Oil and Society

Oil and water just don't mix


Oil and water just don’t mix; opinions on deepwater exploration are just as polar. This unit provides teachers with resources to teach about oil in the marine environment and to bring these issues to the surface.


Lesson 1: Students will use technology to research current affairs on environmental issues pertaining to oil spills. Students will gain a background understanding of the impact of the Deep Water Horizon spill. Students will make judgments about the efficacy of cleanup response.Students will compare and contrast the efficacy of response to various oil spills.Students will discuss the importance of oil to our society. Students will investigate the chemical properties of oil.

Lesson 2:Students will gain an understanding of the environmental impacts of oil to an aquatic community. Students will investigate clean-up methods for oil, highlighting the distinctions between open ocean, deep sea and coastal spills.

Lesson 3:Students will discuss the various methods of cleaning oil.  Students will debate the true cost of oil; economically, socially, and environmentally.


Course Level: International Baccalaureate Environmental Systems and Societies (IB ESS) or equavalent upper level Ecology course.

Students should have prior knowledge of systems, ecosystems, and energy resources.

- Classroom modifications included for 9th Honors Biology Courses

   Unit Length:                      1 week

Block Scheduling:             3 (each block is written for a 90 min period)

Total Teaching Hours:         4.5



Article Introduction

Article Intro EXAMPLE


Block 1:

Intro to oil PowerPoint

 - Slide 3 Video

 - Slide 4 Video 1

 - Slide 4 Video 2

 - Slide 13 Video

Assignment 2 oil spill cleanup lab


Block 2:

Warmup quiz

Warmup quiz ANSWER KEY

Environmental impact of oil PowerPoint


Block 3:

Debate Rubric

Debate Rubric - Suggested Grade Conversion

Suggested readings for debate - by interest group

Cleanup Technique Rubric



Introduction: (At least two days prior to beginning unit)

 Student Objectives:  Students will use technology to research current affairs on environmental issues pertaining to oil spills. Students will gain a background understanding of the impact of the Deep Water Horizon spill. Students will make judgments about the efficacy of cleanup response.


·         Photocopies of Assignment 1 – Oil Article Introduction

·         Some examples of oil cleanup supplies (ie. kitty litter, detergent, etc)

 Homework assignment

1.       Prior to beginning unit assign weekend research: “Assignment 1 – Oil Article Introduction”

a.       Students are to find two articles either online or in newsprint.  One should be current, pertaining to the economic and environmental impact of the Deep Water Horizon spill. Encourage students to find an article within 1-2 months of the assignment date to ensure up to date information.  Articles from Spring or Summer of 2010 would be too close to the actual spill to have sufficient data.  Students should be looking for longer term effects.

b.      The second article should be a similar article about a different spill.  Encourage students to look for spills other than the Exxon Valdez as most have already studied this.  Some others may include the Kuwaiti oil fires, Ixtoc I, or may include an oil topic such as tanker discharge. Students are to write 150-200 words summarizing each article and 150-200 words comparing/analyzing the two spills (total 450-600 words).  See attached handout for details and rubric.


Note: This can be modified for a Freshman Pre-IB/Honors level biology class by reducing the required word count from 150-200 to “at least 100” for each article and for the conclusion (total 300 words, about 1 page single spaced).  Also, if time appropriate, Pre-IB/Honors level classes should be allotted some research time in class to allow for students who do not have a home computer and cannot drive themselves to a library.


2.       Also, students will do an oil clean-up lab.  They will be able to investigate and clean their own aquatic oil spills.  Tell them to bring in any supplies they think they may like to try as a scoop, filter, dispersant, etc.  Show some examples (ie. cat litter).



Block 1:

Essential Question:  What are some unique properties of oil?   

Student Objectives:  Students will compare and contrast the efficacy of response to various oil spills. Students will discuss the importance of oil to our society. Students will investigate the chemical properties of oil.



·         Importance of Oil PPT and corresponding videos

·         Photocopy “Oil Clean-up” Lab handout and Wrap-Up questions

·         Supplies for “Oil Clean-up” Lab.  See attached sheet for recommendations.  May be modified by teacher or students for availability of supplies. 

Warm-up – Think, pair, share (10-12 min)

1.       As students enter the room, they should trade writing assignments with a neighbor. Encourage students to edit and mark on one another’s writing assignments (in a different color ink).  Have students write their name on the bottom of their neighbors’ assignment so you know who worked with whom.  (3-5 min)

a.       Note: In a freshmen level class, some students may not have the assignment.  Distribute these students with pairs that have completed the assignment.  This will ensure that all students are engaged.

2.       After the allotted time, have students discuss their articles with one another.  They should compare notes, explain any issues or notation made, and come up with a brief (30 sec) presentation to make to the class highlighting their collective 4 articles. (3 min)

3.       Have each group elect one student to present to the class.  Whip around or randomly draw names to have each group present their articles. (3-5 min)


Importance of oil – PowerPoint and Videos (25-30 min)

Note: This PowerPoint may be used to Pre-IB/Honors level students.  However, the curriculum design is not part of the standard biology course.  Some pre-class discussion about energy resources will be necessary.  Also, some terms may need defining for younger students. Discussion sections worked in may take more coaching for students with less background knowledge of environmental science. Also, allow for more time for discussion and copying of notes. The recommended time is for an IB level class.


1.       Use “Introduction to oil” PowerPoint.  Slides discuss what oil is and where we get it from.

2.       Slides 3 and 4 contain embedded films from Discovery Education.  Click on image to begin movie clip.  The first two clips are approximately 1 minute in length each.  The third clip is approximately 2.5 minutes in length.  If embedded movies do not play upon click, they can be found in the “Block 1” folder.  They have been renamed as the appropriate slide number in order to correspond with the PowerPoint.

a.       After showing each film, discuss the point of view of the film.  It is important for students to understand that many people view oil in a different manner.  Ask students to suggest their own views. 

b.      An IB level student should have an understanding of the necessity of oil to a modern, developed economy. This may be a good time to reiterate some of the differences between most economically developed nations and least economically developed nations.  Students should have a basic understanding of some of the differences between non-renewable, renewable, and replenishable resources. 

3.       Slide 5 provides statistics about oil from the IB Course Companion. 

4.       Slide 6 continues to describe what peak oil means. 

a.       Students should be made aware that this is a highly controversial topic.  Leonardo Maugeri writes in his 2004 article in Science Magazine that peak oil is a “cry wolf” type of situation.  He poses that this is not the first time in history that people have claimed oil was running out.  He claims that “oil substitution is a matter of cost and public needs, not of scarcity” (Maugeri).  This is rebutted by several scientists, but it is important that students understand the nature of this debate.

b.      Slide 7 shows Hubbert’s curve from 1956.  Though some oil has been found.  Discuss the importance of oil and what it would mean to run out.

                                                               i.      Have students discuss the importance of oils for gas, plastics, etc.

                                                             ii.      Have students think about different fields (ie. the medical field) and how important plastics are to our nation and world economies.

c.       Slide 8 poses two questions: “Can we rely on oil?” and “What are some other effects caused by oil?” Have students propose ideas and write them on the board.  Keep this ideas for the next block when students will discuss the environmental impact of oil.

5.       Slide 9 begins a brief background of oil exploration. This focuses on offshore, to lead up to discussion of Deep Water Horizon later in the Unit.

a.       As this is to be taught as an extension unit, it is assumed that some topics of energy production have already been discussed.  This included the issues with digging up the seafloor, as discussed in the food resources unit (trawling), and the renewable energy unit (off shore wind farms).

6.       Finally, discuss the properties of oil.  IB students have background knowledge of hydrophobic vs. hydrophilic compounds as well as an understanding of polarity.

7.       Slide 13 introduces oil spills

8.       Show video on slide14 to introduce oil discovery lab.


Properties of oil – discovery lab (45-50 min including setup and clean up)

1.       Place supplies in common area.

2.       Have students read the assigned task and develop ideas for cleaning the spill (students should work alone or in groups at teacher’s discretion). It may be appropriate to have students write a full procedure prior to beginning.  This way limited supplies can be conserved.

3.       Students should measure total oil on top of the water using a beaker or graduated cylinder prior to beginning. After cleanup method is applied, measure the amount of oil leftover and calculate percent change.  Award a prize for best cleanup method.

4.       Have students clean up supplies and wipe tables.


Ticket out the door – To be turned in as leaving the room (3 min)

1.       Clean up lab station

2.       Write on a sheet of paper or post-it:

a.       Did your cleanup work?

b.      Would it work in open ocean?

c.       Is it economically feasible on a grand scale? 


·         Discovery Lab Wrap-Up Questions (if not completed in class)

·         Quiz next class on properties of oil and reading

o   Reading – Raven and Berg: p. 165 (Cost-Benefit Analysis of Risks), p.238-246 (Oil and Natural Gas).

o   Reading – Rutherford IB Course Companion: p. 199-201 (Energy Resources)

Block 2:

Essential Question:  How does oil impact aquatic communities?

Student Objectives:  Assess understanding of properties of oil. Students will gain an understanding of the environmental impacts of oil to an aquatic community. Students will investigate clean-up methods for oil, highlighting the distinctions between open ocean, deep sea and coastal spills.



                Quiz (one per student)

                Laptops for research

                Rubric for Cleanup Technique presentations (one per student)

Reading Packets for debate


Warm-Up – (20-30 min)

1.       Collect Lab Wrap-Up questions. 

2.       Take any questions from the reading.

3.       Quiz (open note) – The purpose of this quiz is to motivate students to complete the assigned reading.  The questions assess a superficial understanding of the topic.  This is not designed to assess student comprehension of oil topics, but simply as a means to gauge which students have completed the assigned readings.


Environmental impact of oil (30 min)

1.       Use the “Environmental impact of oil” PowerPoint.

2.       Slides 2 and 3 are a brief overview of how wildlife is affected. Slide three includes a link to a youtube video of scientists cleaning oil off the feathers of a brown pelican.

3.       Slide 4 introduces the composition of oil.

4.       Slides 5 -7 discuss the structure and toxicity of Benzene.

a.       Slide 5 shows a benzene ring.  IB students have taken chemistry and had an introduction to biochemistry.  Explain the carbon ring structure.

b.      Slide 6 explains how benzene can interact with cells on a molecular level.  Students should know the structure of the cell membrane from previous biology courses.  Remind students that the phospholipids have both a polar and a non-polar region.  Benzene is non-polar and can interfere with the non-polar tails of the phospholipids.  This can dissolve cell membranes, destroying the cell.

c.       Slide 7 touches on acute and chronic effects of benzene exposure. Most of this data is in reference to human exposure, but it is applicable to marine organisms as well.

5.       Slides 8-9 introduce the idea that organisms can be affected even if they are not directly exposed to the oil.  As a persistent organic pollutant, oil can bioaccumulate in fat tissues and magnify in the food chain.  Explain how indirect exposure can be just as harmful as direct exposure.  It is this indirect, persistence of the oil that may have longer, chronic effects on the ecosystems near oil spills.

6.       Slide 10 asks the students to think about how oil gets into the environment.  Have students discuss with a neighbor.  Most will say oil spill and runoff.  Other sources that should be mentioned may include: leaks from boats, intentional discharge of ballast, natural deep sea wells. Then discuss why it is so difficult to clean up a marine spill.  Each spill is different. Location, currents, sea conditions, weather conditions, depth, type of shoreline, type of oil, etc. all play a role in the cleanup and containment methods.  These difficulties link well into the the students’ research presentations to be done at the end of class. Discuss how oil may be submerged, dispersed, or in a “slick” on the surface.  If the wind whips up surface oil, it may for a thick mousse.  All of these varying conditions make the effects of a spill difficult to predict.

7.       After a discussion of confounding factors for a large scale spill, discuss Deepwater Horizon.  Slides 11 and 12 introduce the Deepwater Horizon blowout.  Clicking on the title “Deepwater Horizon” on slide 11 will redirect to youtube.  Footage is of the Deepwater Horizon fire. The next slides continue with the issues of containment and cleanup. Explain that depth made it difficult to calculate actual flow rate of the leaking valve, but the numbers continued to change and estimates increased as time went on.

8.       Slide 13 discusses some of the response attempts to the spill.

9.       Slide 14 includes calculations to put the total spill into perspective for students.

10.   Slide 15 has some of the cleanup methods.  These should be discussed briefly, but ultimately students will each research and present a different cleanup method.  The last bullet includes a link to an entertaining video about a broken tanker off the coast of Austrailia. Click on the purple link to connect to youtube video.  After viewing film discuss the figure of the response to Deepwater Horizon.

11.   Slide 16 introduces the research project.


Research Cleanup Techniques for presentation next class (30-40 min)

1.       Students may work individually or in groups of two depending on how many students are in the class.

2.       Students should each pick a different cleanup technique including, but not limited to:

a.       Skimmers

b.      Pumps

c.       Sorbents

d.      Dispersants

e.      Containment Booms

f.        Burning

g.       Bacteria

h.      The Kevin Costner separator


3.       Each group should use a computer to research their technique.  Each group is responsible for a 3-7 minute presentation on their cleanup technique (depending on number of groups and allotted time for presentations).  See attached rubric for ideas on presentation.  Groups should discuss the advantages and disadvantages to the technique as well as any relevant case studies when their technique was actually employed. 

a.       If multiple groups want the same topic, a “white elephant exchange” may be a good method for distributing topics: 

                                                               i.      Have one group randomly pick a cleanup technique out of a hat. 

                                                             ii.      The second group may either steal that technique or pick a new topic at random. 

                                                            iii.      The third may steal the first or second topic or may select a new one at random. Continue until all groups have a topic. 

                                                           iv.      After all groups have drawn a topic, allow the first group a second drawing, if they are unhappy with whichever technique they end up.  The point is that all students end up with a topic that they are interested in, but each group has a different topic so that there are no repeat presentations.

4.       Presentations should be mostly completed in class.  Students will present during Block 3 so final adjustments can be made for homework.


Ticket out the door:

 In preparation for tomorrow’s debate, each student should choose if they want to be a scientist, government official, local fisherman, or an oil company representative.  It would be best if there were equal numbers of each interest group.  Students are to pick up the appropriate packet and begin reading for next class.



·         Finish Presentations (if not done in class)

·         Read packet for debate

·         Prepare for take home exam


Block 3:

Essential Question:  What is the true cost of oil?   How does it affect different interest groups?

Student Objectives:  Students will discuss the various methods of cleaning oil.  Students will debate the true cost of oil; economically, socially, and environmentally.


                Laptops (at least 4)


                Rubric for Cleanup Technique presentations (one per group)

                Rubric for Oil Spill Debate

                Take home exam (one per student)


Warm-Up – Final touches to presentations (5 min)

Allow students time to prepare their presentations with groups.  If resources allow, it may be beneficial to allow each group to load their presentation on a laptop.  This way, students can be ready to present when called upon.


Presentations (30-45 min depending on class size)

1.       Each group presents cleanup methods in allotted time. 

2.       Use attached presentation rubric to grade each.  Each rubric sheet has two rubrics based on a score out of 25 total points.  This may be modified to fit each school’s grading policies.  It may be appropriate to multiply total awarded points by four to assign a score out of 100%.

3.       Have the rest of class take notes. Each student is responsible for understanding cleanup methods.


Case Study reading/debate (app 45 min, can stretch if necessary)

Use attached rubric to grade students.  Students are assessed on Knowledge and Understanding of concepts as well as on the Presentation on ideas and integration of supporting examples.  Each criterion is assigned a score of 1-5 based on the IB Programme assessment format for humanities.  It is suggested that the grade given for the Knowledge component be multiplied by two in order to get a total score out of a maximum of 15 points.  When converting to a score out of 100%, it may be inappropriate to assign students a simple percent grade out of the total 15 points.  For example, a score of 14/15 shows a higher level of understanding than a 93%.  A suggested grade conversion has been provided along with the rubric so that students are awarded more appropriate percentage points based on a 100% grading scale.


1.       Tell students that there has been a moratorium on all drilling in the Gulf.  There has also been severe limits place on all commercial fishing until further investigation is done as to the effect of the spill on the environment.

2.       Have all scientists, oil representatives, local fishermen, and government officials break into interest groups to discuss how the moratorium and catch limits affect them.  They may use the packets supplied, text books or laptops. (5-10 min to discuss positions)

a.       Note: Remind students to think about their role and decide whether they are for or against the restrictions. 

b.      Things to think about: How does the moratorium affect the economy?  Should it be repealed? Should it be amended?  How?  What would be in the best interest of each group? For example, the fishermen want clean, healthy fish stocks, but reducing catches reduces individual income. Students should discuss how oil affects each interest group socially, economically, politically, and environmentally.

3.       Each group should then decide on a proposal with justification.  This should be more in depth than just to repeal the moratorium, they should come up with a relevant suggestion that they think will help their interest group and be ready to defend their position to the other groups. (10-15 min)

4.       Have each group present their proposal and write them on the board for discussion. (5 min)

5.       Now rearrange groups.  Put one scientist, one oil representative, one government official, and one local in each group.  Have them discuss each position and make relevant amendments/changes to the proposals. (10 min)

6.       Present amendments and have the class vote on each. (10 min)


Post unit – Take home exam:

·         Students should complete the take home examination.  As the oil unit itself is not long enough to justify a full length examination, included is an example of how oil can be worked into a broader unit on resource management.

·         This question and provided mark scheme are both modified from the 2003 IB Environmental Systems Paper 2 examination. 

o   NOTE: It is assumed that students have already studied systems, ecocentricity vs. technocentricity, and most economically developed vs. least economically developed nations. 

o   This exam is not appropriate for Pre-IB/Honors level classes.

·         Students should be allowed several days to complete a thorough analysis of all questions. 



Maugeri, L. Never Cry Wolf: Why the Petroleum Age Is Far from Over. Science (21 May 2004). Vol.   304,No. 5674, pp. 1114-1115

Patton, JS, MW Rigler, PD Boehm, DL Fiest. Ixtoc 1 oil spill: flaking of surface mousse in the Gulf of Mexico. Nature (19 Mar 1981). Vol. 290 pp235-238.

Rutherford, J. Environmental Systems and Societies Course Companion. (2009). IB Diplomma Programme. Oxford University Press.

Raven, PH and LR Berg. Environment: 5th Edition. (2006). John Wiley & Sons, Inc. ISBN: 0-471-70438-5

 Note: Other sources are attached to individual documents.  Each PowerPoint and word document are cited internally for said document.


Take-home Exam and MARK SCHEME


Block 1 PPT Sources

Block 2 PPT Sources


Oil and water don't mix. Teaching oil and student understanding of environmental impact do mix.



Tracy, S. (2011). Oil and water just don't mix. Retrieved from http://www.eoearth.org/view/teachingunit/51cbf1387896bb431f6a4c39


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