The Oil Game: Problem-based learning exercise in an Environmental Geology lecture-format class

This page is authored by David Voorhees, Waubonsee Community College, building on an activity by Stephen Marshak and David Voorhees, University of Illinois.
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In a capstone exercise in a unit on energy in an Environmental Geology class of non-science majors, students participate in a 'field-based' simulation of oil exploration and exploitation which uses readily available supplies and easily constructed equipment. The class is divided into oil companies of no more than 4 'employees', in which they are asked to explore and model an oil prospect in a 'field area' set up in the classroom. Along the way, they are using the scientific method, and are exposed to skills and tools used by professional geologists. They are asked to (1) acquire 'field data', (2) construct a subsurface geologic model of the field area, (3) 'drill' an exploration well, (4) calculate the economics associated with a simulated development plan of the newly discovered oil field using the current price of oil, and (5) discuss and recommend to management (you, the instructor) the economic viability of the prospect by suggesting to proceed with development, or to wait for a particular scenario (i.e., price of oil).

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Learning Goals

After the acquisition of surface 'field' data (rock identification, strike and dip measurement) the students are asked to develop their geologic model of the subsurface geology. The extrapolation of concepts that are previously developed in class and the data from the surface into a relatively simple subsurface model makes this an effective critical thinking and synthesis activity. In addition, the calculation of the economics of developing the oil reservoir exposes the students to some of the complexity and technology associated with the oil industry.

Context for Use

This activity is used in a lecture only class with 30 to 40 undergraduate, non-science majors. It is an in-class exercise that can take 1 or 2 class sessions. In the form that is submitted to this collection it is for an Environmental Geology class. I have modified this activity to be an exercise for an Introduction to Physical Geology laboratory. There is some special equipment that is needed to allow the students to easily measure strike and dip. They can be made fairly quickly, and consist of pieces of plywood that are roughly 8 by 10 inches attached to a piece of 2x4 with one end cut at the selected dip angle. Pictures of these are in the Activity Description narrative. Alternatively, pieces of slate can be held fast with play-dough.

Description and Teaching Materials

Oil Game Activity Description (Acrobat (PDF) 433kB Jun11 10)
Oil Game - Handout (Microsoft Word 62kB Jun11 10)
Oil Game - data sheets (Microsoft Word 44kB Jun11 10)
Oil Game - geologic map (Acrobat (PDF) 23kB Jun11 10)
Oil Game - cross sections (Acrobat (PDF) 44kB Jun11 10)

Teaching Notes and Tips

See attached pdf above


As there is no single correct answer, which is true for real world oil exploration, grades are assessed on the basis of how well basic geologic principles and the field data are adhered to. Interestingly, most student oil companies reach the same conclusion as to the economic viability of the oil prospect within a reasonable range of net income.

References and Resources

Current price of crude oil (NYMEX, West Texas Intermediate, etc) can be found at many places, such as