Scientific Investigation of Natural Phenomena

The "Oil Disaster Lab" gives learners a real-life context to research solutions for a problem on their own. The students collaborate on possible ways to solve the problem of an oil spill. Through practicing research principles the student groups develop their conclusions and report them to the rest of the class.

A flyer that says, A Potpourri of Pollution Activities. ISTA, Nov. 4, 1994, Nancy Nega, Churchville Jr. High, Elmhurst, IL



Students are put into groups of 4 or 5 (depending on class size) by randomly choosing a folded piece of paper. The paper is the Research Request from one of the cleanup companies (I use anywhere from 4 - 6 companies depending on class size). The company names I use are: Spills R Us, Spill Magic, Inc., Spill be Gone, Inc., Splish Splash Spills, Oil Moppers, Inc., and Oil Kleeners, Inc. On each request, one of the jobs is highlighted - this is the role the students will assume for the lab.

For the lab these materials are required:

For each company: clear plastic container - plant saucers, cut down milk container, clear plastic shoe box, etc.; sand to make a small beach area, flora and fauna (artificial flowers and/or leaves, and either fuzzy birds or ponpoms), rubber gloves and goggles are to be worn by all members of the group, a variety of cleanup materials that the group can choose from (see attached materials and price list), and the ocean (saltwater)*.

* To make the saltwater - use of kosher salt will eliminate the "clouding" that results from using regular table salt. Add 38 g of NaCI to 1 L water (152 g kosher NaCI/1 Gal. water)to simulate the approximate saltiness of the ocean. Oil can be any type of oil - used motor oil is a good simulation of crude, since it will often separate out, or layer in the water, gear lube is also good, although the smell is rather nasty, also a simulated crude can be made from mineral oil that is heated to melt black and brown crayons to add the color.

Be sure to caution students about the toxicity of the oil. GOGGLES AND GLOVES MUST BE WORN. Also, collect the used "oceans" in a bucket for proper disposal at an oil recycling site - do not pour down the drain.

After students have done the lab, and come to a research group conclusion, each group then does an oral presentation to the "board of directors" - the rest of the class.

(This lab was adapted from a lab by Jim Cox.)


This lab was adapted from teacher materials distributed by Scientific American Frontiers.


After the labs, the students then view Bottom of the Barrel, a 3-2-1 Contact Special. This video is available from Sunburst for $19.95. It is an excellent overview of petroleum, its uses, production, pollution and cleanup. In the past, I have also shown a short segment from Newton's Apple, on a simulation practice of an oil disaster cleanup. It is an excellent example of real life action of what we have just done in the lab.

Students are asked to do a project to sum up what they have learned about oil pollution. See attached project suggestion sheet.

Fresh water pollution is handled through various activities that the local water department initiates, including water testing of local water ponds, creeks, etc., in the area. The students are taken on a field trip to the DuPage Water Commission to see how water is delivered to DuPage County from Lake Michigan, and then to the Elmhurst Sewage Treatment Plant to witness the process of cleaning sewage and then returning it to the environment.

Students also read the ballad "Away on the Bay" (Ranger Rick's Naturescope Pollution - Problems and Solutions) and realize that even when pollution is out of sight, it still affects the environment.


To introduce air pollution, and to show its ties with water pollution, I demonstrate "Smog in a Micro-environment" from a FlinnFax. It is a very graphic and startling demonstration of just what smog is and how it is formed. The students take the pH of the water before and after the smog is formed, and are startled to see how much it changes! After witnessing this demonstration, they all seem to understand perfectly how and why acid rain forms.

The students also do some monitoring of air pollution around the school by hanging strips of filter paper smeared with Vaseline, and then examining the strips under magnification. They are amazed at all the "stuff" that is in the air they breathe.

As a class we read two plays about air pollution: The Awful Eight, from Ranger Rick's Naturescope Pollution-Problems and Solutions concentrates on various pollutants picketing the EPA for their efforts to reduce pollution. Each of the characters giving a good description of what it is, how it is formed and how it is harmful to humans and the environment. The second play is Acid Rain: The Play from LHS GEMS: Acid Rain, in this play, seven characters hold a town meeting to discuss what can be done because their lake is being contaminated by acid rain. The characters include salamanders, fish, plants and a raccoon who are worried that the lifestyle of "two-legs" is threatening their extinction. The students tend to identify with these characters and understand how problems of pollution affect the entire ecosystem, and that various forms of pollution are interconnected.


Land pollution includes two main activities: building landfills and monitoring them throughout the year; and a town meeting simulation.

The landfills are built from directions from Bottle Biology. Students are asked to monitor the bottles at weekly or biweekly intervals and make detailed observations. They then match the observations with the predictions they made when building the landfills, as to what would happen at one, three and six months. The students are amazed that there is not much change in all that time - most have predicted that all the "garbage" would disintegrate by 3-6 months. They are also impressed by the pH changes in the water that they add to the landfills - the leachate has a different pH, color and odor indication that some disintegration has occurred, and that the water picks up materials as it works its way through the garbage.

I was given a Landfill Simulation by a friend, and have used it with great success. The students are encouraged to do extra research on the topic of toxic waste, and to "dress" the part that they play in the simulation. The simulation is a town meeting before a Board of Supervisors of a town faced with the problem of a landfill leaking toxic wastes. The decision has to be made whether to ship the toxic wastes, once dug up, to another state, at considerable expense, or to build their own toxic waste storage facility, which can then accept toxic wastes from other towns for a charge. The town could then assure itself of another source of income. If that is the decision of the Board of Supervisors, a choice of a site from among three possible sites must be made. The students are given roles to play - either on the Board of Supervisors, a representative of the existing toxic waste facility, or on one of the interest groups opposing a particular site. The students really get into this activity, and become very upset if the decision does not go their way. We then brainstorm ideas of what citizens can do in similar situations.

Students also study the history of garbage by doing the "Garbage Shuffle" from Ranger Rick's Naturescope on Pollution. This rap is fun to do and points out that each generation of humans has had to deal with garbage, it has been around as long as humans have, and that humans have not always been successful at dealing with pollution and what some of the consequences have been.

This year I am adding a new component to the pollution unit; I am going to read Who really Killed Cock Robin by Jean Craighead George. I will ask students to record in their journals after every chapter who or what they think is happening to the birds and other living things in the novel. This is one of three ecological mysteries that Ms. George has written - they are excellent stories incorporating good scientific principles involving the environment, ecosystems, and how humans adversely affect it.


GROUP NAME _______________________

NAME _______________________





  1. What, if anything made the oil spread faster?

  2. Was the oil on the bottom of the basin as easy to clean up as oil on the surface?

  3. Did any oil float between the surface and the bottom? How would this oil affect plant and animal life?

  4. Did time affect the oil spill?

  5. Which technique worked best? Which was least effective?

  6. Did trying several techniques make a difference in the cleanup? Would combining several methods be effective? What about the cost?

  7. What effect did the cleanup methods have on the plant and animal life? Remember that most aquatic life exists between pH 4 and 8. How would each method's resulting pH affect the organisms? Were any of the methods toxic to the aquatic life?

  8. Could any of these techniques be used in a river spill situation? Why?

Oil spill chart


List all the different methods that your research group investigated and rate them in the areas of effectiveness of cleanup and cost. Use the rating system of 0 to 5, 5 being best and 0 being the worst.



Based on your particular job decide which method would be most appropriate for an ocean cleanup. Your method may be a combination of various methods tried. Be sure to be specific as to the positive and negative aspect of the method and the reasons for your choice or choices.

GROUP NAME _______________________







Using the conclusions for each specialty area and the data available, your group must decide on what to recommend in your report to the Board of Directors as to the best method to use in the Charger Bay Cleanup.

The group must settle on only one method, or one combination of methods and some specialists may have to settle for a compromise.

Your group must clearly state reasons in defense of the selection, including the advantages and disadvantages of the recommendation and be ready to present the report to the full board and answer questions.


Courtesy of Nancy Kawecki Nega.
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