Oh No! Oil Spills

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Biology In Elementary Schools is a Saint Michael's College student project from a course that ran between 2007 and 2010 and fully described in this book chapter. The student-created resources have been preserved here for posterity. Link under 'toolbox' for printer-friendly versions of the exercises. Click on handouts to print full resolution versions. Please see Wikieducator's disclaimer, our safety statement, and the Creative Commons licensing in English and in legalese.

Oh No! Oil Spills

Student worthiness

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Primary biological content area covered

  • Exploring the effects of oil spills on the environment
  • Relating, personally, to animals affected by oil spills


  • Cake Pans - approximately 20 cm x 20 cm
  • Pea-size Gravel
  • Water
  • Plastic Containers that are large enough for the students to place there hands in
  • Clear Plastic Cups (about two per student)
  • Eyedropper
  • Plastic Spoon
  • Pipe Cleaners
  • Feathers
  • Plastic Wrap
  • Cotton Balls
  • Piece of Nylon Stocking
  • Wood Chips
  • Sand
  • Paper Towels
  • Olive Oil
  • Straws
  • Dawn Dish Detergent
  • Chocolate Syrup
  • Corn Syrup
  • Vegetable Oil
  • Crisco

Description of activity

Students will create shoreline habitats on a mini scale. They will think deeply and investigate the effect of oil spills on the environment. To do this, they will put objects similar to animal fur or feathers in an oily situation, as well as put themselves in an oily situation.

Washing Oil Soaked Feather
Beach Scene
Simulated Oil Spill

Lesson plan

    1. Talk with the students about oil spills. Ask them if they have ever heard of oil spills to gauge their degree of background knowledge. Tell the students about oil spills and how they occur. Show the books (titles provided below) and give examples of recent oil spills. Explain that the container in front of them is a simulated shoreline habitat. (This is made from the sand or gravel and water in a cake pan). Ask the students what they think the effects of an oil spill would be on the surrounding environment.
  1. Take the allotted amount of sand and place it on one side of the cake pan. The sand will represent a river bank or shoreline. Pour water into the pan to simulate a body of water.
  2. Make animals using the pipe cleaners and feathers. Lay them on the gravel next to the water.
  3. Tell the students that the sand represents a shoreline of a body of water. Ask them to predict what they think will happen to the habitat and surrounding environment in the event of an oil spill.
  4. Pour some olive oil on the simulated body of water. Have one student blow the oil toward the gravel to simulate water movement.
  5. Have the students describe what they see.
  6. Fill large plastic containers ahead of time with different substances (oils).
  7. Have students try putting feathers in the different containers to demonstrate what it may feel like for animals to be covered in oil from oil spills.
  8. Have students discuss how the different substances feel on the feathers.
  9. Next, have students put their hands in the different substances.
  10. Now have students rub the substances on their forearms to get a first-hand experience of what animals that are victims of oil spills actually feel.
  11. Have students discuss this experience with one another.
  12. Have students wash their hands and the feathers with dish soap and clean up any mess, describing how that feels also. Discuss as a group the ways oil spills can be avoided, making connections to saving the enviroment in general.


  • This activity has the potential to be very messy. Students may want to use smocks or aprons to keep the different oils off of their clothing.
  • Make sure you have access to a nearby sink & lots of paper towels.
  • Some children that do not have access to news, or do not live around water, may have never been exposed to oil spills before. In this event, a thorough explanation will be needed.
  • It should be discussed that the students should not try to clean animals in the wild randomly, and that these oil spill clean-ups are organized by people that know how to interact with the animals safely.
  • The children really got a kick out of rubbing chocolate syrup in their forearms to simulate oil on their bodies, restricting movement.
  • It would have been more beneficial for the kids to show photos of oil spills and to go into greater depth on the history of major oil spills and how they happen.
  • Instead of just pouring oil into the beach model, you could get a toy boat that is filled with oil and tip it over.
  • Handouts could be created for students to compare the differences between oils, and express their concerns about oil spills.

Math connections

  • The students could keep track of how long it takes to wash each substance off their hands and graph the results.
  • Students could also take a poll of which substance they thought felt the worst when on their hands. Students could then graph the results.

Literature connections

Oliver and the Oil Spill by Aruna Chandrasekhar

Oil Spills (Our Planet in Peril) by Jillian Powell

Art Connection

Students could demonstrate how oil spills affect animals and the environment through creative means. They could make dioramas, drawings or paintings expressing their knowledge and feelings about oils spills.

Connections to educational standards

7.13 Students understand the characteristics of organisms, see patterns of similarity and differences among living organisms, understand the role of evolution, and recognize the interdependence of all systems that support life. This is evident when students: 7.13.d. Provide examples of change over time (e.g., extinction, changes in organisms)

Adapted from MCS Grade 2 Science Curriculum: Values/Attitudes: gain and build respect for the environment.

Next steps

  • Students could participate in a local habitat clean-up. They would have a greater understanding of the negative effects of pollution on the environment after participating in community service. This has potential for being a fun, insightful field trip.
  • This lesson could be part of a series of lessons on pollution and how pollution affects the environment.

Citations and links