Oak lawn students engage in oily experiment


HOUMA, La. — More oil was released at Oaklawn Middle School in Houma Wednesday [Sept. 22], but the disaster was contained to a 10-gallon aquarium as a scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration partnered with BP to answer eighth graders’ questions about the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

Gary Ott, science support coordinator with NOAA, demonstrated the basic science behind the oil spill and its cleanup for students using an aquarium filled with water as the Gulf of Mexico and cooking oil mixed with Hershey’s cocoa powder to represent BP’s spilled oil.

“Should you be afraid to eat shrimp?” Ott asked the library full of eighth graders. Some answered “Yes,” some said “No.”

But Ott assured them it was safe, and set out to explain why.

Ott said the presentation was aimed at dispelling fear and rumors about the BP oil spill by empowering students with knowledge through experimentation. Other presentations at local schools are planned.

“Because of fear, the wonderful people here have a lot of anxieties about the oil spill,” Ott said. “Science is about trying to make sense of the world. So if I think that oil floats on water, through science, I should do an experiment to see exactly what happens.”

Most federal and state testing has found no seafood contaminated by the oil spill. However, independent scientists have found some evidence of oil contaminants in oysters.

Using a pump at the bottom of the aquarium, Ott released the oil-cocoa mixture into the water, and students watched the oil globs rocket to the top and stay there in a slick.

“Oil floats. See, we’ve tested it,” Ott said . He explained there were natural ways for the oil to degrade by being tossed by ocean movement and exposed to the sun and air, allowing it to evaporate off its toxic components. It can also be chemically dispersed into the water column, where it’s broken down into small particles and attacked by oil-eating microbes.

A rubber ducky also went into the spill, representing oiled birds. Ott passed around oil-coated bird feathers and explained how tiny barbs keep feathers aligned in a tight coat that insulates birds and keeps them waterproof. When a bird encounters oil on the surface of the water, the oil sticks to its feathers, causing them to mat and separate, exposing the animals’ sensitive skin to extremes in temperature and often causing death.

Various other props, including an eyedropper and absorbent pads used in oil spill cleanup, were employed by students to try their hand at cleanup methods on a small scale and gauge their effectiveness. The eyedropper represented skimming with boats and boom. One student tried to pick up as much oil as she could using the eyedropper before realizing she was collecting more water than oil.

The absorbent material was used to represent absorbent booms. Although the pad could collect a lot of oil and didn’t absorb any water because it is specially made for oil cleanup, the students realized even after using the pad a lot of oil remained in the tank.

That left dispersing the oil, a tactic that’s caused a lot of worry because of fears about the chemicals in dispersants and the possibility oil is causing more damage out the deepwater Gulf of Mexico even though it can’t be seen, Ott said.

Ott placed a small drop of Dawn dishwashing detergent, which has some of the same properties as a dispersant, into the oiled aquarium. It caused a chemical reaction that broke quickly down much of the oil floating on the surface.

Of course, the oil doesn’t disappear when it’s dispersed, Ott acknowledged. It stays suspended in the water column for weeks where it can hurt some fish species. But it is broken down within weeks by hungry oil-eating microbes, he said. It’s a trade-off officials accept to keep huge slicks of oil from floating into wetlands and oiling birds, Ott said.

Sam Williams, a 13-year-old eighth grader at Oaklawn, stayed afterward with Ott to try the dispersant experiment one more time. He said he’d had some questions about the spill, but after seeing how the cleanup techniques work, he felt better about how the spill was affecting seafood.

“I pretty much didn’t know if it was okay to eat this stuff,” he said. “But now I don’t have to be afraid to eat seafood.”

Dawn LaFont, Principal of Oaklawn Elementary School, said students are hearing about the spill from their families and “are part of the worry.”

“Politically, this is going to be something that affects these kids for a long time,” LaFont said. “They need to be informed, and they got their questions answered today in a hands-on way.”

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
Cooper Law Firm

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