Oil Spill STEM Challenge

Oil is an important resource used to make fuel, create electricity, and many other products. As we drill for oil deep in the ocean, and transport oil from place to place in large ships (called tankers), there are risks that the oil will spill into the ocean. Several oil spills occur every year around the world. These accidents pose a major threat to marine and coastal life.

If you’ve ever mixed oil and water, you know they don’t blend. No matter how much you stir it up, the oil will always eventually settle on top of the water. That’s because oil is less dense than water.

Try it! Fill a clear cup halfway with water. Then pour a little vegetable oil on top. Stir it up if you like, and watch what happens!

Imagine you are a bird that dives into the water to catch its meal – only now the water is coated with thick, black, gooey oil. Or imagine a dolphin coming up to the surface to breathe, only to get slick oil into its blowhole. Oil spills can be devastating for aquatic animals such as these. Fortunately, since oil doesn’t dissolve in the water, there are ways to clean it up.

Oil Spill STEM Challenge

How to do the Oil Spill STEM Challenge

The Challenge: Test different materials and methods to clean up an oil spill.

Materials: Pie pan or shallow dish, water, vegetable oil, tools for cleaning up (cotton balls, a sponge, a spoon, soap, string to gather the oil, or whatever else you think might work!)

What to Do: Fill the pie pan or shallow dish about ¾ full of water. Pour enough vegetable oil on top to cover most of the surface. Now, test out your different materials and try to clean up all of the oil.


What methods seem to work best? How could something like this be used in the real world? Were you able to remove ALL of the oil?

Even though there are effective ways of clearing up oil spills, it would be much better if they never happened at all. In the future, we need new technologies to help us move away from using so much oil, which will be good news for our oceans.

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