Exploring Effects of Oil Spills on Birds

April Rosendale, Hilltop Elementary, Henderson, MN
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Initial Publication Date: August 6, 2008


Students will use magnifying lenses to examine feathers and will name and describe characteristics of the feathers. As they are guided through explaining how feathers help birds, they will examine a container of water. They will place the feather in water, describe it, and then place it in the same container after oil has been added to the water. They will observe and name the differences to the water and to the feather.

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Learning Goals

Students will use their sense of touch and sight to make accurate observations.
Students will identify clean water as an important habitat for certain wildlife (e.g. ducks, geese).
Vocabulary: soluble / insoluble, oil spill, toxic

Context for Use

This activity would be part of a series of lessons covering animals and environmental issues. It would be presented after certain tools and vocabulary had been introduced. Some prior experiences with mixing solutions to determine solubility would be helpful. Having students work with partners or small groups would facilitate discussions and shared observations. Allow 45 min. to complete lesson.

Description and Teaching Materials

Materials: per group of 3 /4 students: paper towel, plastic cup of water and cup of oil. Also magnifying lens for each student and feather for each student. Vocab. word cards to show and display to class.

Introduce by reading "OIL SPILL!" by Melvin Berger

In small groups, students examine and describe the feather before placing it in water and after placing it in water.
How do feathers help birds? Why do ducks and geese go to water? The teacher makes a chart to record observations, wonderings, and things the students discover.
Questions are offered to guide the discovery and complete the chart. Oil is added to the water and again the feather is placed in it. What is happening? How does the water look? Where is the oil? Is the feather different now? Dry? Wet? Heavy? Light? How might this affect the bird? As students place feathers in the substances, allow time in the groups for shared observations and then elicit responses to specific questions. The class summarizes the results of the chart and reflects on the impact of the oil spill. The teacher seeks ideas about local implications.

Teaching Notes and Tips

Vegetable Oil is used because it is not toxic for use by students, but it can still convey some of the properties of oil found in an oil spill. The toxicity of oil in a major spill can be explained without bringing the actual substance into the classroom.

This lesson has an intentional emphasis on vocabulary--especially the solubility of substances. Students will be asked to specify what proves the solubility of oil / water, or disproves it. Having students actually engage in this experiment, rather than a teacher demonstrating it, will be much more effective and engaging. The picture book could be used either at the beginning or the end of the lesson. Some parts of it could be modified for kindergartners.


Assessment of this will be done through teacher observation. The teacher will circulate and monitor groups as questions are asked. He / she will be looking for appropriate use of materials, participation, reasonable responses and inferences, accurate observations, and
thoughtful, reflective ideas. Specific praise and feedback will be given to those performing at or above expectations. Additional questions and guidance will be offered to those who may be struggling.


KIB1. Students raise questions about natural world (observe,
describe using simple tools).
1st IIA1. Students understand objects have physical properties (describe by color, size, shape, weight, etc.)
2nd IVC1. Students understand that organisms live in different environments.

References and Resources