Grade 5 & 6
STEM Activity – Oil Spill Challenge

STEM Activity – Oil Spill Challenge

As we near the end of the year, I wanted to make the most of the time we have left and engage the students in some fun learning experiences. This led to an unexpectedly messy lesson recently.

A question I sometimes hear in math class is “What does this have to do with the real world?” or “When will we ever use this?” These questions show that students need to see the purpose and value in what they are learning. So, I got thinking…

Mrs. Shoniker, our principal, had provided me with a STEM activity idea back in the fall: an oil spill challenge. It would require the grade 6s to apply their mathematical knowledge of percentages, ratios, volume and converting units to a real-world problem. Beyond the math practice, it would also increase their understanding of an oil spill disaster and the environmental consequences. 

The Challenge

The students’ task was to devise a plan to clean an oil spill using the materials available to them. They competed to find out who could collect the most oil and clean the most feathers in 20 minutes. 

After 20 minutes of creativity and hard work, they then had to measure and calculate the volume of oil collected in a cup and the percentage of oil to water. After that, they had to convert the volume into litres and find how long it would take to clean up the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill at the rate they were working. 

Some of the figures were shocking: One group determined that it would take 100 professionals working 10-hour days an unbelievable 2,500,250 days to contain the famous spill. While the subject matter was serious, the students had a blast working on the project. On top of that, they were given greater perspective into the challenge of cleaning up a large oil spill.