Earth Day Oil Spill Challenge

Need a fun and hands-on Earth Day activity? Challenge your students to an oil spill clean-up! Read on for a STEM challenge that teaches environmental consciousness, problem solving, and team work along with extension math problems that use measurement, percentages, and volume calculations. Our students loved this activity, and we think yours will too! 

Each team will need to clean up "oil" from a simulated oil spill disaster that includes feathers to represent marine life. The learning objective is to increase understanding of an oil spill disaster and environmental consequences. This activity is a great Life Sciences challenge that also incorporates engineering and math concepts. Students are given this mission: 

Your engineering company has been tasked with cleaning up a major oil spill disaster. You can only use the provided materials to clean up all the oil from the feathers and from the water. Place all collected oil into provided container.

Oil Spill Challenge Set-up

Below are the supplies I used for a group of 25 students split into 5 teams. The feathers may be reused if needed for each class. Note that feather dusters are a good source of feathers, but do not buy the microfiber ones! Also, this activity can get messy, and you may wish to put a tarp or plastic table clothes under each tray. Larger trays are more fun for a large group, but smaller foil baking pans can also be used. 

  • 150 cotton balls
  • 5 trays
  • 15 sponges (large ones can be cut in half)
  • Vegetable oil: amount depends on tray, use a 1:4 oil to water ratio
  • 25 plastic spoons
  • Dawn soap
  • 15 plastic cups: to put soap and cotton balls for each team
  • Cocoa powder: to mix with oil and make it look like crude oil
  • 50 bird feathers: Option 1Option 2, Option 3Option 4
Oil Spill Simulation. Tip: add blue food coloring to the water! 

Oil Spill Simulation. Tip: add blue food coloring to the water! 

Real-World Connection

To set-up the challenge, I provided students with the handout below that included pictures from the BP Oil Spill disaster. We discussed the affects of an oil spill on marine plants and animals, and the pictures really bring to life the negative consequences of such a disaster. This helps set the context before starting the challenge. 

One of the pages included in Vivify's Oil Spill Challenge product. Click for more information. 

Oil Spill Challenge

Depending on your time constraints, there are different options for completing this challenge. The first option is to give students about 15 minutes to clean as much of the oil from the water and feathers as possible. You can then qualitatively compare the bins and discuss the difficulties of removing the oil. Or students can be instructed to collect the oil in cups for measurement. Note that the oil will separate from the water, and a ruler can be used to meausre the height of oil. Collecting the oil also allows you to complete several math extension problems that are provided with our product. 

Math extension problems for oil spill challenge. 

Math extension problems for oil spill challenge. 

Option 2 is to make it a competition. For example, students can be tasked with collecting 5 inches of oil to successfully complete the challenge. Make sure to try this out beforehand to ensure it is doable! Because we had limited time, we used option 1 and had students clean as much as possible in 15 minutes. We then ended with a discussion on lessons learned including what were the most effective clean-up methods. 

For a complete guide on this challenge, check out our product on TeachersPayTeachers. One buyer left us this comment: 

"I LOVE YOUR PRODUCT! It is perfect and exactly what I would have liked to create, but you did it and so beautifully! I love the supporting materials and ties to math. Sooo cool! Great job!!!" 

 I hope your students enjoy this STEM Earth Day Challenge!