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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.

Learn more about Teaching Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness»

ngssSee how this Activity supports the Next Generation Science Standards»
Middle School: 1 Performance Expectation, 3 Disciplinary Core Ideas, 3 Cross Cutting Concepts, 9 Science and Engineering Practices


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
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B) Designing investigations.
1. Questioning, Analysis and Interpretation Skills:C) Collecting information
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C) Collecting information.
4. Personal and Civic Responsibility:B) Recognizing citizens' rightrs and responsiblities
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B) Recognizing citizens' rightrs and responsiblities.
2. Knowledge of Environmental Processes and Systems:2.3 Humans and Their Societies:C) Political and economic systems
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C) Political and economic systems.
2. Knowledge of Environmental Processes and Systems:2.4 Environment and Society:A) Human/environment interactions
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A) Human/environment interactions.
2. Knowledge of Environmental Processes and Systems:2.4 Environment and Society:D) Technology
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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. This tactcic can help develop an understanding for each interest group.
  • Educators may want to seek additional background materials to expand on the cleaning methods and issues associated with each method.
  • Passed initial science review - expert review pending.

About the Pedagogy

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

Next Generation Science Standards See how this Activity supports:

Middle School

Performance Expectations: 1

MS-ETS1-2: Evaluate competing design solutions using a systematic process to determine how well they meet the criteria and constraints of the problem.

Disciplinary Core Ideas: 3

MS-ETS1.A1:The more precisely a design task’s criteria and constraints can be defined, the more likely it is that the designed solution will be successful. Specification of constraints includes consideration of scientific principles and other relevant knowledge that are likely to limit possible solutions.

MS-ETS1.B3:Sometimes parts of different solutions can be combined to create a solution that is better than any of its predecessors.

MS-ETS1.C1:Although one design may not perform the best across all tests, identifying the characteristics of the design that performed the best in each test can provide useful information for the redesign process—that is, some of those characteristics may be incorporated into the new design.

Cross Cutting Concepts: 3

Systems and System Models, Structure and Function, Stability and Change

MS-C4.3:Models are limited in that they only represent certain aspects of the system under study.

MS-C6.2:Structures can be designed to serve particular functions by taking into account properties of different materials, and how materials can be shaped and used.

MS-C7.3:Stability might be disturbed either by sudden events or gradual changes that accumulate over time.

Science and Engineering Practices: 9

Developing and Using Models, Planning and Carrying Out Investigations, Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions, Engaging in Argument from Evidence, Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information, Asking Questions and Defining Problems

MS-P2.1:Evaluate limitations of a model for a proposed object or tool.

MS-P3.2: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

MS-P6.4:Apply scientific ideas, principles, and/or evidence to construct, revise and/or use an explanation for real- world phenomena, examples, or events.

MS-P6.6:Apply scientific ideas or principles to design, construct, and/or test a design of an object, tool, process or system.

MS-P6.7:Undertake a design project, engaging in the design cycle, to construct and/or implement a solution that meets specific design criteria and constraints

MS-P6.8:Optimize performance of a design by prioritizing criteria, making tradeoffs, testing, revising, and re- testing.

MS-P7.5:Evaluate competing design solutions based on jointly developed and agreed-upon design criteria.

MS-P8.2:Integrate qualitative and/or quantitative scientific and/or technical information in written text with that contained in media and visual displays to clarify claims and findings.

MS-P1.4:Ask questions to clarify and/or refine a model, an explanation, or an engineering problem.

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