Oil Spill Solutions

This lesson focuses on how engineers use various techniques to provide speedy solutions to oil spills or other threats to natural water resources. Through this lesson, students work in teams to design and build an oil containment and clean-up system.

  • Learn about environmental engineering.
  • Learn about chemistry and chemical engineering.
  • Learn about engineering design.
  • Learn about planning and construction.
  • Learn about teamwork and working in groups. 

Age Levels: 8-18

Build Materials (For each team)

Required Materials (for each team)

  • Small plastic bowls or aluminum containers (to hold water and “oil”)
  • Water
  • “Oil” (use ½ cup vegetable oil – mix with cocoa powder for more realistic looking oil)

Required Materials (Trading/Table of Possibilities)

  • Rubber bands
  • Paper towels
  • String
  • Toothpicks
  • Cotton balls
  • Plastic wrap
  • Popsicle sticks
  • Shredded wheat or puffed rice cereal
  • Balloons
  • Spoons
  • Cooking basters, eye droppers, or suction tubes

Optional Materials (Trading/Table of Possibilities)

  • Cooked rice
  • Garden peat moss
  • Grass
  • Cork
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Materials

  • Students use the container, water and “oil” listed in the required materials section

Process

Using the containers, water, and “oil” – Each team first demonstrates how their system has contained the oil spill. Then, they demonstrate how their system cleans up the oil spill.

Using a scale of 0-4, teams should rate how well each system cleaned up the oil spill. The goal is to rate a “0.”

Water is completely clear of all oil = 0
About a quarter of the oil remains = 1
About half of the oil remains = 2
About three quarters of the oil remains = 3
No change, water is as oily as at the beginning of the challenge = 4

Design Challenge

You are part of a team of engineers who have been given the challenge of first containing and then cleaning up an oil spill. You will have many materials available to you, but will have to come up with a strategy to remove as much oil as possible.

Criteria 

  • Contain as much oil as possible
  • Clean up as much oil as possible 

Constraints

  • Use only the materials provided
  • Teams may trade unlimited materials
  1. Break class into teams of 2-3.
  2. Hand out the Oil Spill Solutions worksheet, as well as some sheets of paper for sketching designs. 
  3. Discuss the topics in the Background Concepts Section.
  4. Review the Engineering Design Process, Design Challenge, Criteria, Constraints and Materials. 
  5. Instruct students to start brainstorming. They will need to outline their containment process and materials, and outline their clean up process and materials. 
  6. Provide each team with their materials.
  7. Explain that students must develop a system that contains an oil spill and then a system that cleans up the oil spill. The goal is to remove as much oil as possible from the spill. 
  8. Announce the amount of time they have to design and build (1 hour recommended). 
  9. Use a timer or an on-line stopwatch (count down feature) to ensure you keep on time. (www.online-stopwatch.com/full-screen-stopwatch). Give students regular “time checks” so they stay on task. If they are struggling, ask questions that will lead them to a solution quicker. 
  10. Students meet and develop a plan for their containment and clean up systems. They agree on materials they will need, write/draw their plan, and present their plan to the class. Teams may trade unlimited materials with other teams to develop their ideal parts list.
  11. Teams build their designs. 
  12. Using the containers, water, and “oil” – Each team first demonstrates how their system has contained the oil spill. Then, they demonstrate how their system cleans up the oil spill. 
  13. Using a scale of 0-4, teams should rate how well each system cleaned up the oil spill. The goal is to rate a “0.
    Water is completely clear of all oil = 0
    About a quarter of the oil remains = 1
    About half of the oil remains = 2
    About three quarters of the oil remains = 3
    No change, water is as oily as at the beginning of the challenge = 4
  14. As a class, discuss the student reflection questions.
  15. For more content on the topic, see the “Digging Deeper” section.

Student Reflection (engineering notebook)

  1. Did you succeed in removing all the oil from the “oil spill?”  What was the score your team achieved?   
  2. If your system failed, what do you think went wrong?
  3. Describe a system another student team created that you thought worked well.  What did you do differently? 
  4. How did your decisions on engineering trade-offs differ from that team?  What goals or priorities for your system did you put above others?
  5. Did you decide to revise your plan while actually doing the containment or clean-up?  Why?  How?
  6. Why might a team of environmental engineers change their planned approach to an oil spill clean-up once they arrived on the site?  Do you think it is common that professionals change their plans while on the job?
  7. If you had to do it all over again, how would your team have improved your containment system? Why?
  8. If you had to do it all over again, how would your team have improved your clean-up system? Why?
  9. Do you think that experience with prior oil spills would make a team of engineers more able to address the next unexpected one?
  10. Now that you have learned about the different trade-offs engineers must factor into a product or system, if you were designing a new rail-based oil transportation system, what considerations would you have to balance in your new design (consider costs, environmental issues, public health, speed of transport)?
  11. What other materials do you think would have helped speed up your containment or clean-up?

Time Modification

The lesson can be done in as little as 1 class period for older students. However, to help students from feeling rushed and to ensure student success (especially for younger students), split the lesson into two periods giving students more time to brainstorm, test ideas and finalize their design. Conduct the testing and debrief in the next class period.

Divide into teams
Review the challenge and criteria constraints
Brainstorm possible solutions (sketch while you brainstorm!)
Choose best solution and build a prototype
Test then redesign until solution is optimized
Reflect as a team and debrief as a class

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What is an Oil Spill?

An oil spill is an accidental release of liquid petroleum hydrocarbons (usually during transportation of oil) into the environment. Oil spills usually refer to the release of oils into water, but of course an oil spill can take place on land as well. While spills can take place quickly, as when a ship sinks, or a leak occurs in a pipeline, the cleanup can be a long term project.  

Impact on the Environment 

Birds are one of the creatures impacted by oil spills. Oil can sink into and reduce the functionality of bird feathers. A bird’s feathers provide insulation, so a bird exposed to oil will be exposed to temperatures they are not used to. It also makes it difficult for a bird to float or fly…so the bird will be more vulnerable to animals of prey, or the bird may not be able to move to find food or clean water. Birds try to clean themselves, and if they do they are likely to ingest some of the oil which can cause damage to internal organs. Most birds impacted by an oil spill die unless humans step in and help clean them. Many organizations work to save these animals. Marine mammals such as seals and otters gain insulation benefits from their fur. As oil permeates the fur, they are potentially exposed to temperatures beyond their normal range. It is important to act quickly when a spill occurs to lessen the impact of the spill on the natural environment. Environmental engineers are often called upon to come up with planned solutions in advance of a spill, or to customize systems bases on a specific event. 

Engineering Trade-offs 

In order to reduce the chances of an oil spill, engineers have developed new ship designs with double — and even triple hulls. The oil is stored in the most interior hull, so that if there was a leak, it would be captured in the next outer hull. Of course, these multiple hulled ships are more expensive to build and operate, so a company will have to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of ship engineering in order to come up with a plan that meets safety requirements, but also does not increase the cost of the shipped product more than the market can bear.  

Clean-up Methods 

There are many types of cleaning methods used for spills, including:  

  • Bioremediation: using microorganisms or biological agents to break down or remove oil  
  • Dredging: some oils are actually denser than water, and would sink. These would require cleaning below the surface of the impacted water.  
  • Skimming: can be effective areas where the water is calm.  
  • Dispersion: materials such as some detergents can disperse oil into smaller clusters that may be easier to remove than larger areas. However, the detergents can sink deeper into the water than oil does, so it may cause harm deeper in the water while reducing negative environmental impact on the surface.  
  • Burning: controlled burning can often eliminate a large proportion of oil in water, but of course requires great care to avoid having the fire spread. The burning oil can also cause air pollution.

Internet Connections

Recommended Reading

  • The Oil Spill Recovery Institute: Past, Present, and Future Direction (ISBN: 0309085144)  
  • The Basics of Oil Spill Cleanup (ISBN: 1566705371)  
  • Oil Spills (Our Environment Series) (ISBN: 0737726296) 

Writing Activity 

Write an essay or a paragraph about how systems developed by engineers in advance of a natural disaster (earthquake) or human-induced disaster (oil spill) can help speed recovery of both the environment and society.

Alignment to Curriculum Frameworks

Note: Lesson plans in this series are aligned to one or more of the following sets of standards:  

National Science Education Standards Grades K-4 (ages 4 – 9)

CONTENT STANDARD A: Science as Inquiry

As a result of activities, all students should develop

  • Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry 

CONTENT STANDARD C: Life Science

As a result of the activities, all students should develop understanding of

  • Organisms and environments 

CONTENT STANDARD D: Earth and Space Science

As a result of their activities, all students should develop an understanding of

  • Properties of earth materials 

CONTENT STANDARD E: Science and Technology 

As a result of activities, all students should develop

  • Abilities of technological design 
  • Understanding about science and technology 

CONTENT STANDARD F: Science in Personal and Social Perspectives

As a result of activities, all students should develop understanding of

  • Changes in environments 
  • Science and technology in local challenges 

National Science Education Standards Grades 5-8 (ages 10 – 14)

CONTENT STANDARD A: Science as Inquiry

As a result of activities, all students should develop

  • Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry 

CONTENT STANDARD B: Physical Science

As a result of their activities, all students should develop an understanding of

  • Properties and changes of properties in matter 

CONTENT STANDARD C: Life Science

As a result of their activities, all students should develop understanding of

  • Structure and function in living systems 
  • Populations and ecosystems 

CONTENT STANDARD E: Science and Technology
As a result of activities in grades 5-8, all students should develop

  • Abilities of technological design 
  • Understandings about science and technology 

National Science Education Standards Grades 5-8 (ages 10 – 14)

CONTENT STANDARD F: Science in Personal and Social Perspectives

As a result of activities, all students should develop understanding of

  • Populations, resources, and environments 
  • Risks and benefits 
  • Science and technology in society 

National Science Education Standards Grades 9-12 (ages 14-18)

CONTENT STANDARD A: Science as Inquiry

As a result of activities, all students should develop

  • Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry 
  • Understandings about scientific inquiry 

CONTENT STANDARD C: Life Science

As a result of their activities, all students should develop understanding of

  • Matter, energy, and organization in living systems 
  • Behavior of organisms 

CONTENT STANDARD E: Science and Technology

As a result of activities, all students should develop

  • Abilities of technological design 
  • Understandings about science and technology 

CONTENT STANDARD F: Science in Personal and Social Perspectives

As a result of activities, all students should develop understanding of

  • Environmental quality 
  • Natural and human-induced hazards 
  • Science and technology in local, national, and global challenges 

CONTENT STANDARD G: History and Nature of Science

As a result of activities, all students should develop understanding of

  • Science as a human endeavor 

Next Generation Science Standards Grades 2-5 (Ages 7-11)

Matter and its Interactions 

Students who demonstrate understanding can:

  • 2-PS1-2.  Analyze data obtained from testing different materials to determine which materials have the properties that are best suited for an intended purpose.

Engineering Design 

Students who demonstrate understanding can:

  • 3-5-ETS1-1.Define a simple design problem reflecting a need or a want that includes specified criteria for success and constraints on materials, time, or cost.
  • 3-5-ETS1-2.Generate and compare multiple possible solutions to a problem based on how well each is likely to meet the criteria and constraints of the problem.
  • 3-5-ETS1-3.Plan and carry out fair tests in which variables are controlled and failure points are considered to identify aspects of a model or prototype that can be improved.

Next Generation Science Standards Grades 6-8 (Ages 11-14)

Engineering Design 

Students who demonstrate understanding can:

  • MS-ETS1-2 Evaluate competing design solutions using a systematic process to determine how well they meet the criteria and constraints of the problem.
  • MS-ETS1-3. Analyze data from tests to determine similarities and differences among several design solutions to identify the best characteristics of each that can be combined into a new solution to better meet the criteria for success.

Next Generation Science Standards Grades 9-12 (Ages 14-18)

 Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics

  • HS-LS2-7.   Design, evaluate, and refine a solution for reducing the impacts of human activities on the environment and biodiversity.

Engineering Design 

Students who demonstrate understanding can:

  • HS-ETS1-2.  Design a solution to a complex real-world problem by breaking it down into smaller, more manageable problems that can be solved through engineering.

Standards for Technological Literacy – All Ages

The Nature of Technology

  • Standard 1: Students will develop an understanding of the characteristics and scope of technology.

Technology and Society

  • Standard 5: Students will develop an understanding of the effects of technology on the environment.
  • Standard 6: Students will develop an understanding of the role of society in the development and use of technology.

Design

  • Standard 9: Students will develop an understanding of engineering design.
  • Standard 10: Students will develop an understanding of the role of troubleshooting, research and development, invention and innovation, and experimentation in problem solving.

Abilities for a Technological World

  • Standard 11: Students will develop abilities to apply the design process.

The Designed World

  • Standard 15: Students will develop an understanding of and be able to select and use agricultural and related biotechnologies.

Engineer Your Own Oil Spill Solution

You are part of a team of engineers who have been given the challenge of first containing, and then cleaning up an oil spill.  You will have many materials available to you, but will have to come up with a strategy to remove as much oil as possible.

Planning Stage

Meet as a team and discuss the problem you need to solve.  Then develop and agree on a plan for your containment system.  Next develop a plan for cleaning up the oil you have contained.  You may have to consider stages or steps you might take and determine which order you will execute different steps.  You have been provided with many items you may use for your system. You don’t need to use all the items, and should only use those that you think will work the best. Write a description of your containment and clean-up systems in the boxes below.  Draw a sketch of what you plan to do.  Be sure to indicate the materials you anticipate using. Present your design to the class. You may choose to revise your teams’ plan after you receive feedback from class.

 

Containment System

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Materials Required:

 

Clean-up System

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Materials Required:

 

 

 

 

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Preparation Phase

Gather all the materials you plan to use, and consider how you will use them and what steps might need to be taken.  You may need to ask for additional materials during this phase as you consider how much oil you have to clean-up!

Testing Phase

Each team will have a chance to test their containment and clean-up systems on a similar “oil spill.” Be sure to watch all the methods and observe the different approaches your classmates have “engineered.”  See which procedures worked best — it may be that certain parts of a procedure worked better than others. Each system will be scored on the following scale to determine success.

 

Water is completely clear of all oil About a quarter of the oil remains About half of the oil remains About three quarters of the oil remains No change, water is as oily as at the beginning of the challenge
0 1 2 3 4

 

Evaluation Phase

Evaluate your team’s results, complete the evaluation worksheet, and present your findings to the class.

  1. Did you succeed in removing all the oil from the “oil spill?” What was the score your team achieved?

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. If your system failed, what do you think went wrong?

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. Describe a system another student team created that you thought worked well. What did you do differently?

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. How did your decisions on engineering trade-offs differ from that team? What goals or priorities for your system did you put above others?

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. Did you decide to revise your plan while actually doing the containment or clean-up? Why? How?

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. Why might a team of environmental engineers change their planned approach to an oil spill clean-up once they arrived on the site? Do you think it is common that professionals change their plans while on the job?

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. If you had to do it all over again, how would your team have improved your containment system? Why?

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. If you had to do it all over again, how would your team have improved your clean-up system? Why?

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. Do you think that experience with prior oil spills would make a team of engineers more able to address the next unexpected one?

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. Now that you have learned about the different trade-offs engineers must factor into a product or system, if you were designing a new rail-based oil transportation system, what considerations would you have to balance in your new design (consider costs, environmental issues, public health, speed of transport)?

 

 

 

 

 

 

11.  What other materials do you think would have helped speed up your containment or clean-up?

 

 

 

 

 

Lesson Plan Translation

Additional Translation Resources

Downloadable Student Certificate of Completion