and issues associated with each method.
  • Comments from expert scientist: Overall, great exercise! I really love the introduction of what environmental engineers do other than oil cleanup. The worksheet isn't too lengthy, the tools used are common household items, and the partner activity makes for great discussions. Specific strengths include the following:
    -explanation of the density and hydrophobic properties of oil
    -the relatable example of adding pollution to the atmosphere from our cars and the difference between the atmosphere and ocean diluting these pollutants
    -the clear definitions of skimming, absorbing, dispersing
    -organizing and analyzing data using bar graphs, especially without quantitative values

    A few suggestions are as follows:
    -it would be great to see the students use the word "hydrophobic" in their worksheet
    -I think quickly adding how the pollutants reach the ocean would be helpful to fully grasp the concept of toxins entering the ocean (via rain and water run-off)
    -the statement "The ocean can dilute the runoff to a certain extent—resulting in no immediate threat to inhabitants." is a little in the grey area. It might be best to just delete the second part of that sentence and leave it as "The ocean can dilute the runoff to a certain extent." Because sometimes pollutants, such as pathogens, can immediately harm people and marine life swimming in the local region. http://site.iugaza.edu.ps/elnabris/files/2015/09/1_What-is-pollution.pdf
    -It might be helpful to present (quickly) the actual tools engineers use to clean up the oil spills (if not already explained)

About the Pedagogy

  • Carefully designed activity that includes engineering techniques and engages students in hands-on experiments and discussions.
  • Students defend their position as a environmental engineer or oil company executive.
  • Discussion includes a step where every student is required to take a stand (a "forced choice") on what they think.
  • Defining hypothesis, setting up and doing experiments, graphing data, and discussing the results will engage students of different learning styles.
  • Pre-assessment and post-assessment strategies are included, but could be further supplemented.

Technical Details/Ease of Use

  • Necessary materials (detergent, pie pans) are inexpensive and easy to find.
Entered the Collection: April 2018 Last Reviewed: June 2016

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