Lesson Plan: Oil Slick Emergency

This lesson plan was developed by NSTA master teacher Laura Elkins through NSTA's partnership with NOAA.

Grade Level:

Subject Area:
Life Science

Standards Alignment-National Science Education Standards:

  • Life Science
    • The Interdependence of Organisms:
      • Human beings live within the world's ecosystems. Increasingly, humans modify ecosystems as a result of population growth, technology, and consumption.
      • Human destruction of habitats through direct harvesting, pollution, atmospheric changes, and other factors is threatening current global stability, and if not addressed, ecosystems will be irreversibly affected.
    • Natural and Human Induced Hazards
      • Pollutants from human activities are released into rivers.
    • Organisms and Environment
      • Humans depend on their natural and constructed environments. Humans change environments in ways that can be either beneficial or detrimental for themselves and other organisms.

    • Science in Personal and Social Perspectives
      • Natural and human-induced hazards
        • Natural and human-induced hazards present the need for humans to assess potential danger and risk.

Time Required:
Two 45-minute class periods, plus time for student research

Internet Resources:

NOAA Office of Response and Restoration Spill Tools:
NOAA Office of Response and Restoration Oil Spills at the Water's Edges:

Lesson Goal:
The goal for this lesson is for students to learn about recovering, removing, or dispersing spilled oil through role-play as an area committee.

Individual Learning Objectives:
Students will be able to determine how to best address an oil slick, by following directions for three exercises:

  1. Applying dispersant to disperse the oil into the water column.
  2. Using in-situ burning to burn off oil from the slick.
  3. Using skimmers to mechanically remove oil from the sea surface.
    • Students will be able to evaluate how to allocate response resources to remove as much of the spilled oil from the sea surface as possible before the slick reaches a sensitive site.
    • Students will be able to communicate their results in a report format.

Prerequisite Knowledge; Misconceptions/Preconceptions:

Some background knowledge of estuaries will be important. It will also be useful to know how an oil spill impacts the habitat and the animals it comes in contact with. The Oil Spills at the Water's Edges Web site may be useful. Background knowledge about the three methods for cleaning up a spill will be useful for students to make informed evaluations.

Procedures/Instructional Strategy:

This lesson plan refers to the oil spill response exercise on the NOAA Office of Response and Restoration Web site. It is a great tool for training people on what kinds of technologies are available for cleaning up oil spills. Since it is also written for adults in mind, directions can be complicated. Be sure to go through the exercise yourself to make any adjustments you feel necessary.

Students will be working in teams to complete the oil spill response exercise. After dividing students up, use an LCD projector to present the NOAA Office of Response and Restoration Web site to your class. Go over the general instructions and provide an orientation to the Web site and the Oil Tools. (note: The Oil Tools will need to be downloaded to each computer. Make these arrangements beforehand.)

Teams can either all start at “Step 1” (The Dispersant Mission Planner) or you can arrange it so different teams start with different tools.

Teams will work through each of the three tools they have for their use, completing the questions at the end of each set of directions. It will probably be very useful to prepare all the directions as a packet. This will make the directions easier to follow as opposed to moving between web pages. Be sure to tell the teams to follow the directions carefully; their spreadsheet should look like the one in the directions. (this can be confusing)

Under Oil Aids there are several resources that will be very helpful in the decision-making process for the students. See Dispersants Guided Tour and In-Situ Burning.


Teams will hand in a printout of their Dispersant Mission Planner, the In-Situ Burn Calculator and the Mechanical Equipment Calculator worksheet found on the Web site. They will also answer questions at the end of each exercise. Students will then write a summary of what their response would be and include evidence for justification. (note: This could be done after students go to “check your answers” - if you provide Internet access. Or students could then return to the Web site and click the "check your answer" links to revise their summaries.)

Criteria for grading (suggested):
Planner sheet – 5 pts
Questions – 10 pts
Response – 20 pts
Revised response – 10 pts


  • Allow students to manipulate the calculators to come up with different scenarios that may account for other kinds of conditions.
  • Give students a “budget” based on costs for technology and expertise to run the technology. Are they able to come up with a “best” scenario?

Classroom Resources:

  • Computer access for students
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