Oil spill becomes teachable moment in Pinellas classrooms

Andy Huynh carefully squeezed the end of a pipette, dropping roughly a tablespoon of cooking oil into a large beaker of water.

The Northeast High 10th-grader and his chemistry lab classmates then slowly sprinkled sand into the beaker.

"Yeah, it's working," Andy said as the sand hit the oil, formed tiny globules and sank to the bottom of the container.

As the Deepwater Horizon oil slick continues to spread across the Gulf of Mexico, teachers in Pinellas County are trying to turn the disaster into a teaching moment with experiments and other classroom activities.

"It's a horrible situation, but there are positive things happening in classrooms," said Heather Judkins, a marine science teacher at Seminole High. "Everyone is concerned, and everyone wants to do something."

The spill angers students, especially if it could threaten their favorite hangouts. Officials have been scrambling to try to protect Florida shores while fretting about how to clean up the spill off the shores of Louisiana.

"It's upsetting. Teens go to the beach; it's our water," said Danielle Elmone, a Northeast High 11th-grader. "And we stand to lose a lot of money here. It's a major spot of tourism."

Some schools are encouraging hands-on experiments, such as the one performed in Les Gatechair's honors chemistry class at Northeast High. In others, students have collected detergents, towels and linens to be donated to wildlife sanctuaries.

"It's so relevant. (The oil spill) is in the news, it's in our face every day," Gatechair said. "We live here in a community where the quality of the beach and quality of the environment is a major part of life. For me, it's an opportunity to link some of the different concepts we have done experiments in earlier in the semester."

For a week, his students did mock calculations of how fast the oil would get to Tampa Bay at its previously reported spill rate of 5,000 barrels a day, Gatechair said.

They also tested different cleanup methods, using sand, dispersants, filters, booms and absorbent pads, and then discussed the pros and cons of each.

"The filtration works, but it's time-consuming," said Katy Carter, a student in Gatechair's class.

Time is a crucial factor when animals are dying, she added. The sand on oil makes it easier for boats to dredge the clumped oil from the bottom, but again, timing's everything because the oil tends to rise to the top again.

"The dispersant seems to cause more harm than help," she said. "Nothing can get the oil out completely."

In a ninth-grade class at Seminole High, science teacher Tristan Van Voorhis let students feel what it's like to clean oil off seabirds by letting them dip a feather in a cocoa and vegetable oil mixture. Students tried to wash off the goo using water and detergent.

In other schools, students led drives to collect cleaning materials for local wildlife sanctuaries. "We're going well beyond just the discussions in class," Judkins said. Her students are collecting materials for the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary.

Students at Countryside High are doing the same.

Teacher Beth McGovern said the Deepwater Horizon incident has hit a nerve in her students, especially after they studied the Exxon Valdez spill earlier in the year. That disaster was caused by an oil tanker that ran aground in Alaska's Prince William Sound in 1989.

"They want to talk about it every day," said McGovern, an AP environmental science teacher at Countryside. "First they get angry, then … they all want to go to Louisiana. They would do anything that anyone would let them do. I try to give them an outlet, and tell them 'Let's do what we can do.' "

For updates on the Deepwater Horizon spill, go to tampbay.com.

Oil spill becomes teachable moment in Pinellas classrooms 05/22/10 [Last modified: Saturday, May 22, 2010 7:32pm]

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