Oil and Oceans Don't Mix (3 day lesson)

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SWBAT investigate the effects of oil spills on ocean life and then use persuasive writing skills to compose a letter to a scientific organization about the topic.

Big Idea

We've all seen the horrifying stories of toppled tankers, oil-soaked birds, and volunteers trying to clean up the mess. Although it's a sad occurrence, it's important to recognize why this phenomenon happens.

Day 1: Engage

15 minutes

I ask students to share any knowledge they have about oil spills. Some will know of the most recent Gulf Coast Spill in 2010. A few may reference the Dawn dish soap commercial, in which the soap is used to clean up birds after a spill. Others will have no background knowledge to draw upon. To help provide some background information, I have the students watch What Caused Exxon Valdez Spill, from the Travel Channel:

  • Ask students to share any knowledge they have about oil spills in the news.
  • Discuss the length of a medium-sized tanker like the Exxon Valdez.
  • Measure the size of the Exxon Valdez outside your school and mark its size on the pavement to show to other students. Ask students to brainstorm various possible measuring strategies.
  • Using a tape measure, mark off a 50-foot or 100-foot piece of string or rope. Students simply lay the string down, making sure to accurately mark and record the number of times they step and repeat. As an example, using a 100-foot length, it would be necessary to step and repeat 10 times to lay out the distance of 1,000 feet.
- See more at: http://www.gma.org/surfing/human/howbig.html#sthash.fMM1NA0e.dpu

Now that the students know what an oil spill looks like, I want them to be able to understand the scale and extent of the damage it can cause. In order to do this, I feel they must first understand how large these oil tankers really are. For this part, we need to go outside.

Using a tape measure, I have the students mark off 100-foot piece of string or rope and stretch it across the playground. I have the students stand along the rope, looking at its length from end to end. I explain that using a 100-foot length like this, it would be necessary to step and repeat 10 times to represent the length of the Exxon Valdez- and it's only a medium sized tanker. Some can measure up to 1,500 feet long (15 lengths of string)!

Day 1: Explore

40 minutes

Next, I explain that students will get the opportunity to participate in a few simulations to learn more about the consequences of oil spills. Place students in groups of 3-4, and distribute the Oil Spill Stations handouts. Each group rotates through the three simulations, spending approximately 15 minutes at each station. This provides ample time for them to investigate, discuss, and write their observations/reflections.

Before we begin, I assign students a specific role to fulfill throughout the activity:

  • Materials manager: secures the proper quantities of equipment and materials necessary for each investigation and returns them at the end of the activity
  • Clean-up manager: makes sure each participant in the group is doing their part to clean up at the end of the activity and ensures that the area is left as it was when they arrives;takes responsibility for additional clean-up, such as wiping down tables, drying equipment, etc.
  • Timekeeper: makes sure the group completes the activity in the time allotted; provides partners with a 2 minute reminder before the activity is over
  • Director: reads directions to all partners and makes sure they are followed accordingly; provides gentle reminder to keep all partners on task; speaks with the teacher if reminders are not successful

I have found that these roles provide every student with the opportunity to be fully engaged and accountable for the learning task. In addition, this ensures that the lab runs smoothly and the area is left clean and ready for the next group. It also fosters a sense of responsibility for the classroom, the activity, and meeting the learning objectives.

*I have provided a teacher copy of the activity, which includes a general answer key, as well as a list of materials necessary for implementation (indicated in yellow). The student copy does not contain these additional notes.

Day 2: Explain

15 minutes

Once each group has had a chance to participate in all of the stations and record their observations, it is time to reflect on the activities and discuss how the activities we completed relate to oil spills in the ocean. We start Day 2 discussing the students experiences in the simulations, as a class. While I give the students a chance to share their observations, I try to keep the discussion focused on how the stations relate to an actual ocean oil spill. I ask them to think about how the activities they experienced would relate to the experiences of the plants, animals, and people who reside in or near the ocean.

While students easily identify the more obvious consequences (slippery feather or fur, inability to clean all of the oil, etc.), they will not immediately recognize the more subtle effects of the oil. for example, as we discuss the wildlife rescue simulation, I explain to the students that feathers are constructed of strands of hair and miniature "hooks." This construction keeps the feathers close to the body, and maintains warmth and dryness. Oil compromises this ability, and endangers the bird's health, and even their life. The type of oil carried by tankers is much denser and harder to remove from birds' feathers than what we used in our simulation.

Day 2: Elaborate

40 minutes

In order for students to learn more about the effects of oil spills on organisms in or near the ocean environment, I assign a reading passage from a different website to each table group:

  1. History's Worst Oil Spills
  2. Effects on Wildlife
  3. Exxon Valdez Spill, 25 Years Later
  4. Gulf Coast Kids Devastated by Oil Spill
  5. Gulf Oil Spill "Not Over"
  6. Effects of Oil Spill on Economy and Human Health
  7. Oil Spill's Effects has Seafood Industry Nervous
  8. 3 Surprising Sources of Oil Pollution in the Ocean


The students jigsaw read the articles, discussing the key information from their article with table mates before moving into new groups to share out. As they read, students reflect on the text by completing the Reading Reflection chart. After reading and filling in the chart, they discuss in their table groups, sharing what they wrote on the chart and adding any information their partners shared that they feel is important. Then, they partner up with three other students who read different articles and each summarizes what they read to inform each other about the most important and/or impactful information presented. They do this twice, which covers every article. If you change the number of articles, or have different number of student, you'll have to adjust the numbers.

*Because I like students to have the opportunity to highlight and take notes in the margins, I tend to use Print Friendly to print the articles in PDF form without all of the ads and spam that tend to accompany them. However, reading them online is always an option.

Day 3: Evaluate

55 minutes

Students have now learned a great deal of information about the effects of oil spills through a variety of hands-on, literary, and discussion opportunities. In order to wrap up the lesson and allow them the opportunity to share their feelings, I have them select one of the organizations below and write a business letter. In the letter, they should explain:

  • What they have learned about oil spills and their effects
  • How the consequences of oil spills will affect them personally
  • What, specifically, they are concerned about regarding this topic
  • How they, personally, would like to help and/or educate others about the prevention or clean up of oil spills.

 The organizations they may write to are as follows:

Students are provided with a Business Letter Checklist (made by Time for Kids) to help them evaluate their progress as they write. In addition, to meeting the criteria listed on the checklist, I assess the students' understanding based on the requirements listed above.