Simulating An Oil Spill Clean Up

My students are continuing their year-long study of energy by investigating its ties to Earth Science, particularly in the form of fossil fuels.  My goal in this unit is to demonstrate the effects of using fossil fuels on the environment.  While certainly a big impact of fossil fuel use is climate change, my focus in this unit is the environmental impacts of extraction.  (I plan to get into climate change in the next unit, as we examine climate and weather and their impacts on ecological systems.)

In my last post, my students investigated the effects of surface mining on “Earth Cookies.” I wanted to find a similarly hands-on activity to investigate oil extraction, particularly off-shore oil drilling.  I came across an idea online to simulate an oil spill clean up using vegetable oil, food coloring, and student creativity.  From this basic framework, I created a set of instructions and student printables for this activity.  You can find it at my website:

oil spill clean up student activity hands-on learning

$5.00 PDF

First, my students learned about oil by exploring the EIA Energy Kid website.  We also watched a short video on the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska 1989, and read about the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill.  Finally, students created a chart to list the different tools and strategies that are used in the real world to clean up oil spills.

The list they created included:

– booms  (that contain or corral oil slicks)

– skimmers (that scoop oil from the surface)

– sinking agents (that bind to oil and make it sink to the bottom)

– sorbents (that absorb oil)

– biological agents (fertilizers that speed up plant growth and therefore biodegradation)

– dispersants (that break petroleum into small droplets)

Working from this list, students created their own devices that fulfilled these different purposes.  I provided students with a number of supplies, from cotton balls and string to corks and craft sticks.  They then worked in small groups to develop booms and skimmers, and to identify what materials they would use for sorbents and sinking agents.

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This took about two 45 minute class periods, and they came up with some really creative ideas.  You can see some of their designs below:

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After this engineering activity, students created an oil spill to test their strategy.  One student acted as the group’s recorder, documenting the evaluation of each device and the group’s observations.

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This activity was definitely a success.  I was able to incorporate engineering activities into the unit, and students were able to see the challenges of removing oil from the environment.  While climate change has been a hot topic in terms of fossil fuel use, it’s important to remember these energy sources can affect our environment in other ways as well. Finally, this activity will help my students during the upcoming unit assessment, which will ask students to represent various stakeholders in a discussion over a town’s energy decisions.  Stay tuned to hear more about that activity!

Simulating Surface Mining with Chocolate Chip Cookies

My 5th graders are working through a unit on natural resources, particularly our energy sources.  Having learned about the layers of the earth, the rock cycle, and fossils, we are looking at fossil fuels.  While they have built some background knowledge through books and online web sources (I love Energy Kids!), I wanted to incorporate  hands-on activities for each type of fossil fuel.

Since the first fossil fuel we are learning about is coal, I decided to use an activity I first learned about while working at Asbury Woods Nature Center. If you do an online search, there are many free resources outlining this activity.  The gist of it is that students receive a chocolate chip cookie and must “mine” the “coal chips” with a toothpick or paperclip.  They get to see how the cookie, which represents the Earth, is changed by mining – a visual representation of the damage done by surface or strip mining.

To gear my kids up for this project, I started the unit by showing a video: 300 Years of Fossil Fuels in 300 Seconds, available at YouTube.  This video is VERY information heavy, so I made sure to explain to students I don’t expect them to learn or remember everything. I asked them to listen for information about fossil fuels, specifically coal, and identify ONE thing they didn’t know (and now do).  I will admit that I like to push my students – I don’t expect them to master every task I give them, but I always want them to TRY.  And I am blessed to have students willing and motivated to do so!

After we watched the video, I discussed with them how the Industrial Revolution changed our source of energy from “muscle power” to “machine power,” which derives its energy primarily from fossil fuels.  We discussed how nearly everything we use and do each day is in some way created from fossil fuel power, and we brainstormed what might happen if suddenly we didn’t have that source of energy anymore.

After this class discussion, students read about fossil fuels from a volume in a set of books called Science Explorer.  The Science Explorer series are a set of thin books on a wide range of topics, and I actually prefer them to our science textbooks.  As they read, students worked together to make an outline of all of the headings and the important information found in each section.  This was a skill that was new to my students, so we did the first few headings together, and afterward, we reviewed what things students wrote under each heading.  You can see a sample of their outlines below:

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Then, students read about the mining and transportation of coal in more detail from the Energy Kids website.

Then, our activity started!  Briefly, students were given a set of instructions (class set), the supplies to mine their cookies, the graph paper worksheet, data analysis worksheet, and conclusions worksheet.  As a part of their data analysis, I provided the skeleton of the chart I asked them to create, as this is a skill that is relatively new to my middle school students.  It was a great way to incorporate math into the activity without taking up a ton of time!

Like I said above, you can find many free resources that explain this activity.  They can provide you with the instructions and maybe some follow up questions.  That said, the instruction sheets and student worksheets that I created are available for purchase at my Etsy shop, as well as TeachersPayTeachers. I love resources that look professional AND fun, even if my students and I are the only ones to see them! If you are the same way, please check out my creations! You can also see a preview of these documents below. I was able to utilize Roxie’s CreationsTrina Clark, and  DigiWebStudio to make it all look absolutely wonderful as well!

cover page of activity pack

student worksheets

My students LOVED the activity – let’s be honest, anything that involves food is a hit!

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They also learned a lot though.  Not only were they able to see the effects of mining on the environment as a problem, but they could also identify its consequences and brainstorm ways to reduce that impact.

Not too bad for a 5th grader!

Not too bad for a 5th grader!

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What are three ways we can minimize the impact of coal mining and use on the environment?

Layers of the Earth & Plate Tectonics

My students have just started an Earth Science unit, looking at the questions: What factors shaped our land? and How has Earth changed over time?

I got lucky that as I was planning this unit, I received the NSTA’s Science Scope December issue, which had a great article about using Oreo cookies to teach plate tectonics.  I have attached the three day lesson I created that centers around that activity.  In addition to the actual Oreos, I also utilized the Sciencesaurus book (green version) and another text, Science Explorer: Inside Earth.

Layers of the Earth

Plate Tectonic Puzzle

Oreo Tectonic Collage

Energy Education Resources: Citizen Power

While my sixth graders are busy learning about our local watershed, my fifth graders are looking at energy.  I love authentic learning  — opportunities where students can feel like they are having a real impact and making a real difference — so when I began planning my science units, I tried to select a topic that would tie many areas of science together and would also provide an opportunity for students to engage in a service learning or “citizen science” activities.  Energy is a perfect match for those goals.

First, the issue of energy is so relevant to today — the decisions we make today on the issues of national security, energy independence, and the dangers posed by climate change will literally shape the future of our planet.  Second, everyone uses energy, and it is within our power to impact our use of energy.  Finally, the broad topic of energy connects to so many different areas in the field of science — from the physical science areas of matter, atoms, molecules and (of course) energy, to the earth science topics of natural resources and their formation, weather and climate, and finally to life science themes like how changing climates will affect life on earth.  Energy is the perfect topic to tie all of these areas together.

With a topic settled on, I just needed that exciting activity to make the learning worthwhile — to add an application of this knowledge, to make it authentic.  I settled on having my students conduct an energy audit of our school.  As a culminating activity, they will submit their recommendations regarding energy use and future energy decisions to the school, providing a rationale for each recommendation.  Yes, this is pretty hefty work for fifth graders, but with support and scaffolding, I know they can do it, and I know they can produce something they can be proud of.

So… As I began to look for resources to assist me in building this unit and tying these diverse areas together (the textbook wasn’t much help at this point), I discovered a binder from an organization called Citizen Power in my predecessor’s cupboards (retiring teachers leave behind the best stuff!).  After a few phone calls, I was delighted to find that not only was the organization still active, they were offering a professional development workshop in my area designed to familiarize teachers with renewable energy and energy-efficiency technologies (like a watts meter and LED lights!).  With the approval of my principal to play hooky for the day, I was able to attend!

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We learned about how solar and wind energy works and also practiced conducting an energy audit.  Citizen Power has a tool bag teachers can sign out that includes a digital infrared thermometer (to identify thermal leaks and such stuff), a digital thermometer pen (to measure air temperature), digital hygrometer pen (measures humidity), light meter, flicker checker (determines efficiency of fluorescent ballasts), and a watt meter that determines how many watts appliances are sucking out!  My students will use tools like these when it comes time to conduct our own energy audit.

We also looked at a tool scientists use when decided where to place solar panels.  They called it a Solar Pathfinder – there are also electronic versions.  Basically, the numbers and lines on it show when that area will have direct sunlight — down to the hour — for the entire year.

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Finally, we got to see solar energy produced with this mobile monocrystalline photovoltaic panel.

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In addition to all these nifty activities, I got to take a goody bag home!  They generously gave all the teachers a flicker checker, LED bulb, solar power windmill kit, wind power turbine kit, a DVD about renewable energy, and a book about home energy audits.  That is quite a haul for a FREE workshop!!!

Anyway, I am looking forward to working with Citizen Power, along with a few other community organizations like Asbury Woods Nature Center and environmentERIE, as my fifth graders begin explorations in energy.  Stay tuned for more exciting news!!!