Hands-on Activity: Sugar Spill!

Contributed by: Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder


In this activity, students act as environmental engineers involved with the clean up of a toxic spill. Using bioremediation as the process, students select which bacteria they will use to eat up the pollutant spilled. Students learn how engineers use bioremediation to make organism degrade harmful chemicals. Engineers must make sure bacteria have everything they need to live and degrade contaminants for bioremediation to happen. Students learn about the needs of living things by setting up an experiment with yeast. The scientific method is reinforced as students must design the experiment themselves making sure they include a control and complete parts of a formal lab report.
This engineering curriculum meets Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

A contractor removing pools of oil that was released by a local refinery.
Students work to clean up a toxic spill
Copyright © FEMA Photo Library. Wikimedia Commons http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/79/FEMA_-_31024_-_Oil_spill_clean_up_in_Kansas.jpg

Engineering Connection

Environmental engineers involved with bioremediation need to have a solid background in science to understand the characteristics of different microorganisms to know how to use them. Engineers also need to know how pollutants may impact the ecosystem around them.

Pre-Req Knowledge

Students should know how to calculate the volume of a sphere. They should also have some experience with designing their own experiment. If they do not, you may want to add an extra day to this experiment.

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • Understand the process of bioremediation.
  • Explain how engineers make sure bacteria have everything they need to help degrade harmful compounds.
  • Gain experience with mass and volume measurements.

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Students use yeast to clean up sugar spills.

Educational Standards

Each TeachEngineering lesson or activity is correlated to one or more K-12 science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) educational standards.

All 100,000+ K-12 STEM standards covered in TeachEngineering are collected, maintained and packaged by the Achievement Standards Network (ASN), a project of D2L (www.achievementstandards.org).

In the ASN, standards are hierarchically structured: first by source; e.g., by state; within source by type; e.g., science or mathematics; within type by subtype, then by grade, etc.

  • Obtain and combine information about ways individual communities use science ideas to protect the Earth's resources and environment. (Grade 5) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Develop a model to generate data for iterative testing and modification of a proposed object, tool, or process such that an optimal design can be achieved. (Grades 6 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Solve real-world and mathematical problems involving area, volume and surface area of two- and three-dimensional objects composed of triangles, quadrilaterals, polygons, cubes, and right prisms. (Grade 7) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Know the formulas for the area and circumference of a circle and use them to solve problems; give an informal derivation of the relationship between the circumference and area of a circle. (Grade 7) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Technologies can be used to repair damage caused by natural disasters and to break down waste from the use of various products and systems. (Grades 6 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Apply a design process to solve problems in and beyond the laboratory-classroom. (Grades 6 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • State the formulas for the volumes of cones, cylinders, and spheres and use them to solve real-world and mathematical problems. (Grade 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Direct and indirect measurement can be used to describe and make comparisons. (Grade 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Compare and contrast the flow of energy with the cycling of matter in ecosystems (Grade 6) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Model equilibrium in an ecosystem, including basic inputs and outputs, to predict how a change to that ecosystem such as climate change might impact the organisms, populations, and species within it such as the removal of a top predator or introduction of a new species (Grade 6) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
Suggest an alignment not listed above

Materials List

Each group needs:

  • 2-4 small test tubes or small plastic water bottles (small enough for a balloon to fit over the opening)
  • 2-4 balloons
  • 2-4 teaspoons of yeast
  • 2-4 teaspoons of sugar
  • Graduated cylinder (optional)
  • Enough goggles/safety glasses for each group member.
  • 3 copies of the Yeast Experiment Worksheet

To share with the entire class:

  • Vinegar
  • Water
  • Hot plate or Bunsen burner
  • Other materials students could add to yeast that may hamper or help yeast grow (i.e., lemon juice, chocolate powder, soda, etc.)
  • Triple beam balance or digital scale (optional)


Imagine you are kayaking through the beautiful coastal waters of Alaska. There are bald eagles flying over you, and humpback whales diving in and out of the ocean water near your kayak. Suddenly, you notice an icky black substance dripping off of some of the rocks nearby. What is it? It's the awful sludge of polluting oil, left over from an accidental oil spill in a nearby bay. Luckily, environmental engineers are working hard to help clean up this terrible mess and return the waters to their healthy, beautiful state!


Bioremediation is the process of using live microorganisms (mostly bacteria) to remediate or clean up pollution, such as manmade chemicals found in oil. Biodegradation is the process of living organisms breaking down matter for energy. What is the difference between bioremediation and biodegradation? Engineering! While biodegradation happens naturally, engineers involved in bioremediation create products that help nature do its job of getting rid of pollutants. Often times, biodegradation does not take place naturally because the bacteria present do not have one of the essential needs of living things (i.e., energy, water, living space and homeostasis). Engineers come to the rescue by providing these needs.

In today's activity, you get to be environmental engineers cleaning up an oil spill through bioremediation. Luckily, there are organisms that can help "eat up" the oil and turn it into harmless substances. Following the important design step of gathering information, you conduct an experiment to see how you can create the right living conditions to make these organisms thrive. In our experiment today, we use sugar to represent the oil, and yeast to represent the organisms that clean up oil by eating it.

When yeast eats, it gives off carbon dioxide (CO2), much like we do when we breathe out. To measure how well the yeast is eating (and therefore cleaning up the spill), we can measure the amount of carbon dioxide it gives off. How do you think we could measure the carbon dioxide gas? (Let students give a few ideas. Give a hint by showing them the balloon.) That's a great idea! Let's put the balloon over the bottle of yeast. As the balloon gets blown up bigger and bigger, we can determine that the yeast is giving of lots of carbon dioxide. Therefore, we also know that the yeast is eating well and cleaning up the sugar spill. The bigger the balloon gets, the better the yeast is eating. By looking at how big the balloon gets, we are able to tell which conditions are most ideal for yeast to grow in.


bioremediation: The process of using microorganisms to clean up an environmental hazard.

microorganism: A life form that is so small, it can only be seen with a microscope.

pollutant: A chemical that causes harm to the environment.


Before the Activity

  • Buy and gather supplies.
  • Make enough copies of the Yeast Experiment Worksheet so that each student has one worksheet.

With the Students

  1. Have students break into groups of 3-4 (you can choose or let the students choose). As a group, students should plan an experiment that helps determine how to make the yeast thrive. Their Yeast Experiment Worksheet guides them through the process.
  2. To complete the first page of their worksheet, it may help if you review the scientific method with students. Remind them that a testable question should ask how one variable (the independent variable) affects another (the dependent variable). Give some examples (see Yeast Experiment Worksheet–Answers for suggestions). Also, students may need to be reminded that scientific experiments require that we control our variables. Explain what the control is for this experiment (to make the yeast thrive).
  3. Have students plan their experiment. Quickly check their answers on the first page of their worksheet before they begin their experiment.
  4. When ready, allow students to start their experiment. The procedure section of the Yeast Experiment Worksheet guides them through the experimental steps. Students should know the exact amount of yeast, water and sugar that went into their control. (Note: it may be useful to have students measure out yeast, water and sugar using the appropriate measuring devices so that they know exact amounts.) Figures 2 and 3 show examples of students measuring yeast and putting a balloon over the test tube.
    A photograph of a student measuring out the correct amount of yeast using a triple beam balance.
    Figure 2. A student measures out yeast using a triple beam balance.
    Copyright © Katherine Beggs, ITL Program, University of Colorado at Boulder.
    A photograph of experiment setup with balloons on top of test tubes. A student is in the background recording information onto a sheet of paper.
    Figure 3. A student records information taken from test tubes.
    Copyright © Katherine Beggs, ITL Program, University of Colorado at Boulder.
  5. Results can be recorded on the board so that the entire class can see the results of each experiment.
  6. Have students clean up and complete the Post-Activity Assessment.


Safety Issues

Although yeast is used as food, students are in a lab and should not eat it.

Use eye protection (goggles or safety glasses) during this activity.

Troubleshooting Tips

Have students put the balloon half way on the bottle top, add the water and then put the balloon the rest of the way on the bottle top. If students have trouble getting the balloon on, get a smaller container.

If carbon dioxide does not fill balloon, get a smaller balloon or use more yeast.

Reaction times vary, encourage students to come back and check on their balloons if they do not see results within the class period.

It may be useful to seal the balloon to the flask using duct tape or masking tape to prevent air from leaking.


Pre-Activity Assessment

Discussion Questions: Solicit, integrate and summarize student responses. Ask the students:

  • What is bioremediation?
  • What basic things do we need to live?

Activity Embedded Assessment

Yeast Experiment Worksheet: Check student answers during the activity to gauge student mastery.

Post-Activity Assessment

Discussion: Ask students what they found. Which conditions were the best for the yeast? Why? Discuss any uncertainties in data and if there is anything else they should re-test. If they were environmental engineers using yeast for a sugar spill clean-up, what would they add to the yeast so that it would do its job the most effectively?

Activity Extensions

If students are interested, or there is funding available, oil eating bacteria kits are available online and may further demonstrate how bioremediation can be applied in the real world. You may start with the following website: http://www.enasco.com/product/SB39284M, but there are several additional sources.

Activity Scaling

For younger students, work through the math calculations as a class using average values.

For older students, have students present their findings to the class along with a suggestion or idea on why bioremediation is important to use in the environment.


TeachEngineering.org, "How to Make Yeast Cells Thrive," accessed April 2, 2009. https://www.teachengineering.org/view_activity.php?url=https://www.teachengineering.org/collection/duk_/activities/duk_yeast_mary_act/duk_yeast_mary_act.xml


Melissa Straten; Kate Beggs; Karen King; Janet Yowell


© 2009 by Regents of the University of Colorado.

Supporting Program

Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder


The contents of this digital library curriculum were developed under a grant from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), U.S. Department of Education and National Science Foundation GK-12 grant no. 0338326. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the Department of Education or National Science Foundation, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Last modified: February 22, 2018