Hands-on Activity Oil Spill Clean-Up

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Quick Look

Grade Level: 3 (2-4)

Time Required: 4 hours

four 60-minute class periods

Expendable Cost/Group: US $15.00

Group Size: 2

Activity Dependency: None

Subject Areas: Life Science, Measurement, Problem Solving

NGSS Performance Expectations:

NGSS Three Dimensional Triangle
2-PS1-1
2-PS1-2

A 2010 photograph from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The photo shows a boat sailing through an oil slick.
Cleaning up oil spills uses essential elements of the engineering design process.
copyright
Copyright © 2010 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Public Domain

Summary

Students are introduced to oil spills and what exactly happens when oil is spilled onto the ocean’s surface. Students are shown real images of major oil spills as a phenomenon. The class discusses the effects of oil spills have on oceans and marine life, including plant and animal populations such as birds, otters, and ducks. They take on the role of an environmental engineering company and are tasked to clean up a major oil spill disaster. Students use a variety of materials that absorb oil. Certain constraints will be put upon the students to mimic an engineering atmosphere.
This engineering curriculum aligns to Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

Environmental engineers develop solutions to combat pollution; oil spills are an extreme type of pollution in bodies of water, particularly oceans. Environmental engineers help clean up oil spills and improve a polluted environment so that it is once again able to provide food, water, space, and essential nutrients for its population of plants and animals.

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • Test a variety of materials to determine which absorbs and removes the most oil.
  • Use a ruler to measure how much oil has been collected.
  • Create a class double bar graph to document and display data.
  • Present their knowledge and findings to the class.

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.

NGSS Performance Expectation

2-PS1-1. Plan and conduct an investigation to describe and classify different kinds of materials by their observable properties. (Grade 2)

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This activity focuses on the following Three Dimensional Learning aspects of NGSS:
Science & Engineering Practices Disciplinary Core Ideas Crosscutting Concepts
Plan and conduct an investigation collaboratively to produce data to serve as the basis for evidence to answer a question.

Alignment agreement:

Different kinds of matter exist and many of them can be either solid or liquid, depending on temperature. Matter can be described and classified by its observable properties.

Alignment agreement:

Patterns in the natural and human designed world can be observed.

Alignment agreement:

NGSS Performance Expectation

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. (Grade 2)

Do you agree with this alignment?

Click to view other curriculum aligned to this Performance Expectation
This activity focuses on the following Three Dimensional Learning aspects of NGSS:
Science & Engineering Practices Disciplinary Core Ideas Crosscutting Concepts
Analyze data from tests of an object or tool to determine if it works as intended.

Alignment agreement:

Different properties are suited to different purposes.

Alignment agreement:

Simple tests can be designed to gather evidence to support or refute student ideas about causes.

Alignment agreement:

Every human-made product is designed by applying some knowledge of the natural world and is built using materials derived from the natural world.

Alignment agreement:

  • Participate in shared research and writing projects (e.g., read a number of books on a single topic to produce a report; record science observations). (Grade 2) More Details

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  • Reason abstractly and quantitatively. (Grades K - 12) More Details

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  • Model with mathematics. (Grades K - 12) More Details

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  • Use appropriate tools strategically. (Grades K - 12) More Details

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  • Measure the length of an object by selecting and using appropriate tools such as rulers, yardsticks, meter sticks, and measuring tapes. (Grade 2) More Details

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  • Measure to determine how much longer one object is than another, expressing the length difference in terms of a standard length unit. (Grade 2) More Details

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  • Draw a picture graph and a bar graph (with single-unit scale) to represent a data set with up to four categories. Solve simple put-together, take-apart, and compare problems using information presented in a bar graph. (Grade 2) More Details

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  • Observe and measure objects in terms of their properties, including size, shape, color, temperature, weight, texture, sinking or floating in water, and attraction and repulsion of magnets. (Grade 2) More Details

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  • Compare the observations made by different groups using the same tools. (Grade 2) More Details

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  • Explain how scientists alone or in groups are always investigating new ways to solve problems. (Grade 2) More Details

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Materials List

Each pair needs (be sure to use the same exact materials and amounts of liquid for each pair to ensure constant variables):

  • tubs or foil baking pans with water (x2 for each pair when they would like to choose different materials)
  • water
  • vegetable oil: amount depends on tray; use a 1:4 oil to water ratio
  • 2-3 different brands of cotton balls
  • 2-3 different brands of sponges
  • 2-3 different brands of paper towels
  • cotton swabs (such as Q-Tips)
  • eyedroppers
  • cocoa powder
  • spoons
  • 500 mL beakers
  • ruler
  • Oil Spill Clean-Up Worksheet
  • chart paper
  • blue food coloring (optional)

For the entire class to share:

  • poster paper
  • markers

Worksheets and Attachments

Visit [www.teachengineering.org/activities/view/uof-2704-oil-spill-clean-up-engineering-design-activity] to print or download.

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Pre-Req Knowledge

Students should have a basic understanding of reading and making a one column bar graph. They should be familiar with words such as title, axis, vertical, horizontal, scale, and legend when referring to bar graphs.

Introduction/Motivation

Let us look at these pictures (show the Oil Spill Cleanup PowerPoint). While looking at them, I want you to write down on a piece of paper what you notice and wonder. (Pass out one piece of paper separated into 5 sections.) Feel free to use sentences, words, or pictures to explain what you notice and wonder. I will give you 30 seconds – 1 minute for each image. (After each image is shown, have students talk about each image with each other, but do not tell them what is occurring.)

What do you think is happening in these pictures? (Possible answers: the water is dirty; the animals look sad or hurt because they have something on them.

A 2010 photograph from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The photo shows a boat sailing through an oil slick.
Cleaning up oil spills uses essential elements of the engineering design process.
copyright
Copyright © 2010 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Public Domain

Has anyone ever heard of or used oil before? (Elicit student responses.) Oil is used across the world for many things, including making plastic items and for people’s cars. Because so many people use oil across the world, oil is moved in huge boats called tankers. These tankers can leak, crash, or explode, which accidentally spills all its oil into the ocean. 

Have you heard of environmental engineers before? Environmental engineers develop solutions to problems in the environment, like our oceans. Based on our conversation so far, what do you think the problem we are going to solve is today? How are we going to act as environmental engineers?

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has contacted us to investigate the best way to clean up an oil spill. We are going to act as an environmental engineering company to solve this problem: how can we effectively absorb and remove the most oil in the ocean that has spilled from a giant tanker to protect marine life?

Procedure

Before the Activity

  • Gather materials (x2) for each set of pairs. Put several drops of blue food coloring in the water. Mix cocoa powder with vegetable oil and pour mixture into water. Make sure to use a 1:4 ratio of oil to water in each tub or pan every time. Example ratio: 2 cups of oil and 8 cups of water.
  • Separate and label different brands of cotton balls, sponges, and paper towels as “Brand A, Brand B, and Brand C.”
  • (Optional) Before Day 3, prepare the students’ posters depending on student ability. For younger grades, set up their poster ahead of time so that they only have to write in the details. Include sections of Problem, Materials, What We Learned, and How We Acted Like Environmental Engineers. For upper-level grades, leave their paper blank.

With the Students

Day 1

  1. Present the Introduction/Motivation content (show the Oil Spill Clean-up PowerPoint). As a class, discuss that engineers find practical solutions to problems by engaging in the Engineering Design Process.
  2. Divide the class into pairs and pass out the Oil Spill Clean-Up Worksheets.
  3. Remind students of the goal: clean up the most oil and place it in the beakers within the 10-minute time limit. Tell students that engineers have constraints, or limits, on things that they can do, especially with time. It is important to quickly clean up an oil spill because of the dangerous effects it can have on plant and marine life.
  4. Give students time to brainstorm what materials they would like to try first to absorb the oil. Have them record their hypothesis on their worksheets.
  5. Have each pair come up one at a time and take the materials they would like first. Ask students to explain why they are choosing those materials. Have students record their thinking on their Oil Spill Clean-Up Worksheets in the “Round 1 material and why” section.
  6. Guide students on how to get their materials to absorb the liquid and squeeze into their beakers.
    A photograph shows one student squeezing water and oil into a beaker using a sponge. Another student next to her is using a cotton ball to absorb the water and oil.
    Students work in pairs to remove the oil from the water.
    copyright
    Copyright © 2022 Kayla Sutcliffe
    Depending on the students’ ages, you might want to demonstrate first. Circulate amongst the pairs while they are working. Set a 10-minute timer and display for everyone to see.  
  7. After time is up, with rulers, students will measure and record on their Oil Spill Clean-up Worksheet the amount of oil (not water) in the beakers in centimeters. Circulate and double check students’ measurements. Have pairs fill out the rest of the Round 1 section.
  8. Afterwards, give students a reset of the initial materials (pans, oil, and water) to try again, but with different absorbing materials. Pour out the water and oil in their beakers. Ask students to record what they are choosing next on their worksheets in the “Round 2 material and why” section. Repeat the activity. Have students record their answers to the final two questions on their Oil Spill Clean-Up Worksheets. 
    A worksheet is shown asking and answering two questions: “How did you act as an environmental engineer today?” and “What was the easiest thing about this task? The hardest? Discuss with other pairs about the materials that they used and how much oil was removed. Which materials were the most successful in removing the oil?”
    Students explain how they acted as environmental engineers.
    copyright
    Copyright © 2022 Kayla Sutcliffe, University of Florida MRET

Day 2

  1. Gather students together and discuss what was easy and what was difficult. Ask each pair how many centimeters of oil each group collected, and display data on the board in a table. Ask students if they have ever heard of a double bar graph. Show examples found on the web. Tell students that they are going to make a double bar graph based on the data collected from the class shown here in the table on the board. Ask students what they think the title, axis titles, and scale should be.
  2. Give each pair of students a piece of chart paper and markers to create their double bar graphs. Leave examples of double bar graphs on the board along with the data. Consider creating one through Google Sheets. 
    A double bar graph is shown. The horizontal axis represents teams A-F, and the vertical axis represents the amount of oil collected in centimeters. Each team has one blue and one red bar representing how much oil they collected in round 1 and round 2.
    Class data represented in a double bar graph.
    copyright
    Copyright © 2022 Kayla Sutcliffe, University of Florida MRET

Day 3

  1. Tell students that they will present their findings because engineers always share their data and information that they find. Give each group one piece of poster paper and markers to present their design process. Students should include the following on their poster:
    • Problem: can we successfully clean the ocean from an oil spill?
    • What brands of cotton balls, paper towels, and/or sponges they chose first, second, and why?
    • What they learned from certain materials (what kind of materials absorbed the oil the best).
    • How they acted as environmental engineers.

Day 4

  1. Have students present their posters!

Vocabulary/Definitions

absorb: To take in or soak up.

environment: The things and conditions that are all around one.

environmental engineer: An engineer who applies various scientific principles and ideas to help provide clean water, minimize pollution, and improve the environment.

marine life: Plants and animals that live in the sea.

pollution : Harmful or poisonous things that people put into the environment.

Assessment

Pre-Activity Assessment

Discussion: Before the activity begins, ask students what an oil spill is or if anyone has ever heard of one. Also ask students what brand(s) of cotton balls, paper towels, and sponges (show students all brands and label as “Brand A, Brand B, and Brand C”) they think will absorb the most oil; ask students to justify their answers.

Activity Embedded (Formative) Assessment

Worksheet: As partners, have students complete the Oil Spill Clean-Up Worksheet.     

Post-Activity (Summative) Assessment

Presentation:  Each group will present their findings to the class. 

Discuss/think-pair-share: Have students discuss the following questions in the style of “Think-Pair-Share:” Which materials met our goal today of absorbing the most oil from the water? (Student answers may vary.) How did you act as environmental engineers today? (Example answer: we helped clean the oceans so that animals could live there, got rid of ocean pollution, etc.) What does the double bar graph that you made show us? (Example answer: that team x collected the most, team y and team z collected this much, etc.)

Making Sense Assessment: Have students reflect on the science concepts they explored and/or the science and engineering skills they used by completing the Making Sense Assessment.

Investigating Questions

  • What materials absorb and remove oil effectively?
    • Answer: Sponges that are made with thicker/more material will absorb the most oil. Spoons will help remove oil.  
  • How will we act as environmental engineers in this task?
    • Answer: We will identify a problem (oil floating in the ocean) and use a variety of materials to clean the oil spill up to protect the marine life.
  • What are the effects of an oil spill on the environment?
    • Answer: Oil spills can hurt any type of marine life in the ocean, including plants and animals. For example, when oil covers birds’ feathers and wings, they are unable to fly.

Safety Issues

Although some materials are edible, make sure younger students are not ingesting the oil or cocoa powder.

Troubleshooting Tips

  • The water and oil can be messy. Consider doing the activity outdoors or placing plastic mats/tarps underneath the students. Have dish soap ready to wash hands with to remove oil easier.
  • Since oil can stain clothes, consider using plastic gloves and aprons.
  • When students are to record data on their worksheets, some might need more help than others depending on age. Encourage students to help each other record. Pictures are also acceptable forms of recording.
  • Ensure students are measuring in centimeters, not inches.

Activity Extensions

  • Consider adding dish soap to the water/oil mixture and discuss what occurs. Discuss how soap might be useful to the clean-up process.
  • As a class, research oil spill response techniques that engineers actually use, including containment, using chemicals, and using physical methods.
  • Watch https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZIjB5c_N5ME: a cartoon on how oil harms marine environments (4:32).
  • Have students also find the best materials to clean a bird feather (bird feathers can be found here). Discuss the importance of cleaning up oil spills.

Activity Scaling

  • For upper grades, require a scaled bar-graph.
  • For upper grades, consider adding more rounds of material testing.
  • For upper grades, discuss how the oil does not mix with the water and floats on top of the surface; make a connection to water/oil density and molecules.
  • For more advanced students, have them write their own one- and two-step word problems having to do with the bar graph. Example: “How many more inches of oil did group 1 collect than group 2 and group 3 combined?” Have them present their questions to the class to solve.

References

"Oil Spill Facts: Lesson for Kids." Study.com, 16 June 2017, study.com/academy/lesson/oil-spill-facts-lesson-for-kids.html. Accessed 06/07/2022.

Wordsmyth Illustrated Learner’s Dictionary. Accessed 06/07/2022. (Source of some vocabulary definitions, with some adaptation) https://kids.wordsmyth.net/we/

Copyright

© 2023 by Regents of the University of Colorado

Contributors

Kayla Sutcliffe

Supporting Program

Multidisciplinary Research Experiences for Teachers of Elementary Grades, Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering, University of Florida

Acknowledgements

This curriculum was based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under RET grant no. EEC 1711543— Engineering for Biology: Multidisciplinary Research Experiences for Teachers in Elementary Grades (MRET) through the College of Engineering at the University of Florida. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Last modified: January 18, 2023

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