Teach the Earth > GIS and Remote Sensing > Activities > Swimming in Oil: The Impact, Aftermath and Alternatives to Oil Spills

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This page first made public: Aug 17, 2010

Swimming in Oil: The Impact, Aftermath and Alternatives to Oil Spills

Michelle Kinzel, San Diego Mesa College


This activity introduces students to basic functions and features of ArcGIS software and explores principles of a GIS and data set manipulations, using observational GPS data and satellite telemetry data collected from marine mammals fitted with transmitters. This activity provides an overview of using maps as scientific tools and the power of spatial analysis in science and problem solving. Students move through progressively challenging activities that encourage spatial thinking and using a process of feedback and inquiry to ask and answer spatially and temporally related environmental questions.


Type and level of course
Intermediate level GIS Course, with participants having had introduction and mastery of the basic functionality and buttonology of GIS, adding data, dispalying data and producing cartographic outputs using ArcGIS 9.3 software.

Geoscience background assumed in this assignment
This activity serves as an intermediate lab using ArcGIS software, georeferenced datasets and satellite imagery. Basic proficiency with GIS is required for this activity, but no background in geosciences concepts is assumed.

GIS/remote sensing skills/background assumed in this assignment

  1. Basic functionality and capabilities of GIS software and buttonology requirements for using ArcGIS software.
  2. Ability to search for, evaluate and download GIS data and imagery sources . Careers in the geospatial industry require that professionals can locate appropriate data sources for various types of workflows and tasks. Students will be required to search for resources, select the best sources for their question or workflow, download and manipulate data tables, ArcGIS data sets and imagery.
  3. Spatial analysis of georeferenced datasets.
  4. Ability to interpret remotely sensed imagery and GIS datasets using the scientific method to ask and address a scientific question.
  5. Use GIS to propose a feasible approach to solving an environmental problem such as an oil spill.

Software required for this assignment/activity:
ArcInfo 9.3

Time required for students to complete the assignment:
3 hours


GIS/remote sensing techniques students learn in this assignment

  1. Use ArcGIS mapping software and scientific data sets to explore real world scenarios.
  2. Search for, assess and download appropriate data resources relevant to an environmental analysis.
  3. Use the scientific method to analyze data and propose a solution to an environmental issue.
  4. Understand how scientists and policy makers use data and map layouts to understand environmental issues.
  5. Communicate results of data analysis with a map layout and design a report or advertisement designed to educate the reader about and environmental issue and persuade a course of action.

Other content/concepts goals for this activity
Students will use scientific inquiry and georeferenced datasets in a mapping visualization to address an environmental disaster, and propose real world solutions related to an applied field of their choosing; geosciences, ecology, biology, fisheries management, etc.
Students will understand how to use the scientific method to ask a question, collect resources, analyze data and propose a workable solution for addressing an environmental crisis or issue.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity
Using georeferenced data, analyzing temporal and spatial data, geographic information systems, maps as tools, combining data from a variety or resources to propose a solution for an environmental issue.

Description of the activity/assignment

Students use georeferenced data, satellite images and environmental assessment reports to visualize a catastrophic event, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, April 2010. The exercise will require students to search for appropriate data sets that will allow students to visualize the location of the initial event, and track the spread of the problem. Students will use maps as tools of scientific inquiry, and assess potential threats and damages resulting from the oil spill. Some datasets on threatened and endangered species, fragile ecosystems and physical characteristics of the environment will be provided in a geodatabase and used for spatial and temporal analysis. Students will use the skills learned in the lesson and results of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to analyze potential damage from a similar spill off the coast of California. GIS datasets on alternative energy sources will be used to propose possible approaches to avoiding oil spills and environmental threats in the US.

Determining whether students have met the goals

The final product for this activity will demonstrate that students have mastered the basics of the software program, incorporated spatial thinking in the analysis and processing of the data, and used the scientific method to assess an environmental disaster and propose solutions for managing and avoiding similar situations in other geographic locations. The students will present their findings in powerpoint and/or oral formats, and by creating their solutions and visual components, they will demonstrate that have met the goals of the assignment.
More information about assessment tools and techniques.

URLs and References

Some data sets will be provided for this activity, but one of the main objectives of the exercise is for students to search for relevant and appropriate datasets for use in a geospatial workflow. Students will be directed on an individual basis to regional and content specific datasets relevant to their proposed analysis and approach to the problem of oil spills.
Whale Data

Gulf Of Mexico Oil Spill

Alternative Energy

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