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Project title or topic of activity

Oil, Oil, Everywhere

Author(s): Maeve Foley, Tracey Smart

Date: Spring 2000


Summary of Activity
50-100 words

This station is designed to provide 5th-8th graders with a comprehensive view of oil, its uses, problems, and scientific properties. This will be done through hands-on activities that demonstrate the chemical and physical properties of oil as well as open discussion and question and answer sessions with the students, all within one day for 30-60 minutes. These activities are designed to accomplish this through scientific experiment and inquiry, allowing the students to be the learners and the teachers.


Grade levels

5th - 8th Grade, accommodates groups of 5 up to 30

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

The scientific principles of this station include the formation of oil through the processes of pressure, decomposition, and microbial life. The molecular structure of oil and its chemical and physical properties will also be discussed. The scientific process is also addressed. Students will discover these principles through scientific inquiry and measurements involving the movement of oil in water and the cleanup of oil samples from different materials. The "life" of oil will be addressed by presenting case studies as well as the uses of oil in everyday life.

Background information

Oil is a mixture of organic compounds, but mainly contains Carbon and Hydrogen. Oil is the remains of zooplankton and phytoplankton that floated on the surface of bodies of water millions of years ago. Once the plankton died they sank to the bottom and mixed with sediments of mud and silt. Layers of sediment covered the decaying animals and plants, burying them deeper and deeper. Eventually the pressure and temperature rose causing the plankton to transform into oil.

Crude oil, where refined products come from, can range in color from almost clear to black and from the consistencency of water to thick sludge. Oil is the source of 38% of the energy in the US, as well as 97% of transportation fuels. Oil is used in the production of plastics, synthetic fibers, rubber, and fertilizers. Oil is also used in the production of some prescription drugs, syringes, computers, cell phones, and many other useful products. But oil is one of the most widespread pollutants in the ocean. There is evidence that oil interferes with the reproduction, development, and growth of many marine organisms.

The most devastating effects of oil are seen with oil spills. The magnitude of an oil spill depends on the type of oil spilled, climate, flow dynamics, and response measures. Many oil spill response techniques for cleanup exist, but none are perfect. They include: booms (a form of barrier) and skimmers (dragged behing the boat), dispersants and gelling agents (chemicals used to break up oil), biodegradation (attempting to speed up natural degredation processes through the use of microbes), wiping, washing, raking, and bulldozing.

One of the most recent examples of a devastating oil spill occurred in Alaska on March 24, 1989. The Exxon Valdez ran aground 25 miles from the port of Valdez, Alaska, dumping 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince Edward Sound. The oil killed 250,000 seabirds, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles, and 22 killer whales. Unknown billions of salmon and herring eggs, inertidal plants and animals were smothered in oil. 140 miles of beach were heavily oiled while oil was present on 1500 miles of shoreline.

Today oil is still present on some beaches and the ecosystem is slowly recovering. Many individual species are recovering even more slowly. It is estimated that it will be 70 years before the ecosystem is restored to its original state. For all of this damage, Exxon paid $5 billion in fines, $287 million to local fishermen, and $3.5 billion in cleanup costs. However, it is important to note that oil is a natural resource and that it does not damage the environment in its natural state. It only becomes a pollutant and harmful to the environment when once it is harvested and spills. These harmful spills can come in the form of oil tanker spills as mentioned above, in runoff from oil refineries, by leaking during under water drilling, or the cleaning of under water drilling equipment, or even when it is improperly disposed of in the home.

Credit for the activity

Parts of this lesson plan were modified from a lesson plan on the pbs website,

Estimated time to do the activity

30 minutes- 1 hour, as time permits.

Goals of Activity:

Goal A
answer questions regarding the physical and chemical properties and the origin of oil.

Goal B
describe the events of an oil spill and the recovery process, including methods and materials.

Goal C
explain how the scientific process was used in their experiments.

Goal D
{Goal D}


National Science Education Standards. (NSES)

Two content standards that this lesson plan covers:

Standard 1
Content Standard A: Students should develop the abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry and develop an understanding about scientific inquiry. This is addresssed by having the students hypothesize about things that they might not know the answer to, such as what oil moves the fastest and under what conditions or what cleans oil the best, and having them perform their own experiments so that they can come to their own conclusions.

Standard 2
Content Standard F: Science and Personal and Social Perspectives This is addressed by giving the students both sides to the oil issue. On one hand it is extremely useful in our everyday lives, on the other hand it is extremely harmful to the environment. By explaining as many pros and cons about oil, students are better equipped, as well as encouraged to, make up their own minds.


Materials Needed

Introduction: Pictures described in background and procedure

Activity 1:

  • String
  • oil samples (vegetable and crude oil {contact Exxon Corporation Valdez Publication Requests, P.O. Box 1280, Houston, TX 77252})
  • pans
  • water
  • ruler
  • data sheets with 2 sets of 5 data points
  • pencils
  • fan or straw
  • stopwatch or clock

Activity 2:

  • Stuffed animals
  • faux fur, feathers
  • vegetable oil
  • food coloring
  • pans
  • laundry detergent
  • dish soap
  • hand soap
  • 409 (or kitchen cleaner)
  • toothpaste
  • nail polish remover
  • scrub brushes
  • toothbrushes
  • washcloths
  • rags
  • water
  • garbage bags
  • paper towels
  • gloves

Activity 3:

Pictures of the Exxon Valdez Spill, most easily obtained from the internet by searching for "Exxon Valdez"

Activity 4:

  • Industrial Oil Spill cleaners (contact Marine Spill Response Corp., 1350 I Street NW Suite 300, Washington, DC 20005)
  • pictures of spill equipment

Activity 5:

  • Oil derivatives: credit cards or other plastics, model car, deoderant, football or golfball, ink, etc


Engage: We will begin by asking students where they think oil comes from. If they are unsure we will have them formulate a hypothesis. This will then be compared to the facts about oil mentioned in the background section. Products that may not obviously contain oil will be shown and the students will decide if they do or do not contain oil. Then the students will be asked to name as many products made from oil that they can, concentrating on products that they use every day, or that are essential in our society.

Preparation: Obtain oil samples and oil cleaners from the addresses listed above. Gather all other supplies. Clear area large enough for students to perform the activity. Chose an area that would be easy to clean if any oil or other material is spilled. Collect pictures showing the effects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, as well as positive pictures involving oil. Create posters about what oil is and its uses if possible.

Step-by-Step Procedure for the Activity

Begin with a few simple questions to introduce the subject and encourage participation and elicit prior knowledge. What is oil? What do you know about oil? Start the discussion of the origin of oil by introducing the pictures of oil fields and underground deposits, as well as the picture of the microbes. Ask the students what they think each picture represents and fill in the gaps for them. Ask the students to list some of the uses for oils and specifically what some of the products are. Have them try to identify some objects that either they have or are in the room that are made from oil. Show examples of the wide range of oil-based products. There are several activities that are available to then introduce into the station and each can be modified for time and group size constraints:

1. The Physical Properties of Oil: Introduce two samples, vegetable and crude. Pour a few drops into a pan along with a few drops of water and lift up the pan to show the speed at which they move. Ask the students which moved faster and why they think it did so. Explain the idea of viscosity and relate it to the samples. In a pan of water, add a few drops of the oil(s) and ask the students what it does (ie. it floats)and why.

Explain the term density if it is not understood or known by the group. The next part will be about the movement of oil in water. Hand out the data sheets and make sure everyone has something to write with. Have a student add a small puddle of oil into a pan of water. Have another student wrap the piece of string around the puddle to measure the circumference, then measure the string flat against a ruler. Record for time 0. Keep track of the time and record the measurement every minute for five minutes (the time between measurements can also be shortened to every 30 seconds if time is constrained). While you are waiting ask the students for their ideas on the movement of the oil, will it shrink, expand, and would more viscous oil move slower or faster than less viscous. This experiment should then be repeated, except that a fan or a straw should be used on the pan to simulate wind and waves on the ocean. Have the students write down or discuss a hypothesis for whether or not there will be a change in the movement and why. Afterwards explain that waves and wind can push oil and ask what this would mean in the case of an oil spill.

2. The Chemical Properties of Oil: To begin this experiment, discuss the oil spill cleanup information or remind the students of it. On the back of their data sheets, have them make a list (individually or in groups) of the things a good cleanup program would have. Also have the students design a cleanup program for their organism from the available materials, emphasizing that all aspects of the cleanup must be considered, including afterwards. Then have each student or group of students pick an "organism" with vegetable oil poured over them. These will be either stuffed animals, faux fur, feathers, or silk or real plants. If the oil does not show up well, try adding food coloring to it. Give them 5 minutes of cleaning only by the program they have designed. After they have finished, discuss which products and methods worked best and also what should be done with the cleanup materials. This would be a good place to remind the students of how oil is broken down naturally.

3. How Much Oil Does Your Family Use: Display the graphic that one barrel = 42 gallons. Begin by explaining that all of the energy used by a person each year can be expressed in oil equivalents. Experts tell us that in the United States, on average, a person consumes twenty-two barrels each year. Write the formula on the board that each person uses twenty-two barrels of oil each year. Have each student calculate how many barrels of oil his/her family consumes each year based on the number of people in the family. How many barrels are used by the whole class together? The whole school? The whole town? The state? Have the students compare their family's, class', school's or town's energy consumption to the 11 million gallons spilled in Alaska. Use the formula of one barrel=forty-two gallons to figure how many barrels of oil were spilled in Alaska. (11,000,000 gallons by the Exxon Valdez.) How many years would it take your family/class/school/town to use 11 million gallons of oil? Discuss ways that students can reduce their oil consumption. (Turn down the heat, walk to school, improve housing insulation.) At the end of this activity, compare the time to use this much oil with how long the cleanup of the Exxon spill took.

4. Case Study: (Follow up to Activity 3) Lead into questions about spills and show the graphics displaying the factors of the Exxon Valdez. Show the pictures of the impacts of the spill and ask the students what some of these are. Discuss the clean-up strategies (booms, skimmers, chemical agents, etc) and some of the problems resulting from them.

5. To close the station, ask the students to try and picture a day without oil, what would they have to give up, how would they get places, and what are some alternatives to using oil and oil-based products? Discuss the wide range of products from oil.

Images, work sheets, additional web pages


Items for discussion or conclusion

1st question

Can you picture going through an entire day without using anything made from oil?

2nd question
What might you have to give up in order to not use oil?

3rd question
What might you use instead of oil for transportation, heating, commercial products, etc.?

4th question
What are some pros/cons about oil? How do they balance out for you?


At the end of the activities, the administrator should ask review questions covering each of the sections of the station. Also have the students evaluate their cleanup methods (what did or did not work, who produced a clean, healthy animal, and what could be improved), their oil consumption (how much is necessary, are there alternatives?), and their opinions about oil (have they been changed by anything presented in the station?). The evaluation done at the end of the visit will also be a form of assessment.

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

Have students research any positive changes that have come about in the oil industry as a result of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Have students hypothesize/research how a marine ecosystem is able to recover from a disaster like an oil spill. If students feel that the cons of oil outweigh the pros encourage them to write to their Congress person in support of increased funding for alternative fuels, or decreasing oil usage. Make students aware of the proper ways to use and dispose of oil at home.

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

Web Address (the American Petroleum Institute web site)

Additional References

Castro, P. and M.E. Huber. 2000. Marine Biology, 3rd edition. McGraw-Hill, Boston.