Exploring Oil

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SWBAT explore how the uneven distribution of oil presents environmental challenges.

Big Idea

Oil is extracted from the Earth and transported to be refined, and transported yet again as fuel. This transportation has environmental effects.


5 minutes

I begin the lesson with a map of the Shale Plays of the United States. The map is entitled Areas of Historical Oil and Gas Exploration and Production in the United States.  It is from the USGS. I make big posters for the students to examine. 

My first strategy is Free Analysis Time. Sometimes students need the time with materials to look it over, see what it shows and talk about the map. Maps are fascinating for a lot of people and I try to engage the students with an interesting map. 

I keep a close eye on the groups and I walk around answering questions they may have. In addition, I ask quesitons. I'll ask, "Where is the legend?" What does it say? Do you notice a pattern with the oil fields? What is it?" 

Students will explain that the oil is mostly in two parts of the country. "Why do you think that is? How is oil formed? What does that tell you about those spots? What does that tell you about the other spots? "

My strategy is Digging Deeper in Science. I ask questions about the maps to different groups. This way when the class comes back together, groups have a set of different thinking patterns they can bring to the rest of the class. 

The great thing about the strategy is that I can eek out misconceptions. Watch the movie below to get an  idea of a common student misconception. I ask, "Why would they say we will have more oil in the future?" 


After I understood that the students felt the current decomposition of organisms will help us get more oil, I say, "That is not necessarily true. Why do you think this is not true?" I'm trying to get the students to understand that there are specific conditions for the fossil fuels to form. 

I ask, "What year is this from? Do you think this has changes since the 1920's? How? Where did they get this data? What does the fine print say?" 

When I have planted information at each table I stop the class. At each table I have place a copy of my discussion questions.

  1. How do you think oil is formed?  (Oil is a fossil fuel formed as dead carbon based organisms died over millions of years. I try to get students to explain how fossil fuels are formed. I use a direct teaching method if they have no idea.) 
  2. Why are the distributions of oil uneven? (Regional differences are because of past and present geophysical processes.)
  3. Consider the year 2040, how do you think the distribution of oil will change?
  4. What is the impact on the the transportation of oil?
  5. What will happen to oil as the USA population increases? (We will run out and have to find a new energy source.)

Student groups read over the questions to determine which they can answer. I give out the small white board to each group and begin a class discussion. My discussion strategy is Group Responsibility. To make the answering fair, I ask the students to number one another. I ask a question and tell them to discuss the answer as a group. The number I call will stand up and answer the question. They can use the white board to write down their answer ideas if they want. I explain, "Please be sure you know the answer if you are standing."  Everyone is responsible for the answer.


15 minutes

My goal is to promote deeper science thinking. Students groups draw a conceptualization of the systematic extraction and transportation of oil on paper.  I start the class with the question, "How do we get oil from the ground?" The students just saw the movie and draw an oil rig. I ask them to draw a gas station at the end of a flow chart. I say, "Draw how do you think it gets from there to there?" My strategy is to use visualization as a method for predicting how a system operates. 

As students work, I go to the tables and ask, “And then what?” to help students move from the oil rig to the gasoline station. Oftentimes they get stuck on the refining process. I stop the class and say, "I've noticed a lot of groups are stuck. Does anyone know about a refinery?" I allow guesses and have had students who can explain the refining process.

For the rest of the class, I show an image of a refinery and explain how crude oil is refined to gasoline. I use a Google image of a refinery to help them understand the mechanisms used to turn oil into gas.  My strategy is to use visual information as a reference for understanding.

I give students a picture of the Oil Transport System - the path of oil from an oil well to the gas station - and they check to see if their conceptualization was complete.  


By creating a contrast - between what they think they know, and this image, my strategy is to allow students the opportunity to learn from their mistakes.

Using the new information. students draw the path in their notebooks and respond to the following questions:

  1. Why is this system of extraction and transportation important to you and your family?
  2. What do you think are environmental concerns with the extraction and transportation of oil? 

(SP-2: Developing and Using Models: Develop a model to show the relationships among variables)


40 minutes

I explain that in the transportation of oil, there is sometimes an oil spill. I give students the problem, “What is the best method for cleaning up an oil spill?”

My strategy is to Create an Investigation. The purpose of the lesson is to understand how the transportation of oil may lead to environmental damage. My strategy is to give the students the hands-on experience of cleaning up an "oil spill". 

Students start by brainstorming ways to clean up the oil. I ask them to make a list of materials they would need for an oil spill cleanup.  I will secure these materials.

Each group develops 5 ideas, how to measure the success of the clean-up, and what the procedure should be.

Many times the students understand the task but not the "how to" of the procedure. I have learned to identify the science tools they will use to complete the task.  I explain to students that they may use a balance. This helps the students understand that the procedure will include measuring mass.  I ask the students, "What are some safety considerations?" We use goggles and gloves. I give safety instructions about the handling of dirty oil. Beforehand I talked to my building engineer to determine the best disposal of the oil and I explain the disposal procedure to my students. 


I have collected some dirty oil from my mechanic. I place it in plastic cups and give one cup to two groups of students. Using their ideas, students “clean up” the oil. Students record the data in the data table. The movie below shows how I set up the lab. 

To create a real life simulation I give the students the following scenario. My intention is to give my students an audience for their conclusion. 

You are responsible for advising the National Petroleum Association Scientific Clean-Up Committee. The Committee is concerned about the recent oil spill in Illinois. Your job is to test common household materials to determine the materials best suited for an oil clean-up. 


SP 6 Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions - Apply scientific ideas, principles, and/or evidence to construct, revise and/or use an explanation for real-world phenomena, examples, or events.

SP3 Planning and Carrying Out Investigations - Conduct an investigation and/or evaluate and/or revise the experimental design to produce data to serve as the basis for evidence that meet the goals of the investigation.


10 minutes

To evaluate student understanding I ask them to answer the following prompt:

"Using your data, what materials would you suggest the National Petroleum Association Clean-Up Committee use to clean up oil spills in the water and on land? Include your observations and explain any difficulties you encountered so they can learn from your model."


Students write a 5-7 sentence response. They must include data from the investigation and scientific vocabulary. To help students double check their responses, I ask them to underline data they used and circle the science terms. 

My strategy is Reporting to an Authentic Audience. I neglected to remind one group of students about the audience. I noticed as their products were coming in and decided to share with you the difference in a conclusion summary with and without an authentic audience in the movie below.