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Over the past several decades, wildlife around the world has faced habitat encroachment, environmental contamination, and other human influences on the natural world. As more and more animals are threatened by shrinking habitats, global climate changes, and environmental contamination, people are examining what can be done to minimize the risk and maximize the response to such problems.

In the recent past, oil spills and contamination have caused major problems with bird populations throughout the world. Birds' habitats are destroyed and their bodies are covered with oil, which historically has ended in an extremely high mortality rate in the affected bird populations. Fortunately, a method of mitigating some of the consequences for wildlife has been found by the International Bird Rescue Research Center (IBRRC). In a partnership with Dawn , the IBRRC has found a safe way of rehabilitating and cleaning some of the birds affected by oil spills. Their work on the Dawn Save-A-Duck Campaign has been highlighted by the National Geographic Channel.

In this lesson, students will explore the causes and effects of events such as oil spills and contaminations. They will then experience first-hand the feel of oil spills, determine an environmental problem that affects their community, and develop an "action plan" to minimize the risk to one form of wildlife. Finally, they will examine ways in which public and private organizations partner to keep the environment, and its wildlife, healthy.

Connections to the Curriculum:
Geography, science (physical, Earth, environmental), zoology
Connections to the National Geography Standards:
Standard 14: "How human actions modify the physical environment"
Standard 18: "How to apply geography to interpret the present and plan for the future"
Two to three hours

Materials Required:
  • Computer with Internet access
  • Chocolate syrup
  • Corn syrup
  • Vegetable oil
  • Paper towels
  • Dishwashing liquid, such as Dawn
  • Water
  • Several small, clear plastic cups (1-2 for each student)
  • A variety of non-toxic cleaning solutions, either powder or liquid (dishwashing liquid, laundry detergent, bubble bath, shampoo, conditioner)
  • A variety of non-toxic household liquids or powders (baby powder, salt, vinegar, tonic water, sugar, baking soda, etc.)
  • Wax paper
  • Several plastic spoons
  • Craft feathers
  • Gauze
Students will
  • determine the cause of events leading to animal rescues;
  • describe how birds are affected by oil spills;
  • identify methods to minimize the environmental impact on animal habitats; and
  • develop a plan to address an identified local environmental problem.
Geographic Skills:
Asking Geographic Questions
Acquiring Geographic Information
Organizing Geographic Information
Answering Geographic Questions
Analyzing Geographic Information

S u g g e s t e d   P r o c e d u r e
Explain that for the next few classes, and with a demonstration, students will be exploring a real world problem, its causes, effects, and possible solutions.
Have students use the GeoExplorer to read about oil spills around the world. Ask students to try to identify the causes of the oil spills as they read each of the articles. [If your students do not have Internet access, you may provide them with printouts of articles from the sites referenced in "Related Links."]

After students have finished, explain that while oil spills are well known sources of oil contamination in the world, only 15% of the estimated 29 million gallons of petroleum that find their way to the northern American ocean waters come from tanker and pipeline spills. Most of the spilled oil actually comes from airplanes, small boats and jet skis!

Arrange students into groups of three to five. Explain that they will be performing an investigation in their groups.

Give each group of students one of the following in a large bowl: chocolate syrup, corn syrup or vegetable oil, and one feather. Then, instruct each group of students to do the following:

  1. Assign one student to be the "observer."
  2. Assign one student to be the "coordinator."
  3. Assign one or more students to be a "tester."
Next, give each group of students a data record sheet (PDF, Adobe Acrobat Reader required). Explain to the students that they will be recording observations related to an unidentified problem and that they should carefully follow the steps outlined in the data record sheet.

Using the data record sheet, students will use a variety of liquid substances to simulate what it feels like to be covered in oil. First, they will pour their liquid into a bowl. Then, they will rub their hands in the liquid, followed by rubbing the liquid onto their forearms. During and after this activity, they will reflect on what it may feel like for an animal to be caught in an oil spill.

As students complete the data record sheet, circulate around the room to assist students with questions or practical concerns. When it is time for students to clean up, have students use a paper towel that has been soaked in water and a drop of dishwashing liquid to wipe off excess oil to minimize the amount of oil washed down the drain, then finish washing their arms in the sink.

Regroup the students into a whole group for a discussion of their results. Have the groups take turns sharing their data record sheets.

Explain to students that they will now be exploring the effects of oil spills, along with some possible remedies. Have students read one of the following articles, which describe the effect of oil spills on birds and how rescuers rehabilitated the birds.

National Geographic News: Shampooing to Stop Oil Spill Bird Deaths
National Geographic News: Exxon Valdez Spill, 15 Years Later—Damage Lingers

Prior to the start of the activity, arrange all of the household powders (baby powder, salt, baking soda, etc.), liquids (dishwashing liquid, laundry detergent, vinegar, etc.) and objects (paper towels, wax paper, gauze, spoons, etc.) on one "test table" in the classroom. Make sure that each material is clearly labeled.

  • Tell the students that since they now understand the problem (oil spills), cause (tankers and environmental contaminants), and effect (high mortality rate among birds), they will try to find a solution.
  • Explain that they will be acting as researchers and scientists to test a variety of household powders, liquids, and objects to see which of those items will help clean up an oil spill.
  • Arrange students into groups of three to five. Give each group of students several plastic cups filled with water and one cup filled with vegetable oil. Have each group pour one tablespoon of oil into the water in each cup. Explain to students that each cup represents an oil spill.
  • In turns, have students collect several samples from the test table.
  • Then, explain that they should put one sample in each test cup, stir and observe the effects.
  • Have students record their results on a piece of paper. [If your students are familiar with the scientific method, have them write down their hypothesis, procedure, and results on the page.]
  • After all students have completed the activity, have each group share their results with the rest of the class by describing their test sample, their procedure, and their results.

Explain to the students that having the solution to a problem is only the first step in actually solving a problem. Rather, planning for and implementing that solution is how the problem is finally solved.

Arrange students in pairs or small groups at computer stations. Have students explore the following links to learn about existing environmental issues and how different people are solving those problems.

National Geographic News: Rescue of Baby Hooded Seal in U.S. Hits a Snag
National Geographic News: Scientists Prepare for Risky Rescue of Endangered Whale

Then, have students identify problems that affect their community. Be prepared to provide some examples such as factory pollution, manatee injuries, acid rain, etc.

Finally, have students research and describe the problem, its cause, its effects, and some possible solutions for the negative effects.

Conclude by having students visit the Kratt Brothers' Be the Creature website. The Creature Heroes and Backyard Conservationist sections of the site encourage children to help wildlife in their communities.

Suggested Student Assessment:
Have students share their ideas with the class and brainstorm ideas to help solve the local problem. Students should write down their individual ideas for a plan. Display the plans in a prominent location in your classroom.
Extending the Lesson:
Explain to students that much of the success of marine animal rescue programs can be attributed to partnerships between businesses and organizations. Just as Dawn has supplied the International Bird Rescue Research Center with thousands of gallons of dishwashing liquid, other businesses are chipping in both to help avoid events leading to the need for animal rescues and to provide support during rescues.

Have students read one of the following articles about how scientists, government and private organizations, and businesses are joining forces to help wildlife around the world.

Getting the Lead Out: Earth Day 2004
National Geographic News: Scientists Mount Assault to Save Endangered Right Whales
Conservation Partners

Have your students think about businesses that might have something to offer an animal rescue or environmental conservation effort. Then have students consider a local conservation effort. Finally, in small groups, have students brainstorm types of businesses that could support those efforts through funds, services, or products.

Related Links: