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Hotchalk Global

news & tips

A collection of helpful articles on teachers and teaching

Oil Spill

There is no way to put a positive face on the disaster looming in the Gulf of Mexico with the BP oil disaster. We can use it as a teachable moment as the event will likely last well into the summer and fall in the news cycle. This end of the year teaching moment will capture the attention of many of our students as they see news reports detailing the impact of the oil spill on fish and wildlife along our southern coast.

The EPA has been very proactive in loading up their site with resources to help with the discussions taking place in classrooms across the country.

If your class is hooked into social media you can follow the clean up and monitoring efforts via facebook:

and on Twitter:

You can subscribe and receive the updates (almost daily now):

Or visit the coordinated response site for lots on technical information on efforts to contain and stop the spill.

What is amazing is the level of information coming out to us on this spill. The Twitter and Facebook sites are managed and updated by EPA scientists who are in the Gulf working on helping mitigate the disaster. What a difference technology makes. I remember using two videos, one from Frontline and the other from Exxon Mobil to explain the Exxon Valdez oil spill. 

I would put half the class in one room and the other in another room. Each would see only one of the videos. The videos are each presenting a different view of the disaster. I would bring the kids together and ask them to talk about the disaster. The two groups would argue vigorously. Then, I would let them see the other video. The discussion following that was less contentious and much more scientifically based. The experience led the students to conclude that more information is a good thing and that it is wise to be a careful consumer of media on any event.

Our students today will have no idea what we are talking about when we mention the Exxon Valdez. They will however be impacted as our former students were by the images of birds and wetland creatures who are threatened by the oil. Cleaning these birds is tough but rewarding work.  The key to removing oil lies in the chemistry of polar and non-polar molecules. It is a good time to explain how detergents work.

Steve Spangler Science has a video and a set of experiments that make use of an oil absorbing polymer.

The EPA site has more information on the chemical dispersants BP is using to try to keep the oil from clumping together. There are some reported hazards with this chemical. It works much like the emulsifier in milk to keep polar and non-polar liquids from separating.

My students, like yours, are also concerned about the impact to the lives of those who fish or shrimp off the coast for their living. Many of my kids live on farms and understand what happens when a crop fails or when disaster strikes the land in some way. They know that this disaster will have a human face. I do remember reading lots of stories of students who became environmental scientists based on the impact their lessons and the news of the Alaska oil disaster had on them. Perhaps some of my students will decide to pursue science as a career based on this event.

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