The Impact of the Gulf Oil Spill One Year Later

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Lesson Plan for Involving Students in the Earth Day Webinar:

The Impact of the Gulf Oil Spill One Year Later by Jeff Corwin
Title: The Impact of the Gulf Oil Spill One Year Later
Grade Level: 8 – 12
Time Frame:

  • 30 minutes for the pre-webinar activities

  • 60 minutes for the webinar

  • From 60 minutes to several multi-day periods, depending on the options you choose for the post-webinar activities


Before participating in the webinar, students engage in a preliminary brainstorming activity on the structure and function of an ecosystem. Teachers need not worry about correctness at this point. Rather, this is a chance to gather background knowledge, list topics of student interest, and identify misconceptions for subsequent clarification. Please note that a student worksheet is provided for activities before, during, and after the webinar.

After the webinar, students consider the environmental and ecological implications of the oil spill, and effects on key marine animal species, as highlighted in the webinar and in attached links and videos. Students’ engagement is extended through ideas including technology links to the Web, a math/graphical presentation, understanding type of ecological effects that can arise from an oil spill, and a STEM-related career investigation.

  • Teacher tip: If available at the school, teachers may wish to reserve a computer lab so that students can take full advantage of the websites and other information provided for post-webinar activities. If not available, then teachers will want to print out and copy the links they choose for their class to explore.

Background for Teachers:

As an educator, you promote the disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) with your students. STEM is in the spotlight, from the Oval Office to the classroom. Educators recognize the value of encouraging and developing students’ skills, knowledge, understanding, and interest in these fundamental branches of learning. Both the topic and speaker in this webinar provide an excellent opportunity for you to champion these four interrelated fields with your students in an entertaining, engaging, and accessible format.

This webinar, hosted by Jeff Corwin, lets teachers and students review a disaster that struck the shores of the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. It resulted from an oil spill following an explosion on an oceanic oilrig. In this webinar, Jeff Corwin returns to the Gulf of Mexico to update students on what has transpired in the course of the past year.

The webinar’s host is Emmy winner Jeff Corwin, who has worked for the conservation of endangered species and ecosystems around the world since he was a teenager. Animal Planet audiences also know Jeff as host of THE JEFF CORWIN EXPERIENCE. When not in the field, Jeff lectures on wildlife, ecology, and conservation to audiences across the United States. Mr. Corwin has more recently established EcoZone, a project to build awareness for the wildlife and ecology unique to the wetlands of southeastern Massachusetts.

Since 1984, he has expanded his expertise to include rainforest animals, beginning on an expedition to Belize. The experience fueled his interest in the study and conservation of these ecological marvels. In 1993, Jeff addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations regarding the need to conserve Neotropical rain forests.

Jeff obtained his Bachelor of Science degree in biology and anthropology from Bridgewater State College, and a Master of Science in wildlife and fisheries conservation from the University of Massachusetts. In 1999, Bridgewater State College honored Jeff with a doctorate in public education for his work in communicating about the need for a sustainable approach to using natural resources and the importance of conserving endangered species.

In the webinar, Mr. Corwin will focus on animals and ecosystems that have suffered from the effects of the oil spill. It is most important to have this “one year later” examination of the Deepwater Horizon disaster to understand what issues remain and what can be expected over the long term in the Gulf because of the oil spill. His probing investigation is sure to kindle the questions and interests of all students.

Lesson Objectives are to:

  • Define an ecosystem and its functions

  • Compare and contrast marine organisms living in the Gulf of Mexico

  • Explain effects of oil spill pollution on the Gulf marine ecosystem

  • Organize and interpret interrelations between organisms in an ecosystem

  • Identify opportunities for conservation and protection of marine ecosystems and their organisms

Pre-Webinar Activities (Engage):
Use the following methodology for a lesson activator, to build vocabulary, and surface any misunderstandings.

  1. Using a Promethean board, white board, or other black board device, complete the activities below with your students.

    1. Begin with the following question: How would you define an ecosystem? Brainstorm with students to identify each part of an ecosystem. Have students list what they think or know to be part of an ecosystem on their worksheet.

    2. Once students have identified the parts of an ecosystem, lead a discussion on interactions and sources of energy.

      1. Explain: the ultimate source of energy in an ecosystem is the sun.

      2. List possible abiotic factors, such as atmosphere, water, sunlight, climate, minerals, and so forth.

    3. Ask students to name local ecosystems, or those that they might be familiar with, to serve as examples. Identify key biotic and abiotic parts of those systems. (Question 2 on worksheet).

    4. Ask students to think about the ecosystems they have identified, and list possible ecological dangers to those systems, things that might kill or destroy the biotic species living there. (Question 3)

  2. Explain to students that the webinar they are about to watch will focus on a marine ecosystem, a complex of living organisms in an ocean environment. The particular ecosystem presented by Jeff Corwin is called the Gulf of Mexico. Have students study the map at end of this unit in Resources, and have them name the States that border on the Gulf. Mr. Corwin will focus on ecological damages to the Gulf of Mexico arising from oil leaked from the damaged underwater oil drill, Deepwater Horizon. A question-and-answer period will be included.

  3. Provide index cards for students to jot down questions they might have as they listen to the presentation. Encourage them to do this and to hand the cards to you, so you can relay them to the webinar for Jeff’s response.

Webinar (Explore):

  1. View the webinar together. Ask students to pass in their questions/points of interest for submission to Jeff. These questions can also be used by the teacher after the webinar for subsequent discussion.
  2. If your students are using the Student Question Worksheet, preview the questions before viewing the webinar. You might choose to use the Worksheet as a formative assessment tool, in which case you could collect it before this discussion. Answers to the worksheet are also provided here.

  3. If you are watching the webinar live, it will likely take about an hour. If you choose to replay it at a later time, you will have the option to break after the slide show (about 30 minutes) and continue with question and answers at a later time.

Post-Webinar Activities (Explain and Extend): STEM Links
A. Technology: linking to the Web
1. Link to “Operation Noah’s Ark” – What Can Be Done before an Oil Spill Happens?

In Operation Noah's Ark, scientists collect various coastal species in case oil hits the wetlands coast. They are not collecting the larger animals in a food chain, but rather those that are part of the secondary consumer diet. Therefore, rather than focus on pelicans or sea turtles- they collect the fundamental building blocks of coastal ecology, such as fiddler crabs, blue crabs, and various fish. They are held in the Gulf Specimen Marine Lab in Panacea, Florida. Students can watch this YouTube video and then answer the following questions.

a. Why is it important to save organisms at the bottom of the food chain, otherwise known as primary consumers?


b. Since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill did reach the Florida coasts, how would Operation Noah’s Ark have helped rebuild the wetland coastal ecology?


2. Getting to Know Some Marine Organisms

In the links below, find four sets of information regarding the various marine organisms that live in the Gulf of Mexico. Teachers will need to print out the links, or allow students to go online and read the information. Organize students into groups of four. Each student in the group will read and become an expert in one of the animal links below. Once all readings are done, students will discuss each of the organisms with the others at the table.

a. The Gulf of Mexico's Marine Mammals

b. Gulf of Mexico Deep Sea Seep Communities

c. Brown Pelican – Louisiana State Bird

d. Endangered Species of the Gulf of Mexico
B. What if you had to clean up an oil spill?

Linking to Siemens Science Day Hands-on Activity: Oil Spill Clean Up
Suppose you were in charge of cleaning up an oil spill. How would you know what to do? Are you prepared? Visit the Siemens Science Day link below to download an oil-spill cleanup simulation activity and corresponding video and let students try their hands at both understanding an oil spill and the options for its cleanup. This is an exciting, hands-on investigation where students will use a variety of materials to attempt to clean up a simulated oil spill.
Teachers, please note: before class, make the dyed oil that students will use to simulate their oil spills. Add several drops of food dye to a bottle of vegetable oil, and then shake the bottle vigorously until it is uniformly colored. This activity has the potential to be messy, so newspapers should be laid down on the desks where students will work. Students should wear smocks, if they are available, to prevent oil from getting on their clothes. Encourage students to be careful when handling the vegetable oil so that it does not spill on the floor.

When ready, click on the link below for the lesson plan and instructions. You will need to register for the site (free) to download the file.
B. Linking to Math
Hand out graph paper to each student. Ask the students to select four key marine animals affected by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. From the Webinar, textbooks, or web, determine the number of animals affected by the spill from initial estimates at time of the accident, and then from final estimates one year later. Graph that data using a bar chart, labeling and establishing units of measurement for the x- and y-axis, and give the graph a title. If graph paper is not available, then students can also work on plain lined notebook paper. The graph should show which animals suffered the most from the spill, with estimates and actual counts.
C. Linking to Careers

1. Review the reading from the link below. It tells the story of what marine biologists and oceanographers did during the gulf oil spill.

Lessons from Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill
By reading the article, students will come to understand how the skills of one profession can be targeted towards an ongoing disaster.
2. Students will list the types of skills they think needed by underwater scientists. Then, students can tell how these skills help underwater scientists assess things differently than other reporters did at the time.
National Science Education Standards (1996):

Content Standard C: 9 – 12

  • Interdependence of organisms
    • Energy flows through ecosystems in one direction, from photosynthetic organisms to herbivores to carnivores and decomposers.

    • Organisms both cooperate and compete in ecosystems. The interrelationships and interdependence of these organisms may generate ecosystem that are stable for hundreds or thousands of years.

    • Living organisms have the capacity to produce populations of infinite size, but environments and resources are finite.

    • Human beings live within the world’s ecosystems. Human destruction of habitats through direct harvesting, pollution, atmospheric changes, and other factors is threatening current global stability, and if not addressed, ecosystems will be irreversibly affected.

  • Life Sciences Standard

  • Structure and function in living systems: Ecosystems and whole organisms, as well as, cells, organs, tissues, and organ systems, are examples of important levels of organization for structure and function.

  • Reproduction and heredity: Reproduction and heredity are characteristics of all living systems; Reproduction is essential to the continuation of every species; the characteristics of an organism can be described in terms of a combination of traits; some traits are inherited and others result from interactions with the environment.

  • Regulation and behavior: All organisms must be able to obtain and use resources, grow, reproduce, and maintain stable internal conditions while living in a constantly changing external environment; Behavior is one kind of response an organism can make to an internal or environmental stimulus; Behavior response is a set of actions determined in part by heredity and in part from experience; An organism’s behavior evolves through adaptation to its environment; How a species moves, obtains food, reproduces, and responds to danger are based in the species’ evolutionary history.

Student Question Worksheet

This worksheet is for use before, during, and after the webinar feature, The Impact of the Gulf Oil Spill One Year Later. When completed, answers to the questions below summarize key points of ecology, ecosystems, the Gulf Oil Spill, ecological impacts, and species loss. Each of these activities will build student understanding and are consistent with curricular standards.
A. Pre-webinar brainstorm and discussion.
1. What makes up an ecosystem? ________________________________________________________________________


2. What are biotic and abiotic factors in an ecosystem? List four examples of each.

Abiotic: ________________________________________________________________


Biotic: _________________________________________________________________

3. Students now list potential ecological risks that could affect a species’ life and survival in their ecosystem.




B. Questions to answer during presentation.
4. List two facts about the oil platform and drill, Deepwater Horizon.

  1. ____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

  2. ____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

5. What biotic organisms, or species, were most affected by the oil spill?

a. ____________________________________________________________


  1. ____________________________________________________________

  2. ____________________________________________________________

6. List some of the abiotic factors that make up the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem, or the other ecosystems present there, such as:

a. Gulf of Mexico ecosystem:
b. Coastal wetlands:

c. Open oceanic waters of the gulf

d. Seep communities:
C. Post-webinar questions and activities.
7. We are very familiar now with the negative impact of oil spills on the environment. Below are some common effects:

a. Oil harms wildlife though physical contact, ingestion, inhalation, and absorption.

b. Floating oil can contaminate plankton, algae, fish eggs, and invertebrate larvae.

c. Oiled birds can loose ability to fly ingest oil while preening.

d. Sea turtles can be impacted as they reach shore for nesting activities.
Select one of these impacts as highlighted in the webinar, and describe what damages occur to the species impacted.


8. Read the news report from Resource C. Why do you think the baby dolphins are dying? Does the oil spill still pose an environmental hazard to the dolphins?


9. From question 7 above, select two impacts from an oil spill. Then, compare and contrast them using the Venn diagram below.
Impact 1:_____________ _______ Common Impact 2:____________________

Student Question Worksheet – Answer Key
1. What makes up an ecosystem? A specific area defined by what it contains, including abiotic, or nonliving, factors and the biotic, or living organism, that are there, and interactions among these organisms and with the abiotic factors that provide for life and energy.
2. What are biotic and abiotic factors in an ecosystem? List four examples of each.

Abiotic factors: sun, atmosphere, climate, water, rocks, and minerals

Biotic factors: producers, consumers, plants, animals, microbes
3. List potential ecological risks that could affect the life and survival of biotic species in their ecosystem. Sample answers:

a. Oil harms wildlife though physical contact, ingestion, inhalation, and absorption.

b. Floating oil can contaminate plankton, algae, fish eggs, and invertebrate larvae.

c. Oiled birds can loose ability to fly ingest oil while preening.

d. Sea turtles can be impacted as they reach shore for nesting activities.

e. Turtle nest eggs may be damaged if an oiled adult lies on the nest

f. Long term effects, such as oil ingestion, can cause suppression of immune system, organ damage, behavioral changes, and skin irritation.

g. Degradation of the marsh grasses, essential for holding sediment in place and for reproduction, accelerates wetland loss.

Questions 4 – 9 based on student responses.

Evaluate (Extension Activities)

The items below are written as separate, stand-alone activities. However, they can be combined as found useful by the instructor, and submitted for discussion, review, or grading.

A. Class Forum: think, pair (or group), share.
Provide a classroom forum for students to share the content and enthusiasm displayed in the webinar amongst themselves in pairs or small groups and then as a class. Tabulate items of greatest interest. To extend discussion, ask the question, what should environmental regulators consider in approving or denying a permit from a company requesting to drill an offshore well?
B. Exit Card
Have students complete an exit card answering the following:
1. What were the most interesting facts learned from the webinar about the state of the Gulf one year after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill?

2. Which animal species was damaged the most from the spill and why?

C. Applying what was learned in different context.
Suppose an oil spill or other form of environmental contamination occurred in a natural ecosystem near you. What would be your and the state’s responsibility to clean it up? Which organization should take the lead for such a clean up?
D. Venn diagram.

Using the Venn diagram below, compare and contrast a local natural ecosystem with the Gulf of Mexico. List two characteristics of each ecosystem, list two similarities, and two ways to prevent environmental disasters for each.

Your local ecosystem Similarities Gulf of Mexico

E. Class debate and brainstorm.

Divide the class in half, one group being an oil company wishing to drill an off shore well and the second being an environmental agency charged with assuring clean and safe marine ecosystems. Give each group five minutes to prepare arguments for and against the drilling of a new Deepwater Horizon offshore well. Organize the class so that an effective debate can be held, with arguments for both sides captured on a white board or promethean board.

F. Student Essay
Have students write an essay (or use a BCR format) of 6 – 10 sentences describing how things have changed one year after the Deepwater Horizon disaster. List 3 -5 specific things that have changed and the reasons for those changes. Then, in the opinion of the student, end the BCR with whether things have gotten better or worse since the accident occurred.

Resources and Background Reading
A. Teachers guide:

The Encyclopedia of Earth. The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill.
B. Map showing the Gulf of Mexico. WORLDATLAS.

C. Baby dolphins dying along oil-soaked US Gulf Coast

Environment: space, conditions, and factors that affect an individual’s and a population’s ability to survive and their quality of life
Habitat: the place or environment where a plant or animal naturally or normally lives and grows
Oil spill: leakage of petroleum onto the surface of a large body of water.
Ecosystem: the complex of living organisms, their physical environment, and all their interrelationships in a particular unit of space.
Marine ecosystem: complex of living organisms in the ocean environment.

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