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Project title or topic of activity

Learning the Zones of the ocean using an oil spill.

Author(s): Tiffany Morris, Carrie Shocker

Date: Spring 2000


Summary of Activity
50-100 words

The lesson will be divided into three days. The first day, students will learn about the photic, aphotic, benthic, oceanic, neritic and intertidal zones of the ocean. They will actively participate in their groups with the teacher discussing differences that occur in each zone. At the end of the day they will discuss oil spills and the effects they may have on each of these zones of the ocean. The second day, they will have the opportunity to observe the effects by cleaning up an oil spill. They will also need to discuss in their groups how each zone is effected by the spill. The third day, the students will give a presentation with their groups to show what they have learned. The focus of the presentation should be how the oil effects the zones with little on the best clean up method.


Grade levels

The grade level should be around 6-9th grade. The best size class would be 12 to 28 students.

General description or introduction
The scientific principles that the activity is founded on.

The ocean is a conglomeration of a variety of different environments. In each of these environments the organisms that live there have to be adapted to differences whether they are temperature, salinity, pressure, light, or the possibility of drying out. The ocean is divided into six zones to separate regions of the ocean and to make it easier to define organisms by the different regions they live in. An oil spill is a catastrophic disaster to a marine environment. It affects organisms in every zone, even the organisms in the deep water are affected.

Background information

There are three vertical and three horizontal zones of the ocean.

The three vertical zones are the photic zone, the aphotic zone and the benthic zone

The photic zone is where light penetrates. This accounts for less than 100 meters from the surface. The only producers are photoplankton.

The aphotic zone is where there is cold, deep dark water. There is an absence of sunlight and very high pressures that limits organisms that can live there. Plants do not grow in this zone because of the absence of sunlight. In addition to that, there is no ocean floor for the plants to root into. Organisms that live here eat detritus. This is tiny pieces of dead organic material that drift down from the surface.

The bottom of the ocean is called the benthic zone. Organisms in the benthic zone also feed on detritus. This zone covers the entire ocean floor.

The three horizontal zones are the oceanic zone, the neritic zone and the intertidal zone.
The oceanic zone is the largest zone in the ocean. It consists of 90% of all the surface area of the World Ocean. Sunlight does not penetrate very deeply into this zone.  The photic zone is where light penetrates. This accounts for less than 100 meters from the surface. The only producers are photoplankton. 

The neritic zone extends out to the end of the continental shelf. The zone goes down about 500 meters. This is the rainforest of the ocean; it is where most of the ocean’s organisms live. Coral reefs are formed here. Coral is alive and receives nutrients from the water. When it dies, new coral is formed on top of that and the cycle continues. The way reefs are formed is when the tide is coming in, the coral that is further out into the ocean receives the nutrients and the coral closer to the beach doesn’t not get as much and therefore dies.

The intertidal zone is located along the shoreline. It alternates between periods of exposure and submersion twice a day. Organisms must learn to survive both conditions and the constant pounding of the surf. Some attach themselves to rocks while others burrow in the sand. This zone is surrounded by wetlands, salt marshes and mangrove swamps.

An oil spill has a profound effect on the ocean. Thirty to forty percent of the oil evaporates in the first 24-48 hours after the spill; these are the most poisonous portions, as well as the portions that are the most soluble, and flammable. Oil tends to float and spread out into a very thin film on the water surface. It is very rare for oil to sink. It needs to adhere to heavier particles such as sand, algae, or silt to sink. One exception to this is a kind of oil used for burning in electric utility plants. This oil can actually sink in water since it is heavier than water.

Oil will effect all of the zones and all of the animals in each zone. It also effects animals that do not live in these zones but depend on them such as sea birds. It can cover animals preventing temperature control and coating the detritus with oil which is toxic to the animals eating the detritus.

If students do not further research on oil spills they will need to know how response teams really clean up the spill.

  • Often they will protect sensitive areas with booms (floating barriers) and help oiled wildlife by cleaning birds and fur-bearing mammals with detergent.
  • Containment and recovery: Surround the oil with booms and recover the oil with skimmers. This is the most widely used as it is least destructive, but it is only 10-15% efficient under even the best circumstances.
  • Sorbents: remove oil with absorbent sponges made from diaper-like substances. Some sorbents are made form natural materials—straw, grasses or wood chips.
  • Dispersants: These are chemicals that act like detergents to break oil up into time droplets to dilute the oil’s effect and to provide bit-sized bits for oil-eating bacteria that occur naturally.
  • Burning: Burning is usually 95-98% efficient, but does cause black smoke. The smoke is not more toxic than if the oil were burned as intended in fuels.
  • Biomediation: Enhancing natural biodegradation by natural oil-eating bacteria by providing them with needed fertilizers or oxygen.
  • Shoreline cleanup: high-pressure hosing to rinse oil back into water to be skimmed up. This usually does more harm than good by driving the oil deeper into the beach and by killing every living thing on the beach. Areas left alone to be weathered by winter storms were shown to be cleaner and harboring more life than those cleaned by high-pressure washing.
  • Do nothing: Particularly in open ocean spills, cleanup is difficult and not efficient. Wave action and photo-oxidation (from the sun) helps to break oil down.

Credit for the activity

Most of this lesson was our idea. We did get the oil spill clean up from the web but have modified it greatly. Castro, Huber. Marine Biology. The McGraw-Hill companies, Inc. 2000 Environmental Science: Ecology and Human Impact by Addison Wesley Publishing Company.

Estimated time to do the activity

This activity should last about one class period per day for 3 days. The oil spill activity should be done on a block day which is about 90 minutes long.

Goals of Activity:

Goal A
Identify the Zones of the Ccean

Goal B
Understand the Effects of an Oil Spill

Goal C
Promote Environmental Awareness and the Understanding of the Impact of Oil Spills on the Ocean

Goal D
{Goal D}


National Science Education Standards. (NSES)

Two content standards that this lesson plan covers:

Standard 1
Content Standard A: Science as Inquiry Students will try to figure out what zone of the ocean they are in by looking at overheads. They will need to compare each one and look at background information. The teacher should not just tell the students what they are looking at. The students will inquiry ways to clean up the oil spill. This is also addressed when the students figure out how the oil will effect each of the zones and the organisms that live there.

Standard 2
Content Standard F: Environmental Quality Students should walk away with and awareness of the effects of oil spills on the ocean and ocean dependent organisms. We will also be talking about conservation.


Materials Needed

For the first day, the teacher needs to have:

  • A modified deck of cards in order to randomly separate the students.
  • Colored overheads of the different zones of the ocean. The overheads need to make it obvious what zone it is representing. For instance, if talking about the neritic zone, make sure there is coral in the picture.

For the second day, you will need for each group: ?

  • Paint liner dishes (one for each group of four), these can be found at any hardware store.
  • salt(optional)
  • water
  • Blue food coloring. - Can be found at a grocery store
  • Clean up supplies such as felt - Can be found at a craft store
  • paper towels
  • a comb
  • cotton
  • soap
  • Styrofoam cup etc.

Also items to show the effect of the spill such as:

  • Feathers- Any pet store will be happy to give these to you
  • shells - You get these at a pet store
  • seaweed - could be found at a pet store
  • plant moss - Could be found at a garden store
  • rocks
  • You will also need some vegetable oil and cocoa powder to make the "oil".
  • Have butcher paper and markers ready for when the students start to work on their presentations. The butcher paper will be used for poster if the students want to make them.

The only material necessary for the third day might be numbers to randomly give the groups to see who goes first. However, you can do that as you desire.


Engage: Overhead activity of zones of the ocean. After students are put into groups, the teacher should assign jobs to each person. For instance the “clubs” person, will be the recorder, which means he or she will write down what the groups observes. Other jobs could be a materials person, a clean up person and spokes person. Then the teacher will put on the overhead projector a picture of the ocean with some fish swimming in it. The picture will be of the oceanic zone. The students will observe the picture and write down everything they can about it. They should see how the water is much lighter on top and progressively gets darker. They should also observe that you can still see the surface of the water and the fish’s colors as well as eyes. All this information supports the topic of the oceanic zone. Seeing the answers each group comes up with will be a good way to assess their prior knowledge of the subject. After having each group go around and tell what they have observed, explain to class exactly what the oceanic zone is. The teacher can also talk about the photic zone at this time. Do the same thing with a picture of the aphotic zone. They should take what they learned from the first observation and use it to observe this picture. They should be able to compare it to the first one. They should notice that the background is dark, hence the absence of sunlight. The fish are not as colorful. There are no plants. The teacher can next show a picture of the neritic zone. Do not have the class observe it in such detail. Just have them look at it and ask for volunteers for observations. By this time, they should know what you are looking for. Instead of just telling them about this zone, ask questions and try to have them figure it out themselves. Obviously they will not get all the information you want them to know so you will have to do a little lecturing. Draw a picture on the board to demonstrate where the zones are. This should lead the teacher into a lecture on the benthic zone. Be sure to be clear that there are no distinct lines that seperalte these zones. They all blend on with one another and zones can overlap each other.

Preparation: A modified deck of cards should be ready. The deck will be modified so that whatever card the students chooses, is the group he or she is in. For instance, all of the 6's will be in one group. The colored overheads will need to be already prepared. The teacher needs to put it into some sort of order so that the students are better able to understand the concepts. Prepare to end the zone lecture with 5 minutes left of class. Take these 5 minutes to get the students thinking about the effects of oil spill on the ocean and how one might clean it up. You can make the oil spill activity interesting by telling them scary facts about oil spills. -Every year 100 millions US gallons of oil spill. This is equal to 100 school gymnasiums. -The biggest oil spill occurred during the 1991 Persian Gulf war when about 240 million gallons spilled. - The second biggest happened over a 10-month period when 140 million gallons spilled in the Gulf of Mexico. -Even all the oil spilled during the Persian gulf spill is only about 1/3 what the USA uses in ONE day! -The US uses 710 million gallons per day.

Each group will have to bring in at least one item to help clean up the spill. Remember that the point of the oil spill activity is not to learn about oil spills and how to clean them up, it is to emphasize what was learned the day before and to think about how the spill will effect each zone.

The second day needs the most preparation. All of the materials need to be in bags for the students, one bag per group. The "oil" needs to be already made. Combining vegetable oil and cocoa powder makes this. Have the water and food coloring mixed and stored in milk jugs or another container for the “ocean”. Have questions prepared to ask the students. These questions should be geared to keeping them on track and keeping them thinking about how not only is the oil effecting the zones of the ocean also how the clean up method is effecting the zones. Question examples are how would you clean the oil off of a bird's feather? Does the sorbent you are using pick up more water than oil? How will the oil effect the coral reefs in the neritic zone? How will the oil effect the benthic zone?

The last preparation for the day is to have butcher paper and markers ready for them. This will be for making a poster if they want to in their presentations. Students should work on the oil spill for 30 –40 minutes and use the rest of class time to put together a presentation. The third day will require the teacher to somehow put the groups in order of who will do their presentation. The teacher should also have some questions prepared to ask the students after their presentations.

Step-by-Step Procedure for the Activity

Day one:
divide the class into groups of four. If you want this done randomly use a deck of cards. It should be modified to fit your class. 1. Once students have gotten into their groups put a picture on the overhead of a fish swimming in the bright water where you can see the surface of the water (photic zone). Give them 3 minutes to talk with groups and write down everything they notice about the picture. They should notice things like it is light, you can see the surface of the water, the fish are brightly colored, etc. Go around the class and have the "club" person of each group state what they observed. Talk about the photic zone or the oceanic zone. 2. Do the same thing again with a picture of the aphotic zone. 3. Again, with a picture of the neritic zone. *Always remember to turn on the lights when talking to the class, lights being off invites sleepiness and inattentiveness. Three overheads are enough. You can use others for effect but do not have them intensively observing too many. The teacher can use what the students know now to explain the rest of the zones. For instance, draw a picture on the board of where the zones are and have them think about and discuss as a class what areas have not been talked about. 4. This will take 45 minutes of class. Take the last 5 minutes to start an introduction to oil spills. Ask the students to think about one thing in the room that is not either made directly from oil or oil is used in its production. Ask them to talk about how an oil spill may affect the ocean and what would be a good way to clean it up. Explain that tomorrow you will bring the ocean and an oil spill to them and they will need to figure a way to clean up the oil spill without further harming the ocean. Their groups will need to bring in something that they think may help clean up the spill.

Day two
1. Each group will get an "ocean" which is a paint liner with blue water in it. A paint liner is a great replica of the ocean. The way it steeps down can be thought of the as the three vertical zones. Plus the bottom is bumpy, just like the rocks on the bottom for the ocean. 2. Go around to each group and spill the oil in. You need to slowly pour it in otherwise it will not work. 3. Give each group of students the materials needed. Make sure you announce ahead of time that not only are they supposed to clean up the oil in the most efficient way, but they are to think about how the oil and the clean up method is effecting the animals in the different zones of the ocean. Also make sure they understand that the feather, plants, seashells etc. are not for a clean-up method, but represent the life in the ocean. 4. Put some questions on the board that they will need to answer by the time they are done. An example question might be if you used soap, what are some problems that might occur. Does the harm out-weigh the good? Other than the fish, what might the oil have an effect on? 5. During activity time the teacher needs to go around and talk to each group to make sure they are on track and to ask stimulating questions. Students should need only 30-40- minutes to do this. Have the assigned clean up person from each group make sure all materials are put in their proper place. This does not mean the clean up person does all the clean up, it simply means they are responsible for getting the rest of the group the help clean and that they are responsible for all missing materials. 6. Explain to the students that the rest of the time will be for working on their presentation. Presentations will have a time limit; I would give 6-7 minutes per group. You can add more or less depending on how many groups you have. It needs to be clear that the presentations are going to be the main assessment tool. The presentations need to be creative. They need to include a very short segment on the best way to clean up the spill. The rest will be dedicated to how this affects the animals that are dependent on the ocean. Have the students answer the question you put on the board in their presentations.

Day three
1. Randomly assign the groups an order to present in. Ask the students questions after their presentation just to reinforce that they know what is going on. Have students’ observing the presentation ask questions to ensure they were paying attention. After the presentations, tell all the students to take out a piece of paper and draw a circle on it. Tell them to divide the circle up into a pie chart of who did the work. If everybody in the group worked together well and did the same amount of work, the circle would be divided up into four even sections each labeled 25% with a student’s name in each piece of pie.

Images, work sheets, additional web pages


Items for discussion or conclusion

1st question

Name the 6 zones of the ocean.

2nd question
Why might the oil effect birds?

3rd question
What would happen to the ocean if nothing was done to clean up the ocean?

4th question
How is the clean up method going to affect the ocean?


The main assessment would be through the presentations given. The presentations will be graded on whether or not the students understood the material. They will have had to answer the questions that the teacher put on the board so their answers will be part of the grade As a teacher, you will know from what they say in the presentation how will they understand what is going on. If they say that oil has little impact on the neritic zone, then you know the students has no idea what is going on. Part of the grade will also be group participation. Because we cannot see exactly who has done what work the students will evaluate their groups individually using a circle that is divided up by student work. You could include this material in a quiz or exam given at a later date.

Beyond the Activity
Further activities which relate to and extend the complexity of the experiment.

You could assign some kind of research project that would have the students researching other problems the ocean is faced with. That is an extremely vast subject, but it would be interesting what information the students come back with. Students could research oil spills and find out in more detail what the affects are on animals and plants dependent on the ocean. They could also research how oil spills are really cleaned up. This could used for a great conservation activity. It could lead to other conversation activities. This could also lead to other activities that have to do with the ocean and nothing to do with oil and oil spills.

Web Resources
A web address with information on the topic of the activity.

Web Address

Additional References

Castro, Huber. Marine Biology, The McGraw-Hill Company, Inc. 2000