Students clean up ‘oil spill’ in classroom

From left, sixth graders Adelaide Botz and Keyshia Ganuelas stage a spill using simulated crude oil. (March 11, 2021) Photo courtesy of Nicole Webster/PWSSC

On March 11, Prince William Sound experienced an oil spill. Fortunately, this spill was limited to the sixth grade classroom at Mt. Eccles Elementary School. With the supervision of scientists and conservationists, students worked to clean simulated crude oil out of pans of water using different tools and materials.

Though the “crude oil” was actually produced using common kitchen materials, students found it daunting to clean up. Samples of fur and feathers were used to demonstrate how much more challenging it is for animals to clean off oil than to clean off water. The activity helps teach students that it’s essential to prevent oil spills rather than struggling to clean them up after the fact, said Skye Steritz, water protector for the conservationist nonprofit Native Conservancy.

“If we want to protect the amazing habitat that surrounds us, it’s really important to empower the next generation of stewards,” Steritz said.

Cotton balls, paper towels, straws and other materials were used in efforts to clean up the oil. Students finally found that plastic instruments worked best because plastic is oleophilic, or oil-attracting, in the same way that water is oil-repelling. Oil skimmers used in real clean-ups feature plastic instruments similar to the pipe cleaners students used to mop up oil, PWSSC education director Lauren Bien said.

The “oil spill in a pan” activity was one of several student activities scheduled for March and April focusing on the science of oil spills. Other events in the series will include a Thursday, March 25 talk by Alaska Native witnesses to the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, delivered one day after the 32nd anniversary of the disaster. An April 28 excursion on the Prince William Sound Science Center research vessel M/V New Wave is also planned, weather permitting.

Mt. Eccles Elementary School students study how fur and feathers react differently to water and to oil. (March 11, 2021) Photo courtesy of Nicole Webster/PWSSC

“We are looking to create a scientifically literate population,” Bien said. “When you care about a place or an event or a people, you really want to learn about it… The ‘oil spill in a pan’ cleanup is the perfect intersection of social sciences, history, math, engineering, design and science.”

The “oil spill” activity also helped demonstrate some of the physical forces students have already studied in the abstract, Mt. Eccles teacher Krysta Williams said.

The annually held suite of oil spill activities usually includes an activity in which students must use remote-controlled robots to clean up ping pong balls floating on the surface of Bob Korn Memorial Pool. However, this activity was canceled for 2021 out of concern for COVID-19 safety, Bien said.

Steritz’s participation in the event was supported by the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council. The participation of Bien and of PWSSC-based Americorps service member Nicole Webster was supported by the Oil Spill Recovery Institute.