Public Lab Wiki documentation

Public Lab Lesson 1: Wetlands, Water, & Oil

3 | 12 | | #11556

Infrared Curriculum Lessons 1, 2, 3, 4

How this lesson fits into curricular standards

2.5 Hour Lesson Grades 8-12

Co-written by Amanda Fisher and Mathew Lippincott

Description: In this lesson, students will learn about the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster and its lasting effects on the environment. They will also learn about the importance of the wetlands of Louisiana, as well as the ways they are being destroyed. This is intended to be the first lesson in the series of four.

Topics: Biology, Ecology, Environmental Engineering



Segment | Format | Time (total 2 hours) :----------------------------:|:---------------------------------:|:-------------------------: Introduction | Large group discussion | 5 min Wetlands Purpose Model | Group inquiry activity | 30 min Wetlands Destruction Model | Teacher Demo | 20 min News Article Readings and Discussion | Group discussion and writing exercise | 35 min Oil Clean Up | Group inquiry activity | 25 min Oil Effects | Group inquiry activity | 10 min Planting Seeds | Individual project | 10 min Wrap-Up | Large group discussion | 15 min Homework writing assignment

Learning Goals

Content Goals Students will understand and be able to describe:

  • how human actions and natural processes have modified coastal regions

  • point-source contributions to pollution, and the effects of pollutants in ecosystems

  • evaluations of proposed solutions for reducing the impacts of human activities on the environment

  • the roles of government and businesses in preserving or consuming natural resources, protecting the environment, and promoting economic stability and growth

Skills Goals Students will be able to:

  • analyze the effect of economic, technological, and political considerations on environmental policy

  • evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text

  • follow precisely a multistep procedure

  • develop models to illustrate and explain conclusions



Advanced Prep

Oil Preparation Many of the following activities use oil to simulate a crude oil spill. Any type of oil may be used for these activities such as vegetable oil, baby oil, or sesame oil. For a more realistic effect, color the oil by mixing it with cocoa powder.

Create Wetland Destruction Model Before class begins, you will build an island in a large paint roller tray using plasticine clay. This island will be filled with “oil” that will be drilled during the activity. To create the island: * Flatten out 1 stick of clay into a circle sheet approximately ¼” thick and 5” diameter * Place the circle of clay on top of a bowl to form a dome * Poke a small hole in the top of the dome * Gently remove the dome from the bowl and place it at the lower end of the paint roller tray * Push down the edges of the dome so that it forms a water-proof seal around the bottom edge * Pour water into the top of the dome until it is full * Place the top of your spray bottle into the hole in the dome and use a small piece of clay to secure it in place. * The rest of this wetlands model will be created in front of the students.



5 minutes

Over the next 4 weeks, we will participate in a series of 2 hour lessons. In this series, we will learn about tracking plant health using visible and infrared light, a form of light invisible to the human eye. In today’s lesson we will learn about plants, the ecosystems they hold together, and why we want to track their health through photography. In further lessons we will learn more about types of light, how the human eye sees light, how we translate images of invisible types of light into images people can see, and how we interpret those images to understand plant health.

Our case study for plant health is coastal wetlands in the Gulf of Mexico, and the different human choices that help both destroy and rebuild these areas. Does anybody know what wetlands are or where they’re located? What types of life would you find in wetlands?

Wetlands are areas that, at least some of the time, are covered with a shallow layer of water or have waterlogged soils. There are many types of wetlands such as bogs, swamps, and marshes. Many plants and animals such as birds, insects, and fish depend on wetlands, making them the most biologically diverse of all ecosystems.


30 minutes

This activity may be done in small groups with each group creating its own model. Or, if preferred, make one larger model as a demonstration for the class. _


  • Small plastic container (if in groups) or large container such as a casserole dish (if doing as demo)
  • Clay
  • Sponges dirt, oil, food coloring, or other items to represent pollution
  • Spray bottle with water

Begin building a model of wetlands either in groups or as demo. Place clay all the way against one side of the container sloping down toward the middle of the container. The higher side will represent the land. Add rivers, lakes, or hills to the land. The lower side will represent the ocean. In our first model, we are going to build Louisiana’s coast without any wetlands.

While creating the model, tell students a little about the geography of Louisiana.

Louisiana’s southern coast contains nearly half of all the wetlands in the lower 48 states. This is because Louisiana is located in the spot where the Mississippi river drains into the Gulf of Mexico. As the river drains, it brings mud and sediment with it that build up the wetlands. We’re going to examine why these wetlands are so important by first seeing what happens without them.

Pour a small amount of water (no more than ½ “) into the model. Have students add a few pieces of debris (sticks, dirt, food coloring) to the land as you talk about the types of pollution that happens on land (trash, oil and chemical runoff). Add approximately a teaspoon of oil to the water and mention how pollutants can come from the sea as well.

What do you think will happen to these pollutants? Will they stay on land or in the sea?

Using a spray bottle with water, make it “rain” onto the land. Gently rock the container back and forth to simulate the waves and tides of the ocean. Students will observe how pollution on land runs into the ocean, and oil from the ocean contaminates the land.

Now create one larger wave in your model by quickly moving the container once from side to side. Notice what happens when the wave hits the land. What would happen to houses and roads that were on that land?

Next, you will repeat the same experiments but using a model that has land, ocean, and the wetlands of Louisiana.

Dump out the water from your model and, using a small ball of clay, stick a piece of sponge to the area between the land and the ocean in your model. This sponge represents the wetlands. Make sure the entire “coast” is lined with a sponge.

Again, add approximately ½” of water to your model. Now add pollution to both the land and the sea, then spray with water and gently rock to create waves. What do you notice? Do you see how the wetlands help filter out some of the pollution and keep it from spreading?

Now have students once again create a big wave and observe how it hits the land. Students should observe that the wetlands help slow the wave and keep it from flooding the land.

In addition to being a home for plants and wildlife, including many endangered species, the wetlands play a very important role in filtering out pollution and protecting the coast from flooding. Wetlands absorb many of the large waves caused by hurricanes making them vital to the inhabitants along the coast.


20 minutes

For this demonstration, have students gather around the model, or use a document camera to show a close up view of it.


  • Paint roller pan with pre-built island (see Advanced Prep)
  • 2-3 large handfuls of sand or dirt
  • 1-2 paper towels
  • Box cutter or sharp scissors
  • water

We know that the wetlands are important in many ways- they are home to many types of wildlife, they protect the coast from large waves, and they help filter the water, keeping our ocean clean. However, wetlands are being destroyed in many ways. An average of about 35 square miles of wetlands has disappeared every year over the last 50 years. Why do you think this is happening to the wetlands?

We are going to examine some of the ways the wetlands are being destroyed using this model.

As students watch, build the “wetlands” on the higher side of the paint roller pan. Explain each part as you build it. First, form two separate mounds of sand or dirt to represent two sections of wetlands. Cover each section with a damp paper towel to represent the many plants and plant roots that cover the wetlands. These roots act like the paper towel to hold the soil together. Fill the pan with water until much of your “wetlands” are underneath the water line.


What do you think will happen when waves come in to our wetland area? Gently rock the pan and notice how, while there may be some erosion (soil loss), for the most part they remain intact.

One of the largest reasons Louisiana’s wetlands are disappearing is due to canal cutting and dredging. Thousands of miles of canals have been cut through the wetlands so that ships can move through the area. Many of the canals are cut by oil and gas companies to lay pipeline and access drilling sites.


Use the box cutter or scissors to cut through the middle of the paper towel on your model wetlands.


Gently shake the pan and observe how, without the “roots” to hold the land together, it starts to come apart. As more “canals” are cut, the wetlands degrade more and more

Another cause of wetlands loss is a process called subsidence, which is the gradual sinking of an area. As oil and gas are removed from deep below the surface of the wetlands, the land above it begins to sink.


Using the pump on the top of the spray bottle (representing a drill)l, pump the water (representing oil and gas) from beneath the surface of your clay island. You can either spray it directly into the pan, or use a separate container to catch it in. As the water inside is removed, the island will begin to collapse on itself.



35 minutes

For this activity, arrange students into five groups.


  • Printed copies of Articles 1-5 (in Resource section)

Recently, the Gulf of Mexico was inundated with oil during the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Ask students what they know about oil spills in the ocean. Show students a gallon container (such as for milk or water) and ask them to estimate how many gallons of oil were spilled in the Deepwater Horizon spill. Give them some background information about the Deepwater Horizon disaster including:

  • On April 20, 2010, an oil-drilling rig named the Deepwater Horizon exploded and caused a well deep below the surface of the ocean to begin leaking.
  • The leak lasted for nearly 3 months before it could be stopped.
  • An estimated 200 million gallons of crude oil were released into the Gulf of Mexico.
  • Nearly 2 million gallons of dispersants (chemicals to break up the oil) were used to attempt to control the oil spill
  • The spill affected 16,000 miles of coastline.

What types of impacts do you think resulted from this oil spill?

Assign each group one of the five articles to read. Allow time for each group to read the article, and discuss it with their group members. Ask each group to write a summary of the article and to record at least three impacts of the oil spill. Ask each student to individually write questions that have emerged for them from reading the article.

Lead a class discussion about the many impacts of the oil spill in the Gulf. Make sure each group has an opportunity to share the information they learned from their news article. Record on the board the impacts suggested by the students. Discussion prompts may include asking students what sorts of evidence were provided in making claims about the impact of the oil spill, their thoughts on responsibility of clean-up, and their thoughts on how the industry and government should implement any lesson learned from this disaster.


25 minutes

For this activity, arrange students in groups of 4-5 students.

Materials per group

  • Tupperware container, aluminum pie tin, or similar (to hold “ocean”)
  • Oil (vegetable or sesame oil work well) with a few drops of food coloring
  • Dish washing detergent (Dawn works well)
  • Oil-Containing Materials such as Cotton balls, Coffee filters, Spoons, Pipe cleaners, Straws, Sponges, String

In this activity, we will be exploring the methods of cleaning an oil spill. Each group will receive a container with water (the ocean), and an oil spill. Using the materials provided, how could we clean the oil from the ocean? How effective do you think our methods will be?

Pass out the materials and add around a teaspoon of the oil spill to each container. Students may notice the food coloring in the oil- this represents the many chemicals within crude oil.

The edges of your container represent the land surrounding the Gulf of Mexico. In order to the minimize the damage from the oil spill, don’t let the oil touch the edges of your container!

Pass out all oil-containing materials to students except the dish washing detergent. Allow students time to experiment with different methods, such as spooning the oil off, making “booms” with the pipe cleaners or soaking up the oil with the sponge. Ask students to record each method as they try it, and rate its effectiveness on a scale of 1-5.

After students have tried 2-3 methods of containing the oil, discuss as a class:

  • What methods appear to work best?
  • What methods are not working well?
  • How easy is it to keep the oil from the sides of the container? Would it be as easy in an ocean?

Pass out the detergent.

We mentioned earlier how millions of gallons of dispersant were used in the Deepwater Horizon spill. Dispersants are chemicals used to break up oil into very small particles, which will then be dispersed by waves or wind. Try using a drop or two of this dispersant (dishwashing detergent) to see how it affects the oil.

After students have tested the dispersant and other materials, bring them together for a class discussion.

  • What happened when you added the dispersant?
  • How successful were you at cleaning the oil spill from your container?
  • What differences would we see when cleaning crude oil from a real ocean?
  • How effective do you think the clean up efforts in the Gulf were based on your observations?

Make sure to draw connections between the types of materials students used for the clean up and the methods used to clean real oil spills such as booms, absorbents, and skimmers. Ensure students understand that while some methods may be more effective than others, no method was able to remove all of the oil from the Gulf of Mexico.


10 minutes

For this activity, students should remain in groups of 4-5 students

Materials per group

  • small bowl or cup with dyed water two strips of paper towel
  • a few drops of oil

Next, we will observe what happens when the oil like that that spilled in the Deepwater Horizon disaster coats the plants in the wetlands. Plants depend on a process called evapotranspiration to survive, which is a combination of both evaporation and transpiration. Water vapor evaporates from the stomata (or pores) in the leaves of the plant which causes transpiration, the movement of water through the plant. When the stomata are clogged with oil, this gas exchange is blocked and plants die. We are going to see how this process works and how the oil affects the evapotranspiration.

Pass out the materials to each group. Have students coat the bottom of one paper towel strip with a few drops of oil. This will represent the stomata covered in oil. Place both strips of paper into the water making sure only the ends of the strips touch the water. After a few seconds, students will notice the strip of paper without the oil will has water climbing up it. The strip with the oil on the bottom does not. This represents how evapotranspiration is blocked when the plant’s stomata are clogged with oil.



What did you observe? Where is the water on each strip? What would happen to plans covered in oil like the paper towel that was covered in oil?

Guide students to understand that as oil coats the plants and clogs their stomata, the plants (and their roots) die, which further contributes to wetlands loss.

Ask students to write a summary of effects of oil on plants, and the larger ecosystem consequences of those effects.


10 minutes

For this activity, students should individually plant at least 2 seeds each. Or, if preferred, seeds can be planted by the teacher at any point.

Materials per student

  • two Fava, Lima, or similar beans
  • two Paper towels
  • two Ziplock bags

Finally, we will be sprouting a seed so that it can begin growing over the next few weeks. In a future lesson, we will make changes that cause some of these plants to be unhealthy and some to remain healthy. Then we will learn how to tell the difference between the two.

Pass out materials to each student. Have them dampen the paper towel and place it in the ziplock bag next to the beans. Leave this bag in a sunny spot in the classroom, such as taped to a window. Over the next few weeks, you’ll need to make sure the paper towel remains damp but not soaked as the bean begins to sprout and grow.


15 minutes

Let students guide the discussion about the day’s lesson and present their hypotheses before discussing explanations.

Why are the wetlands important?

What is happening to the wetlands of Louisiana today?

What are some of the effects of drilling along the Gulf Coast?

Homework Assignment

Ask students to synthesize the information they have learned today by writing a short paper including an introduction to wetlands and oils spills, consequences and lessons learned from the Deep Horizon oil spill, and their postulations about what government, industry, and community members should do in regards to remediation, wetlands protection, and future oil and gas development.


For News Article Reading activity:

  1. Article 1: A year after the spill, “unusual” rise in health problems.

  2. Article 2: Gulf Spill Dispersants Surprisingly Long-lasting

  3. Article 3: Oil-Coated Gulf Birds Better Off Dead?

  4. Article 4: Gulf Spill Photos: 9 Animal Victims—Plus 2 Survivors

  5. Article 5: Deepwater Horizon: After the oil

  6. Map of the Gulf Coast and the offshore drilling in the area

  7. The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: Coastal Wetland and Wildlife Impacts and Response

  8. National Geographic lesson on wildlife and the oil spill

  9. Article about the impacts of the oil spill on the wetlands and the local economy

  10. Information on importance of and types of life found in wetlands.

  11. Focus on importance of Louisiana’s wetlands and reasons they are disappearing.

  12. Article detailing the reasons wetlands are disappearing and including an excellent graphic of how much land has disappeared in the last few decades.


Subsidence: The gradual caving in or sinking of an area of land

Wetlands: Saturated land such as marshes, swamps, and bogs.

Booms: Floating barriers used to contain oil spills.

Skimmers: A machine the removes oil floating on top of water

Absorbents: Materials used to absorb oil.

Dispersants: A chemical that breaks up oil spilled in water into small particles that can be dispersed by waves and wind.

Dredging: Cleaning out an area of water by scooping our mud, plants, and other material with a dredge.

Evapotranspiration: The process by which water is transferred from the land to the atmosphere by evaporation from the soil and other surfaces and by transpiration from plants.

Stomata: Pores, found in the epidermis of leaves, stems and other organs that are used to control gas exchange.