Gulf Oil Spill: Many Questions, A Few Answers

Children at GCS have been concerned about the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, and in 5th grade science class, we’ve been tackling the issue on many levels.  What follows is a short description of what we are working on in class, as well as resources you can use to explore the issue at home.

Working with a fantastic set of resources available through NOAA’s Ocean Explorer, students have been studying how ROVs work, what deep sea coral species are present near the wreck, and how oil can be collected once spilled.  To the left is a picture of a student working to remove vegetable oil from salt water.  Kids learned about how the density of the oil changes once mixed with water, and how dispersing large amounts oil makes it harder to recover and remove from water.  Kids tried to recover oil from their miniature spill site, and found the job to be difficult and tedious.  Next, they invented their own spill recovery tools, and wrote about how they thought BP, the MMS and NOAA might be working to handle the disaster.

It has been a while since we focused on oil spills in 5th grade science.  Back in 2003, I was able to visit a spill site in Galicia, Spain, thanks to a GCS Faculty Travel Grant.  At that time, the Prestige tanker cracked in half (not unusual for these poorly regulated and aging ships) spilling 77,033 metric tons of heavy fuel oil into the area. Traveling along the coast of Portugal and Spain, I interviewed beach goers and local business owners about the effects of the spill on their communities.  On the beautiful Islas Cies, I found some evidence of the spill in pungent tar balls buried underneath newly laid sand.  I was working with the Coast Guard education department and taking pictures for NOAA at the time. Residents expressed a lot uncertainty about the long-term affects of the spill.  Political battles were intensified by the spill, and ghostly “Nunca MAIS!” signs, showing an elderly Galician woman crying tears of oil, were spray painted all over the coast. People were most interested in the return of their fishing and tourist industry, which took a serious blow thanks to the tanker’s accident.  Many environmentalists tried to take advantage of the opportunity to teach people about resource use as a result of the spill.

At the time, a Coast Guard official visited our classroom, sharing with the fifth graders how they are connected to such disaster through their use of natural resources.   Students were shocked to learn how many everyday objects were connected to oil; crayons, their chairs, cups, toys, etc.

This year, kids in 5th Grade have been studying the Lophelia II mission carried out in March 2009.  You can view video of the Gulf’s incredible biodiversity via Google Earth 5; a program that allows you to dive into the sea and look at recordings of creatures discovered as recently as March 2009!

Students in 2nd and 5th grade have also been learning about how the full life cycle of natural resources impacts our planet.  Fossil fuels are used for more than just transportation; they are the primary source material for plastics.  In 2nd grade, kids examined coal pieces and learned about how long it takes coal and petroleum deposits to form.

5th graders have been tracking the voyage of the PLASTIKI; a ship built entirely of recycled materials including 12,500 plastic bottles!  This ship is inspired by the voyage of the Kon Tiki.  It is, as of this post, about 3/4 of the way between San Francisco and Sydney.  The ship is devoted to showing the end-effect of petroleum use – – plastics found all over the oceans and in the bodies of living things.  Plastic, once thrown away, attracts toxins and finds it’s way right back to its source through food that we eat, found to be contaminated more and more often. Humans have a long list of reasons to reduce its use and reexamine how disposable our products have become.  The crew teaches as they travel, reaching out to all who will listen.  They hope to help people not only reduce plastic use and production, but to teach people how to make new, exciting constructions out of what we used to consider “trash.”

Ranger Rick, and the National Wildlife Federation, has a great site devoted to answering kids questions about the Gulf Spill.  You can search for answers to questions about the reasons for the spill, reactions children may have, as well as ways we can help now and in the future.

From the Ranger Rick Website;  “One thing each of us can do is to try to use less oil and other “fossil fuels,” and that’s where kids can help. Learn how to help your family live a greener lifestyle, one that uses less oil and fossil fuels. But stopping disasters like this will take a lot more than that. We’ll have to pressure our government officials to make stronger environmental laws and rules. We’ll have to get them to lead the way in getting more energy from the sun, the wind, and other clean and renewable sources. And we’ll have to get them to join with other countries to cut carbon dioxide pollution and stop global warming.”

Adults may want to learn more about petroleum and the oil industry through the excellent magazine GOOD.  Creating clever and readable graphics, the website has several sites, blog posts, and images that can help make sense of the disaster as it unfolds.  The graphic below outlines where we get oil, who uses it, and what products it ends up in.

From Good; Transparency "Oil Consumption"

You can also see some amazing information about oil spills in the past by downloading the
Black Tides: The Worst Oil Spill Disasters in History” tour from Google Earth 5.

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Explore posts in the same categories: Community, Natural Resources

3 Comments on “Gulf Oil Spill: Many Questions, A Few Answers”


  1. Hi,
    What a great science project and wonderful class you have going here. I am really impressed.

    Just wanted to thank you, too, for the Ranger Rick mention. We appreciate that.

    With warmest wishes to you and your class,
    Libby Schleichert, Sr. Editor
    Ranger Rick Magazine
    National Wildlife Federation
    Reston, Virginia

  2. RF Modulator Says:

    oil spills can really mess up the environment, i hope we can find a very good solution to control oil spills ~*-


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