Simulated Oil Spills are Dirty and Fun to a Seven-Year-Old

By Sara Russell




These are reactions I got from a class of 2nd graders as two drops of soap hit our simulated oil spill of salt water and vegetable oil laden with cocoa powder. The minute the soap hits the “spill,” the oil runs and clings to the edges of a milk carton. Next, the kids simulated waves in the water, and the oil broke up and slowly descended. I don’t work with kids every day, but when I do, it’s fun and I get to share my enthusiasm for the work we do at EPA.

Every May, my sons’ elementary school, Farallone View in Montara, California, hosts “Oceans Week.” All week long the kids learn about the Pacific Ocean just blocks from the school. From campus you can even see the Farallone Islands, which are part of the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary.

This year I thought I should teach them about ocean oil spills, since we just passed the one-year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon event. I wanted the kids to learn more about the consequences of an oil spill and the challenges of cleanup. I showed them images of the blast and the oil in the water, on wildlife and on the shores. The kids asked a lot about the workers on the drilling platform, and we talked about how dangerous this work is. And just like the rest of us, they were really drawn in by images of oil-soaked birds. They worried about the effects on wildlife, both on shore and in the ocean.

We created salt water oceans in used plastic milk cartons and replicated an oil spill. The kids took turns using various sorbents like cotton balls, paper towels and string, and then rated how well they worked. I also had them dip a feather into the water so they could see what an oily bird has to deal with.
Finding ways to explain complex environmental issues is always challenging, but well worth it. Lessons that involve kids, like stream monitoring, habitat restoration and beach cleanups, are a great way to introduce them to their environment. What do you and your family do to explore and help protect the environment?

About the author: Sara Russell is a Brownfields Project Manager in EPA’s San Francisco office. When not at work she volunteers with her sons’ Cub Scout dens.

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