Maker Challenge Oil:
Clean It Up!

Quick Look

Grade Level: Middle school; also scalable for high school

Time Required: 3 hours (wild guess!)

Subject Areas: Biology, Chemistry, Life Science

A photograph shows six people in white coveralls using rakes and hoes to clean Papamoa Beach in New Zealand after an oil spill reached the sandy shore from the grounded ship Rena.
What would help you clean up an oil spill?
Copyright © 2011 New Zealand Defense Force, Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 2.0

Maker Challenge Recap

Student teams move through the engineering design process. They create, test and improve oil spill cleanup kits, designing them to be inexpensive and accessible for homeowners to use or for big companies to give to individual workers to aid in personal home, community or corporate environmental oil cleanup. After deciding on a target user and scenario, teams conduct research and draw from an assortment of ordinary materials and supplies made available by the teacher. As a concluding gallery walk, each group presents its final prototype and summary poster to the rest of the class.

Maker Materials & Supplies

  • an assortment of project materials, such as napkins, paper towels, rags, wax, flour, popsicle sticks, dried flowers, cotton, construction paper, sponges, oatmeal and kitty litter; consider providing all sorts of other materials and/or have students brainstorm about materials they think might be useful for their products/kits
  • materials for bonding items together, such as wire, string, glue, tape, super glue, hot glue
  • an assortment of oil types, for testing, such as cooking oil, motor oil, gasoline, etc.; depending on your students and how you want the challenge to go, consider limiting the types of oil students may choose from to those you are able to make available for design testing
  • materials with which to test products/kits for their cleaning effectiveness in simulated oil spills, such as linoleum squares, concrete blocks, tubs of soil/sand, tubs of water, squares of sod and/or other surfaces/materials that students target to clean
  • additional materials, if available, such as 3D pens to create rough designs of prototype products
  • computers with Internet access, for student research
  • poster board or butcher paper, for teams to create final summary posters

Worksheets and Attachments

Visit [] to print or download.


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Oil is a big part our daily lives. Companies use oil to create all sorts of plastic materials, rubber, household items and even makeup! Oil is also used in the kitchen for cooking and in the vehicles that we rely on for transportation.

The pervasive integration of oil in our lives means that sometimes oil spills occur in our homes, communities and the larger environment. Oil spills can happen in our kitchens, garages, cafeterias, highways and even in the wild and beautiful wilderness as oil is transported through pipelines across the country or in ships across the oceans.

Your challenge today is to create an oil spill cleanup kit that enables someone, either a person or a company, to aid in the cleanup process. Working in a team, you decide the target audience for your product—either homeowners or companies. And oil spill cleanup might involve any type of oil—from the oil used in kitchens and garages to the oil traveling through big pipelines or spilled on beaches. Your group also decides what aspect of oil spill cleanup to focus on: oil containment, absorption or removal.

As with any engineering project, once you have identified your kit objective, conduct some research to understand the properties of the oil you want to clean up. You might also research (step two of the engineering design process) current oil spill cleanup methods in use and try to improve on those methods or invent a new one. Let’s get started!


Refer to the Engineering Design Process hub on TeachEngineering to guide your students through the challenge.

To document the design process, utilize the Engineering Design Process Notebook.

Maker Time

Have the class organize into engineering teams of three or four students each. Encourage students to form groups that bring together people with different strengths.

During the third step of the engineering design process, students will imagine possible solutions and move into a brainstorming session. Prompt students to focus on one type of oil: cooking oil, motor oil, gasoline, etc. Inform students of any limitation on the types of oil from which students may choose (those you have available for design testing).

Remind students to research the oil characteristics in order to better understand how to clean up the spill.

Have teams go into step four of the engineering design process and select a solution. Each team needs to compile a list of needed supplies from the materials made available in the classroom.

During the design process, have groups sketch out their evolving designs and make notes that explain the functions of the materials being used. Optional: Have students create 3D models of their designs!

Have teams go through steps five, six, and seven of the engineering design process: Create a Prototype, Test and Evaluate, and Improve/Redesign. Have teams build their oil cleanup kits, test them, and make adjustments for improvement as needed.

Guide students to simulate mini oil spills and then conduct tests to see if their cleanup kits work.

Prompt students to think about the suitable tests to perform and measurements to take in order to evaluate and evolve their prototypes.

Once groups are satisfied with their designs, have them each create a poster that recaps the product/kit features and benefits. Suggested poster components.

  • Product description (materials used and how are they are unique to the oil spill kit; how the kit works/is used)
  • Labeled product/kit sketch
  • Target user and scenario (personal/corporate; oil type[s]; containment, absorption, removal)
  • Test description and results (surface: flooring, water, soil, etc.)
  • Improvements: Changes made to the original design and how they helped the cleanup process/results
  • Flexibility: Can your product/kit be used on a larger scale or in a different scenario?

Wrap Up

Have students organize a gallery walk with posters and final prototypes displayed so everyone can view the products/kits. Optional: Suggest that students leave positive notes about the other designs!

After the gallery walk, have students apply the ideas/information they gathered from exploring their peers’ products/kits to think of ways to improve their own designs.


© 2017 by Regents of the University of Colorado; original © 2017 Rice University


Norma Carmona

Supporting Program

Nanotechnology RET, Department of Earth Science, School Science and Technology, Rice University


This material was developed in collaboration with the Rice University Office of STEM Engagement, based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under grant no. EEC 1406885—the Nanotechnology Research Experience for Teachers at the Rice University School Science and Technology in Houston, TX. 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 or Rice University.

Last modified: July 31, 2020

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