Oil Spill Problem Solving

Oil Spill Problem Solving

Submitted by: Kenneth Bouwens
Collaborators: Terri Vernon
School: John Rolfe Middle School


This lesson idea was developed to simulate the BP oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico. Students are aware of the event but they tend to under appreciate the severity of the situation and the long-term impacts that the oil leak will have on the environment. Another common response from students is that they can’t believe it took engineers so long to stop the leak; many people do not understand the challenges engineers faced while working to stop the spewing oil. This lesson is designed to show students some of the challenges engineers faced, while reinforcing the importance of quick and effective problem solvers. Students are challenged to work as design teams to stop a leaking water pipe. The students are given a limited amount of materials, time, and construction supplies. The teams compete against each other to design a cap that will stop the most amount of water from leaking. This activity challenges students to think about the future and what problems their generation may have to solve.

TIPC Ratings

Approaching: Even though the students only briefly research the events of the BP Oil Spill, they did so independently and used individually-generated questions created from the ActivEngage activity. They evaluate the sources for authenticity, cite their work, and share their findings with their peers through the use of the blog–establishing a common location for findings that students can reference throughout the activity.

Students work in teams and collaborate with one another to brainstorm different ideas. They design and construct their solutions in teams, form the groups based on individual strengths and weaknesses, and determine norms and roles to maximize success. Additionally, they communicate through a blog with their teachers and peers.

Ideal/Target: The students work on an authentic problem that is related to current events. They are challenged to think critically about the task at hand and design a solution. They are also asked to reflect on their chosen solution and state what they would change to make it better. While working through the design brief, the students go through every step of the problem-solving process. They use digital and physical technology to problem solve and innovate, relying on their creativity while justifying their decisions.

The students are asked to use their prior knowledge of materials and think about them in a new way. They combine and alter materials to create an innovative item that serves their needs at the time. No two solutions to the problem are exactly the same. There is a great deal of creative risk involved, as the designed solution might fail miserably and they will need to “go back to the drawing board” to completely redesign their product. Some of their solutions might look similar to the ones the engineers attempted for the BP oil spill, but others are completely innovative and unique. After they have tested their solutions, they reflect on what parts of their item worked and where it failed.

Student Artifact

Download Files

BP Oil Spill Downloads

  • Lesson Plan
  • ActivEngage Flipchart
  • Water Leak Design Brief
  • Water Leak Design Brief Completed
  • Water Leak Rubric
  • Additional Pictures

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