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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

PBL Camp: Grades 9-12 (Week 1)

PBL Camp: Grades 9-12 (Week 1)

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How will you make the oil spill relevant to your students? This is our brainstorming thread. Any and all ideas and thoughts welcome!

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Jenny McAvoy-Anteau's picture

I am a SpEd teacher at a high school in Anchorage AK.  I provide instruction in the context of science content.

I am a tenderfoot in pbl -and am struggling with framing my thoughts - there are so many aspects to the environmental disaster - each with its own facet of relevance.  As I listended to the speakers today, and brainstormed on a private back channel with a fellow teacher, many different angles of approach to the topic came to mind.  I find it difficult to narrow focus.  One major issue however is the fact that BP has permit to do an "ultra -extended reach drilling project of the northern Coast of Alaska called the Liberty Project.  I think it would be powerful to link the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Deepwater Horizon spill and the possible outcomes of such disasters in waters the Arctic Ocean.  Taking this approach - multiple contents (ecology, marine biology, economics, history, sociology, lanugage arts etc) can be addressed. This doesn't really narrow the topic, however it does open up the scope to allow for "threads" of interest to develop.  If I am able to work with other teachers in my sped deptarment - there would be a cross curricular approach to the topic - and each class could have its own thread. So each content area could work with pieces of the issues with students.  I hope that makes sense.  So I am thinking it could all be united on a wiki or web page.






Tim Herrmann's picture
Tim Herrmann
Chemistry Teacher

With 10th & 11th graders in mind, I plan to refresh their conception of density by simulating petroleum floating in salt water. 

Students will have to find out the average salinity of the Gulf ocean water, and create a saline solution to use to model the ocean water (to keep it relatively simple, we'll ignore for the moment the other dissolved salts in ocean water and use only sodium chloride).  The density of the saline solution will then be determined.  The temperature dependence of density and solubility can be explored as side projects.

Then students will research the composition of petroleum (crude oil).  A lesson on hydrocarbons will follow.  Students will create a simulation of crude oil using low-volatile, 'heavy' hydrocarbons, such as motor oil and petroleum jelly.  The density of the simulated crude oil will also be determined.

Then students will make a mixture of both the saline solution and the crude oil mixture to make a simulated spill.  Further projects, investigating the properties of the components of the mixture, will lead to students designing a method for cleaning the oil from the water.

Looks like I'm heading to the drug store & gas station soon.

Ann Hyde's picture
Ann Hyde
Special Ed English teacher, Anchorage, Alaska

As a spec ed language arts teacher, I am interested in having students interview locals who were impacted by the Exxon Valdez spill, and then compare/contrast with stories from the Gulf. Like Jenny, I see lots of possible threads to explore. The question for me lies in how deep we go. Do we spend a quarter on this? A semester? Maybe have a year-long topic where we touch on various aspects? A lot of it for me will depend on student engagement. I really like the idea of looking at what happened in Prince William Sound in '89, comparing it to what is happening currently, and looking at the ramifications of projects currently on the drawing board.

Bobbi Combs's picture
Bobbi Combs
High School Language Arts, Cincinnati


You are welcome! Please build on, cannibalize, and improve the idea for yourself!!!


Telannia Norfar's picture
Telannia Norfar
High School Math Teacher

Everyone has some great aspects of how the topic can connect with students in their local area. This is going to be a great camp. I love Bobbi's questions to have the students answer. Questions are the heart of a project. I am personally thinking of getting with experts in our area to see what are actually some problems we are facing in our area. I live in Oklahoma which is a heavy oil and gas state. I am also thinking of having students pretend to be various people affected by the oil spill. They would act out a scenario based upon background information I would provide them. We will then do a follow with a discussion of how they felt being those people and then look at answering some of the problems assocaited with the oil spill.

Amanda Walma's picture

You could also do an economics project and see how big disasters have effect prices of food, tourism, gasoline, oil, oil based products, bottled water, etc... Find out if it effects, how long it takes to effect it, is there a real reason for the price increase or decrease or is it just consumer perception...

Paul Allison's picture
Paul Allison
English, East-West Sch of Int'l Studies & Tech Liaison, NYC Writing Project

I'm thinking that there are several possible health effects: depression and alienation, effects from the dispersant, effects from the oil. I heard a good segment about health on Democracy Now recently.

Anna Alarid's picture
Anna Alarid
Intern at the Institute for Urban Education NYC


People and oil, a relationship that lent to jobs, money, progress, tragedy, and a unique social history.


Many students that I've worked with are anticipating life after high school with excitement and anxiety.  For many of them, they are concerned about getting a job.  But too often, I am disappointed about how they feel about their job prospects.  So many students that I've worked with have a narrow perspective on what the world of work looks like in terms of their prospect and in terms of social makeup.  Also because the world of "oil work" is so interesting and complex (and even more complex after this spill) I would want to draw that into my lesson 

I would also want students to discover unlikely or unsung heroes in history, that are remembered not just for their innovations (such as in oil production or regulation) but for their capacity to deal with ambiguity and to create solutions and think beyond the boundaries of circumstance.  So many times, especially when seeing students write their application essays for college, students can't identify someone who truly inspired them.




Students would be asked to research 2-3 jobs that are directly associated with oil.  This would give them many diverse options to explore, from refinery worker, big business own, makeup chemist, artist, etc.  All students would have to choose different jobs/careers, so that we could present them to each other at the end of the research process.  I would also participate by researching three careers, in order to share my thoughts and interests, as well as fill in any major gaps I thought we necessary to stir up intellectual inquiry




At the end of that process, students could choose among all the careers, none overlapping, in order to research further.  This time, through interviews or hypothesizing based on other published work, students would need to describe the kind of worldview they think they would adopt in that career position.  How would they view their relationships with other people in/outside of work, what would be their priorities and values, what would be their concept of oil use, what would be their worldview?  And, ultimately, would they react differently to the Gulf Oil Spill?




From here, we would take these lessons to explore history and the people who lent to major developments in oil production, use, and regulation as well as those that were affected by these developments but took steps to lend to the situation in one way or another.  I think we would focus on people, major or everday heroes who used oil in innovative ways or who regulated and understood the use of oil in innovative ways. Student could present on two "oil people", of which I would assign one and they would choose another. 




Throughout the class, I would be responsible for bringing key facts to the table, regarding the following topics (possible ideas)


1. Regulation and deregulation of oil production


2. Business ethics concerning the use of oil in other products


3. Supply/Demand theories associated with the ongoing production of oil


4. Organizations working to affect change in these oil related industries


5. Major dates and details regarding the recent spill and other events


6. How to approach political/socioeconomic content, the complexities and the variety of actors involved


7. Stakeholders/Shareholders


We would end the class with a portfolio of the work.  And some quizzing on lobbying, business ethics and basic law, regulation and deregulation of oil, etc.

 Finally, I would want the students to think about what kind of "oil person" do we need in this century?

Jason's picture
9-12 At-Risk Social Studies Teacher

Dear Paul,

The democracy Now site is amazing. The segment is very thought provoking. 



marydent's picture

My project this school year is for students to eat someplace other than the carryout. We will be teaming up with a elementary school that has already planted a garden. I want my students to understand, the impact of the oil spill on the environment, and eco-system, but why it is important to have a plant-based diet


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