Petroleum Depletion by Inquiry

Andy Johnson
BHSU Center for the Advancement of Math and Science Education
Author Profile


This is a draft of a guided inquiry activity to help students become aware of the problem of petroleum depletion or peak oil. Students use existing data to make projections of future discoveries and consumption. It has yet to be tested in a classroom!

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications



This activity is planned for use in an entry level "survey" course in physics. The intent is to provide a basic first introduction to petroleum depletion. It could probably be used in high school or in any course in which the students are not aware of resource depletion issues.

This activity is intended to be the start of a larger unit I would like to develop on "the sustainability predicament". It would be an inquiry based course on the predicament of industrial civilization for non-science majors.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

This is an inquiry - based activity so students have to be willing to answer some questions without getting an authoritative answer from the teacher. Instead they have to courageously make projections from existing patterns of data in an inquiry setting. If this is the first activity done via inquiry it will require lots of special support from the teacher.

Students also have to know how to use Excel a little bit. Familiarity with the Sum function would help.

Note that the activity as written is in electronic format - the plan is that a group of students would sit around a table with a single computer, discuss the questions and their answers, and type responses into the Word document.

How the activity is situated in the course

This is designed to be an early activity in what will eventually be a unit on the predicament of industrial civilization. I envision one cycle on petroleum depletion and the liquid fuels crisis that would have the following structure:
  1. An introductory classroom discussion on the role of petroleum in our lives, (included below)
  2. One guided inquiry activity on each of the topics: petroleum, biofuels, and the petroleum economy, (only the petroleum one is in progress at this point) and
  3. A summarizing discussion in which the class comes to consensus on a set of statements about the situation (not ready yet).
This arrangement is based on the "CPU (Constructing Physics Understanding) learning cycle" structure.

The entire unit would also include similar sequences (or "cycles") for climate change, possibly the water crisis, population, the economy, and ecosystem destruction.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

The goal is for students to figure out that there is a problem with the petroleum supply. It's much better if they figure this out for themselves than if I just tell them, because it will be their work, and they will be more likely to question the ideas. Hopefully students will continue looking for ways to answer their questions more completely.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

  • Projecting patterns in data.
  • Critically examining ideas.
  • Matching beliefs to evidence.

Other skills goals for this activity

  • Beginning a conceptual change in understanding how industrial civilization works.
  • Deciding that it's possible to make sense of petroleum use.

Description of the activity/assignment

This is a draft of an inquiry-based activity on peak oil. Students are asked to contribute in a whole class discussion their thoughts about petroleum use and its availability. They then work in groups to make sense of existing data on petroleum discoveries and consumption, and project future discoveries, future consumption, and the lifespan of the legacy of discovered oil. They then are asked to adjust future consumption so that oil reserves last until 2070.

Determining whether students have met the goals

The instructor listens to group discussions and student questions while students work through the activity.
There will be a set of "key questions" that the class as a whole answers in a "consensus discussion."
I haven't written a homework assignment or a quiz for this yet. Ask me for this later!

More information about assessment tools and techniques.

Teaching materials and tips

Other Materials

Supporting references/URLs

The CPU website briefly describes the learning cycle used.