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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.

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Learn more about Teaching Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness»


Fossil Fuels
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Grade Level

Middle (6-8)
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Could be modified to be used with high school students.

Energy Literacy

Environmental quality is impacted by energy choices.
Other materials addressing:
7.3 Environmental quality.
Energy decisions can be made using a systems-based approach.
Other materials addressing:
5.3 Systems-based approach.

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 Science

  • 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, which will result in a thorough understanding of each interest group.
  • Background materials for educators, including information for understanding the cleaning efforts and issues associated with each method and suggestions to help guide the discussion, is missing and might need to be supplemented by educator.

About the Pedagogy

  • Carefully designed activity that includes engineering techniques and engages students in hands-on experiments and discussions, defending 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.

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Oil Spill Cleanup --Discussion  

Re the fourth bullet in the Teaching Tips section:
"There is another activity about oil spills on TeachEngineering: http://www.teachengineering.com/view_lesson.php?url=http://www.teachengineering.org/collection/cub_/lessons/cub_enveng/cub_enveng_lesson01.xml that could be a useful supplement to this activity."
Comment: In the TeachEngineering digital collection the "other activity about oil spills" is actually an associated lesson that is designed to be taught as a "shell" around the Oil Spill Cleanup activity that you are reviewing. Looking at this lesson and its associated activity as a set might address/provide more of the teaching tips and science items that were mentioned in the comments (properties of oil; cleaning methods; additional pre- and post-assessment activities). In fact, this lesson/activity set is part of a bigger unit, Environmental Engineering, that presents 7 lessons and 13 activities. See http://www.teachengineering.com/view_curricularunit.php?url=http://www.teachengineering.org/collection/cub_/curricular_units/cub_enveng/cub_enveng_curricularunit.xml
I just thought I'd let you know in case it figures into the pending review.
Thank you,
Denise Carlson
PS: One of the TeachEngineering partner institutions is CU-Boulder. Hi!


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