Opportunities to Learn from Oil Spills

Retort by Harry Keller with a distilling retort on the left

What can we learn from the Gulf oil spill? How will technology play a role in that learning?

The first thing we know is that the Internet has made possible the 24-hour spill camera deep in the Gulf that’s providing a live feed of oil gushing out into the ocean waters. While I’m sure that BP would rather not have this output of visual information, they cannot avoid it in the current political climate.

As a result, any classroom with a decent Internet connection and an LCD projector can show the oil charging up into the ocean and discuss the implications. It’s not often that anyone broadcasts a science or technology event continuously over a period of weeks. This broadcast provides great opportunities for learning at all grade levels.

Students can ask about what happens to oil when it enters the water at the bottom of the ocean. They can readily model this event in the classroom. They can talk about chemical dispersants and how they work. The reasons for the failure of the “top hat” attempt bring in interesting material on water clathrates and the effects of very high pressures and low temperatures on water-oil-gas mixtures. Students can investigate why oil kills life in the ocean. They can discuss coral reef ecosystems. The potential for learning from this catastrophe are nearly limitless. Hopefully, one of a very small number of beneficial side effects of the spill will be an increased interest in science in our schools.

24-hour oil spill camera deep in the Gulf

With decreasing costs of web-capable cameras and Internet connections, even remote ones, we may see more events, hopefully more mundane, broadcast in the future. Someone could focus a camera on a tide pool. If a few hours of the feed were cached, a classroom in Kansas could study marine biology for real, watching how life in the pool is affected as the tide comes in and out.

Someone could focus a couple of cameras on a field or in the woods to make virtual, live field trips possible instead of simulated field trips or prerecorded ones. Imagine students in one location in the world able to visit tundra, savannahs, boreal forests, and deserts while being too far away to visit on even a long day’s field trip. Furthermore, repeated visits could analyze changes in the environment over time and with seasonal change.

I wouldn’t suggest eliminating real field trips and hands-on investigations; they’re too rare and valuable to give up. However, the advantages of supplementing these necessarily limited learning events with outside video feeds may be very great. It may already be happening.

Additional Sources

Mark Clayton, “Before BP oil spill, Big Oil-led study urged feds to cut safety testing,” Christian Science Monitor,  2 June 2010.

Patrik Jonsson, “BP oil spill spreads toward Pensacola, as wildlife toll rises,” Christian Science Monitor, 2 June 2010.

Greg Bluestein and Brian Skoloff (AP), “Effort to contain Gulf oil stalls with stuck saw,” Yahoo! News, 2 June 2010.

One Response

  1. Harry, thank you for highlighting the power of the internet as an immensely rich resource for learning. The opportunities for lessons based on what’s happening in the real world are endless, and as teachers, we really need to turn our students’ eyes outward and away from the confines of classroom walls.

    There are lessons to be learned in the current events that draw our collective attention, and teachers with the imagination and will to extend their students’ vision can take advantage of the web’s ability to take students almost anywhere at any time.

    Using the oil spill as subject matter for the application of vital science skills makes learning real and exciting. I can imagine the discussions that grow out of this, and the forum could extend beyond the classroom to include experts, other students worldwide, etc. Students who live close to the spill area could be asked to share firsthand observations.

    As you say, there are so many possibilities . . .

    -Jim S

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