US Army Corps of Engineers
San Francisco District Website Website


Bay Model Visitor Center

2100 Bridgeway

Sausalito, CA 94965

Phone: 415-332-3871

Fax: 415-289-3004

Oil Spills

Grades: 3-12
Key Concept:
Group members work with models to simulate four techniques currently used to clean up oil spills in waterway.

(Students will be able to)

  • Appreciate the difficulties faced by those who try to clean up oil after it has been released into the waterway.
  • Understand the basic principles behind four different techniques used to clean up oil dumped in a waterway.
  • Understand some of the limitations of these techniques, especially when employed under adverse conditions such as heavy weather.


  • Shallow container or basin
    (backi8ng dish, deli try top, plastic tub)
  • Water to fill the container about 2/3 full
  • 2 Tablespoons vegetable oil tine with paprika
  • String, about 18 inches long
  • Eye dropper
  • Paper cup
  • Spray bottle filled with water and one tablespoon dish washing detergent (Dawn)
  • Task Card: Oil Spill


Bay Model Visitor Center- Outside Ventral Exhibit Area
by the South Bay

Introduction to Activity (5 minutes)

Group members will work with models to simulate four techniques currently used to clean up oil spills in waterways.

Playing the Activity (20 minutes)

As preparation put two teaspoons of paprika into a small container of vegetable oil and mix. Wait for the paprika to settle to the bottom. The oil will be slightly tinted.

Method Outline:

  • 1. Discuss oil spills, how they happen, and the damage they cause. Pass out Task cards with the drawings of the methods used to clean oil spills.
  • 2. Pass out materials and explain that each group has received materials to make a simulated body of water contaminated with oil, as well as four tools to clean up the spilled oil, simulating tools used in real life. Show each tool and demonstrate how it simulates the real tool.
  • 3. Demonstrate how to clean up oil spills using real tools.


Described this scenario: You get word that a tanker has leaked one million gallons of oil into the San Francisco Bay. The area is one with strong tidal currents and strong winds that will carry the oil quickly to the shore and wetland area. With your group, quickly develop a cleanup plan? What methods will you use first? Which will you follow up with?

After a few minutes, have the groups discuss their clean up plans for the scenario.


Since humans began pumping petroleum from the ground and shipping petroleum on boats, there have been tragic oil spills. Some spills occur at drilling platforms in the ocean when there is an explosion or leak. Others happen when a ship transporting the oil crashes, sinks, or leaks, or simply purposefully dumps the oily water from the ship’s hold. Oil spills have happened in oceans, bays, rivers, and on land, causing tremendous death to organisms and other environmental damage. Once an oil spill occurs, it is very difficult to clean up. The main tools used to contain oil spills in waterways are: Containment Booms (to keep the oil from spreading), Skimmers (to vacuum oil off the surface), Chemical Dispersant (to keep the oil and make it dissolve or shrink), and Absorbent Towels (to mop the oil off the rocks and shoreline). In bioremediation, oil-eating microorganisms are released at the site of the spill and they simply eat the oil. Dying off when the oil is gone.


  • Discuss: Oil spills, how they happen, and the damage they cause.
    Do: Pass out Task Cards
  • Discuss: The drawings of the methods used to clean oil spills.
    Do: Pass out materials.
  • Discuss: Explain that each group has received materials to make a simulated body of water contaminated with oil; as well as four tools to clean up the spilled oil, just like in real life.
    Do: Show each toll and demonstrate.
  • Discuss: How it simulates the real tool.
  • Discuss: Containment Booms – Represented by a string.
    Do: Use the String to corral the oil on the water’s surface to prevent if from spreading.
  • Discuss: Skimmers – Represented by the eye dropper.
    Do: Use the Eye Dropper to vacuum oil off the surface of the water.
  • Discuss: Chemical Dispersant – Represented by the spray bottles with liquid detergent and water.
    Do: Use the Spray Bottles to cause the oil to break up and sink.
  • Discuss: Absorbent Towels – Represented by the napkins.
    Do: Use the Napkins to clean rocks and the shoreline.
  • Discuss: Explain that it is up to them to remove as much oil from their ocean as possible and also evaluate the pros and cons of each clean-up tool. Encourage them to experiment and come up with a new and better ways to use the tools, or to develop new tools. However, to simulate real life they may not remove large quantities from the basin.
  • Question: What is the best way to clean up after an oil spill?
    Do: As a group use the tools to remove as much oil as possible from your model waterway.
    Do: Use the tools in whatever way you want, or develop new tools.
  • Discuss: However, to simulate real life, you may not remove large quantities of water from the basin.

Interesting Oil & Fuel Spill Facts That Harm Fish & Wildlife

  • One gallon of used oil dumped in one million gallons of water will kill half of all exposed Dungeness crab larvae.
  • Fish and shellfish larvae are extremely sensitive to even small amounts of oil and other petroleum products.
  • Birds impacted by oil spills may suffer long term effects including breeding problems.
  • Otters and other mammals lose their insulation when coated with oil and suffer hypothermia, and lung, liver, and kidney damage.
  • Liquid detergents are often used to get rid of spilled oil. This practice is illegal and environmentally damaging.
  • Detergents are dangerous pollutants and can be toxic to fish even at extremely low concentrations.
  • Oil mixed with detergent can coat the gills of fish and cause respiratory difficulty or suffocation.
  • A small amount of detergent can severely harm birds. They lose their ability to stay warm and dry.
  • Do not use soap to disperse oil.