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Slick Sea Spills

Grade Level: 4 -6


To gain an understanding of what happens in an oil spill and to develop a greater awareness of taking responsibility for the environment.

Background Discussion:

What causes an oil spill? (Tankers running aground.) Have you ever seen oil on the street, garage, or in a parking lot? Actually tanker accidents contribute only 11% of the oil in our oceans. More than 54% comes from storm-water runoff, leaks from storage facilities, and industrial process. A lot of oil (at least 40% of all non-point oil pollution) comes from cars. Cars use oil to run and after so many miles, that oil needs to be changed. People who change their own oil may not be careful and allow some of it to spill or don't fix their cars when it leaks. Even if they change the oil correctly, they may not dispose of it properly. It should be taken to a gas station where it is picked up by a waste management company to be recycled or burned. If it isn't and instead emptied into landfills, storm drains, or backyards, it will carry toxic contaminants into ground water, streams, and lakes. What happens to the water and to animals if oil spills? If an accident occurs, how can it be cleaned up?


For each pair of students
1 aluminum pie pan half-filled with water
A medicine dropper full of used motor oil
Cotton balls
Paper towels
Liquid detergent

Lab Notes

Give each pair of students the materials and a work sheet on which to record their observations. Ask students to make predictions about the action of oil and water. What do you think will happen to the oil when you drop it on the water? Will it sink, float, or mix in? Which material do you think will clean up the most oil in the least amount of time? Cotton, nylon, paper towel, or string?

Have each team create an oil spill by putting five drops of used motor oil in the "ocean" (aluminum pie pan). Let them observe the action of the oil and record what happens. Ask, Were your predictions correct?

Ask students to predict the effect of wind and wave action on oil and water. They can stimulate the ocean's behavior by blowing and on and moving the water in the pie pan. What happens?

Have each pair determine the effectiveness of each of the cleanup materials provided. They should identify the amount of oil cleaned up by each material and how quickly it worked. Ask, Do your predictions compare with the results?

Then have them make another 5-drop oil spill in a second pan of water, add 5 drops of liquid detergent (dispersant), observe, and record what happens. Ask, Where do you think the oil would go in the real ocean?

Let students dip a feather in the oil. Ask, How do you think oily feathers might affect birds' behavior? Students can try the procedure using fresh water and then salt water.

This activity was prepared by Jane Howard and appeared in October 1989 issue of Science and Children.

Follow-Up Discussion:

Research what happened after some recent major oil spills - Exxon Valdez at Valdez, Alaska, 3/24/89; Nestucca at Grays Harbor, Washington, 12/28/88; Arco Anchorage near Port Angeles, Washington, 12/21/88.

Because a body of water is a closed system, why is it important to keep oil out? Why is clean-up so difficult? Why can clean-up efforts also cause damage? (Chemicals used can cause additional harm to wildlife and vegetation.) What can you do to prevent oil from leaking into water bodies?

Why is an oil spill dangerous to marine animals? What happened to the feather when it was dipped into the oil? Begin a discussion on how an animal's fur acts as insulation. Ask students if they have ever been caught in the rain in a wool sweater. Did they get cold? Were they wearing other layers of clothes that kept them warm? Contrast the insulation that seals have (blubber) and otters don't (no excess body fat). What difference does that make when their coat becomes oil- soaked?