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Real World Science: Gulf Coast Oil Spill

By Lindsey Petlak on February 26, 2014
  • Grades: 1–2, 3–5, 6–8

Make science hands-on and relevant by tying lessons and labs to real world events and experiences. See exploration of the Gulf Coast oil spill and cleanup efforts. Try these awesomely messy, super engaging, and highly educational real-world science experiments.

Real World Science

It’s so easy to stray from the typical, isolated science lessons and labs in order to tie them to real-world, hands-on, problem-based learning (PBL). See my blog post on the elements of PBL to learn more about this approach. As we’ve been “traveling the country” this year, we have tied our science lessons and labs to real-world PBL specific to the region we are learning about at the time. 

  • Northeast: States of matter while visiting the Hershey Factory in Pennsylvania

  • Northeast: Light waves while “on Broadway” in New York City

  • Southeast: Sound waves while touring New Orleans and Memphis

  • Southeast: Natural resources/disasters, Gulf Coast oil spill and cleanup

  • Midwest: (Our next travel destination!) Sustainable farming and plant science

See snapshots from these science labs and more on the Roadside Snapshots page of our Route #125 class website!


Our Tour of the Southeast Region

We’ve been cruisin’ through our travels of the United States regions, and the Southeast (SE) has proven jam-packed with amazing learning opportunities. So far, we’ve explored SE geography, history, important figures and heroes, the civil rights movement, natural resources, agriculture, and the science of sound waves. By far, one of the BEST learning experiences in the SE has been our study of the Deep Horizon oil spill of 2010 and cleanup efforts since then.

  • To build background knowledge and link our science studies to literacy standards, we utilized the AMAZING collection of Deep Horizon oil spill resources on the Scholastic Teacher Site.

  • Students chose from the numerous articles available to read and research information about the oil spill and cleanup efforts.

  • Students then completed a fact and opinion activity after practicing close reading of the text. I used a resource from Primary Polka Dots, but any fact/opinion graphic organizer would work. The focus is on citing facts and text evidence, and searching for the writer’s tone, underline mood, and possibly imposed opinions within the text.


We tied in Common Core State Standards lessons for the following standards:

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.4.6 Compare and contrast a firsthand and secondhand account of the same event or topic; describe the differences in focus and the information provided.

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.4.7 Interpret information presented visually, orally, or quantitatively (e.g., in charts, graphs, diagrams, time lines, animations, or interactive elements on Web pages) and explain how the information contributes to an understanding of the text in which it appears.

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.4.8 Explain how an author uses reasons and evidence to support particular points in a text.

I used the amazing 4th Grade Interactive Reading Notebook by Nicole Shelby that I’ve raved about in previous posts to introduce these standards in order to apply them to our oil spill research, experiments, and special guest presentation.


Let’s Get Messy

Kids love nothing more than GROSS SCIENCE. Even the prissiest of kids in my class didn’t mind getting their hands coated in icky grime to participate in our two-part experiment on the effects of oil spills on nature and cleanup methods. I highly recommend asking for parent volunteers to help with small groups of students. I used SignUp Genius to recruit a few helpers. To start, we watched a series of experiment demonstrations that helped prep students for the experiments from Kids Get a Plan on YouTube.

Oil Spill Creation/Observation

  • We followed the basic steps from the "Oil Spill Creation Experiment" video above to create our “crude oil” and make observations.

  • To “kick things up a notch,” I found the most awesome insta-grow sea creatures at Wal-Mart for only $1!! 

  • Students first put the insta-grow creature in clean water and made observations.

  • Next, they poured in the contaminating oil mixture and made new observations about the water and how the “wildlife” therein was affected.

  • All observations were recorded using the Educreations app.


Oil Spill Bird Feather Cleanup Experiment

  • We followed the basic steps from the "Oil Spill Bird Feather Cleanup Experiment" video above to test different wildlife cleaning methods and solutions.

  • In total, we tested cleansing success rates of saltwater (representing clean ocean water), warm fresh water, and warm water with Dawn dish soap.

  • Each team was given three clean feathers to dip in their oily water.

  • They dipped one feather in saltwater, one feather in warm fresh water, and one feather in the soapy water to test for effectiveness.

  • Teams then recorded observations about effectiveness of each solution using the Educreations app.

  • After completing the experiment, we reinforced our findings (the soapy water cleans the best) by watching a few videos from the Dawn Saves Wildlife YouTube Channel.



See a Few of Our Observation Recordings (using Educreations)


Career Connections

It’s always a great idea to pull from the talent of your parents and community, especially if they can provide first-hand accounts and factual evidence (CCS connections) linked to what you are learning about and experimenting with. Our class was extremely fortunate to have a parent of a student who is personally involved with the events following the Deep Horizon oil spill of 2010, including vast knowledge of the cleanup efforts, success rate, and scientific procedures. 


We enjoyed a riveting PowerPoint with detailed narration on the amazing cleanup efforts in the Gulf Coast since 2010 from this parent. I must have gasped in amazement at facts she shared at least a dozen times during the presentation (dorky, I know!). Obviously, we are unusually lucky to have a parent with this connection, but just let it serve as a reminder to tap into your parents’ talents. NEVER did I think (being located in a northern suburb of Chicago) that we would have a parent so closely tied to this event! You might be surprised at how parents can contribute to your class learning opportunities! 

Next Generation Science Standards: Earth and Human Activity

  • 4-ESS3-1: Obtain and combine information to describe that energy and fuels are derived from natural resources and their uses affect the environment.

  • 4-ESS3-2: Generate and compare multiple solutions to reduce the impacts of natural Earth processes on humans.

What are your favorite real-world messy science experiments? I'd love for you to share.

Thanks for reading, and see you next week!

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