Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill: A Middle School Perspective

Current events provide us with unique learning opportunities – ones that we need to take advantage of even if the consequences of that event are tragic. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is one such event. Not that it is the first oil spill that has had an impact on U.S. shores but it is by far the worst.

The last oil spill that most people can remember is the Exxon Valdez spill. It’s hard to believe that the Exxon Valdez oil spill happened in 1989 – 21 years ago. At the time, it seemed like we couldn’t ever have a worse spill. It was a watershed moment in U.S. environmental history and changed the way we consider and deal with oil and chemical spills in this country. On the 20th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez spill a movie, Hindsight and Foresight: 20 Years After the Exxon Valdez Spill, was released. The movie reviews the initial stages of the oil spill, shows how it changed U.S. laws and regulations, and identifies challenges for the future as it asks the questions: What does the twentieth anniversary of the spill mean, and what have we learned? Maybe not a lot, unfortunately.

The following resources provide amazing and tragic images of the spill, a chemistry perspective, a visual perspective (just how big is the spill compared to your town), and a podcast and lessons and resources collected by the Ohio Resource Center.

Gulf Oil Spill Could Eclipse Exxon Valdez Disaster
Slide show from NPR. An oil spill that threatened to eclipse even the Exxon Valdez disaster spread out of control and drifted inexorably toward the Gulf Coast as fishermen rushed to scoop up shrimp and crews spread floating barriers around marshes.

C&EN Special Issue: Disaster in the Gulf
Chemical & Engineering News, the magazine that goes to all members of the American Chemical Society, has devoted a special issue to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The articles are mostly available to anyone, but a few of them are only available to ACS members. They provide important scientific background for the oil spill, much of it useful for classroom discussions.

How Big Is the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill?
See exactly where the oil spill is located in the Gulf of Mexico, and compare the size of the spill to the size of a city you are familiar with.

Oil Spills
The page has a number of visualizations and videos of the Deep Water Horizon incident as well as the Exxon Valdez along with general models of oil spills and software for modeling them. There are also teaching activities and materials for talking about these events in the classroom as well as a list of references that may be of use in the classroom. The content is targeted at undergraduate geoscience classrooms but if you are looking for a deeper understanding of what is happening this is a great place to go.

The Science of Oil Spills – Grades 6-8
The Ohio Resource Center has pulled together resources that support teaching and learning of multiple aspects of the Deepwater Horizon Gulf Coast oil spill. You’ll find a 10 minute podcast where Terry Shiverdecker and Jessica Fries-Gaither discuss how middle school teachers can use an Earth science systems approach to incorporate oil spill activities into their instruction as well as lessons, activities, and information that focus on everything from environmental aspects to the dispersants that are being used. Resources for K-2, 3-5, and 9-12 are also provided.

Connect with colleagues and talk about what you are doing in your middle school science classroom at the Middle School Portal 2: Math and Science Pathways (MSP2) social network – http://msteacher2.org.


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