Sometimes, a tragic event can become a powerful teaching opportunity. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has the potential to capture students’ attention and stimulate discussion on topics like:

• biology and ecology (How will the oil effect wildlife and the environment?),

• physics and chemistry (How do water conditions, currents, and weather affect the way the oil disperses? What techniques and materials can we use to clean up this mess?),

• civics (How will this effect the economy and local communities? Who is responsible and how can we prevent future spills?), and

• history (How does this compare to past spills and disasters?).

One way to begin the conversation is to have students consider how events like this happen in the first place. Every day, we use 3 billion gallons of oil (700 million in the United States alone) for things like transportation, heating and cooling, and manufacturing plastics. It’s the production, transportation, and use of oil for these everyday purposes that creates the potential for oil spills.

Many students will see heart-breaking photos of marine animals covered in crude oil. While students can easily understand that ingesting oil can make animals sick, discussing other impacts can help them comprehend how damaging a spill like this can be for wildlife. For a reference on Gulf species that are likely to be impacted, visit the Encyclopedia of Life’s Oil Spill page.

Discussing the impacts on wildlife also opens the door to thinking about how we clean up the oil and help animals that have been affected. The current spill is being compared to the Exxon Valdez spill of 1989. While these two events are very different, the past can shed some light on the current situation. The Tale of Recovery from NOAA’s National Ocean Service discusses the slow recovery of Prince William Sound and may be helpful in understanding the long-term effects that can be anticipated on the Gulf Coast.

It’s also important to keep in mind that oil spills aren’t the only way oil reaches the ocean. Every year more than 700 million gallons of oil end up in the ocean. Only 5 percent comes from big oil spills like the one in the Gulf of Mexico. Oil dumped in storm drains, oil residue on roadways, and leaks from private boats, all contribute to the problem. Making sure our private vehicles are well maintained and oil is properly disposed of goes a long way toward keeping oil out of our ocean and waterways.

But who is ultimately responsible? We all are. Smart engineering, new technology, and a close eye on safety can reduce the odds of a spill, but ultimately, high demand means that large amounts of oil are extracted and transported, opening up the possibility for tragic oil spills. If we reduce our need for oil and gas, by driving less, conserving energy, and curbing plastic use, we can all do our part to reduce the chance of future oil spills.

These are just a few ideas for working the oil spill into your lesson plan and getting your students talking. The BRIDGE and NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration offer extensive compilations of lesson plans, backgrounders, lab activities, and other resources on oil spills that can help turn this tragedy into a teaching opportunity.

As always, we’d love to hear about your experiences. How are you exploring the oil spill topic with your students? Which resources are you finding most useful in your classroom?