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Project-Based Learning and the Gulf Oil Spill

Eric Brunsell

Asst Professor of Science Education @ UW-Oshkosh
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Edutopia's PBL Boot Camp started today, and I thought that I would provide some resources to get you thinking...

Messing About

Good projects revolve around important questions. However, good questions are not always easy to generate...especially in a vacuum. How many times have students drawn a blank when confronted with the "freedom" to study anything they want for a school project? Often, it is helpful to have students "mess about" with information before you ask them to brainstorm questions.

(Yes, I know that middle school students have their own definition for messing about.)

Many of the resources below can provide a great starting point for short and long term projects.


The old saying, "a picture is worth a thousand words," has a lot of merit. A good picture can often tell a story, provoke emotions, or generate questions. The use of images and visual representations is critically important in science. Visual representations can also quickly convey very complicated information. We are constantly bombarded by infographics that describe scientific information. How often do we ask our students to analyze or create an infographic?

What could our students do with these complicated infographics?

Other Oil Spill Resources

How Big is the Oil Spill? The current estimate is 35,000 to 60,000 barrels per day (1 barrel = 42 gallons).

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Comments (13) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Suzie Boss's picture
Suzie Boss
Journalist and PBL advocate

Thanks so much for sharing your project site. It's a terrific example of student-driven inquiry project.
PBL Campers are discovering more classroom resources as they get started with project planning. We're tagging in Delicious: pbl_camp
Thanks again,

Eric Brunsell's picture
Eric Brunsell
Asst Professor of Science Education @ UW-Oshkosh

I saw this on MSNBC today-

Mike Richter (former University of Wisconsin and NY Ranger hockey player) founded Athletes for a Healthy Planet. Ten athletes toured the Gulf today with the Sierra Club.

I thought the story could really grab the attention of students. The following quote might be a great call to action for athletes at your school-

"I've tried to figure out ways to use my sports celebrity to get kids excited about going green," he [Atlanta Falcons fullback Ovie Mughelli] said.

Jesus De Leon's picture
Jesus De Leon
5th grade teacher from Central Florida

Seminole County Schools in Florida offered a pilot Quest Atlantis Summer Camp program for 4th and 5th graders during the week of June 14th, 2010. The program, based in the Challenge Based Learning model, utilized Web 2.0 tools as well as the virtual world of Quest Atlantis, to learn about and find immersive solutions to the problems being faced by animals from the oil damaged areas of the Gulf.
I was quite impressed about how much meaningful learning took place during just the four morning sessions of the camp. Next summer we are planning on expanding this PBL Within a Virtual World initiative to last about two weeks, connecting the immersive qualities of virtual worlds with real life situations.

A video showing the process can be seen here:

Paul Schlotman's picture
Paul Schlotman
11th and 12th grade engineering teacher from New Hampshire

Take a cheap plastic swimming pool, fill it with water, add a quart of motor oil, observe what happens. You can try opening the quart of oil at the bottom of the pool and watch how that works. See if all the oil rises to the top or some stays suspended at the different depths of the pool. Try different collection systems, styrofoam, human hair, etc. See what is the most effective. Ask the students to try and design an oil collection device. What would it look like? How would it contain the spill? See if the device can be made from simple materials, etc. Give a awards to the kids that design a device that can absorb the most oil. For the older students talk about dispersants, surface active agents, etc. Demonstrate how they work on your small oil spill. There are endless possibilities with this model.

Heather Wolpert-Gawron's picture
Heather Wolpert-Gawron
ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA

Thanks for this post. I learned so much about my own PBL unit that I plan to do in the fall with my ELA students. This is full of great information and ideas that are now spinning in my own brain as I figure out how to translate this into my little unit to save a campus tree.

How is the PBL camp going? For those of us not in attendance, are their archives that we can refer to throughout the year?

Thanks for the info and the great post!

-Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Eric Brunsell's picture
Eric Brunsell
Asst Professor of Science Education @ UW-Oshkosh

Paul and Heather,
Thank you for your comments!

Paul - This sounds like a great idea. I just want to throw out a reminder to others that motor oil is toxic, so make sure you follow appropriate safety and disposal procedures. This link contains descriptions of similar activities on a smaller scale (but the big scale in a kids swimming pool probably has a bigger impact!):

Heather- I bet the PBL community / groups on Edutopia would love to hear about your project. Schoolyard projects are a great way to give students a "sense of place," which is a critical starting point for environmental and sustainability action. The PBL camp is being conducted "in the open" and is being archived. You can follow along in the PBL Community area:

Paul Schlotman's picture
Paul Schlotman
11th and 12th grade engineering teacher from New Hampshire

Using a larger model like a swimming pool gives you a lot of options. You can create a beach on part of the pool using rocks, pebbles, and sand. Get some aquatic plants from the pet store and set up a mini ecosystem. Use vegetable oil if you think motor oil is too toxic. New motor oil is not too bad, used motor oil is lethal. Go with vegetable oil, the clean up is much easier. You can create "storms" of varying intensities by using a garden hose and a spray nozzle. I imagine you might even create something like a tar ball but you might need salt water for that. Add salt if you want to see how the salt water and oil interact, of course if you use salt you would need salt water plants and be careful of the concentration of salt. You can be creative with this and give your students a real feel for this type of problem. Try collecting the oil before and after a simulated storm. Add more oil everyday to simulate the continued leaking of oil, etc.

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