Science teachers nationwide are using the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico as a "teachable moment" as the school years ends, with most saying environmental issues will likely continue throughout the summer and spark even more lessons when school starts up again.
Using everything from role playing of government officials and scientists to hands-on models of cocoa and cooking grease (to simulate crude oil), teachers are tackling the disaster with students who are demanding answers and a chance to help find solutions.
"This is science at its best," said Dianne Haberstroh, a 7th Grade teacher from Orefield, PA. "When they can actually live it and feel like they're living it."
In her classroom, she built a long table with water and sand to recreate the water and beaches in the Gulf. Students pumped cooking oil into the water to see how it would react.
They also simulated the effects of the oil on birds and cleanup methods. And, they heard a first-hand account of the wildlife cleanup during a phone call to the class from Ms. Haberstroh's daughter, a volunteer cleaning animals on the oil smeared beaches of Mississippi. She called from the beach to describe what she's seen and experienced there.
In Stafford, VA, third graders at Rocky Run Elementary School started asking about the spill before their instructor had a chance to start teaching about it.
"They honed in right away that there was a crisis," said teacher Sandra Kelish.
Each day since the spill, her class has gone online for updates on the flow of oil and the environment in the Gulf. She says her students fully understand what's happening. "They get it," she said.
Fifth graders at Barnard Environmental Studies School in New Haven, CT, researched the spill and presented their findings to the entire school at an assembly. The students also are collecting donations of toothbrushes, dish detergent, duct tape, and other items to send to the Gulf to help with the cleanup.
Classroom experiments help students understand what is happening in the Gulf. At Navarre High School near Pensacola, FL, Charlene Mauro demonstrates the spill to her students by dumping a mix of vegetable oil and cocoa powder into a big rubber bin with a laminated map of the Gulf of Mexico on the bottom. Her students also use role-playing, acting as government officials and scientists, to learn how handle an environmental crisis like the spill.
As bad as the spill is, teachers say it does present an opportunity for students to learn about the delicate balance of nature as it plays out in an event happening right now.
Teachers said that many of their kids are saddened and angry about the spill, and frustrated that the leak is not getting fixed. They also said students are focused on solutions and on what they can do to help.
"They actually want to do something about it…they say, 'We need to find a way to fix this,'" Kelish said.
Many teachers are challenging their classes to design ways to plug the leak, or figure out how to clean up the oil.
The school year is over in many parts of the country, and finishing up soon in others. But the teachers all know that the spill story will continue throughout the summer, and they'll have more opportunities to continue helping students understand it when school begins again in a few months.