Fragile Waters

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In this activity (on pages 18-29) learners explore the impact of the March 24, 1989 oil spill in Alaska caused by the Exxon Valdez tanker. First they use a map to track the movement of the spill over 56 days. Learners then explore how oil behaves in water by examining the relative weight of water vs. oil, and the properties of oil. They test how oil damages various natural materials such as bird feathers, fur fabric, plants, shells, and rocks, and then try water and detergent to see which cleaning methods work best.

Quick Guide

Preparation Time:
10 to 30 minutes

Learning Time:
1 to 2 hours

Estimated Materials Cost:
$5 - $10 per group of students

Age Range:
Ages 8 - 14

Resource Types:
Activity, Experiment/Lab Activity

English, Spanish

Materials List (per group of students)

  • Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Map (optional)
  • 1 newspaper to cover work area
  • Scale -- gram wts.
  • 3 baby food jars
  • 1 quart motor oil
  • water
  • plastic pipet or dropper
  • 2 paper towels
  • plastic spoons
  • cup of motor oil
  • feathers, fur fabric
  • small rocks, sea shells
  • parsley or carrot tops
  • small brush
  • cotton balls
  • shallow pan
  • hot water
  • Liquid Dawn detergent


  • Earth and Space Science
    • Earth Structure
      • Oceans and Water
  • Engineering and Technology
    • Engineering
      • Ocean Engineering
  • Life Sciences
    • Ecology
      • Human Impact
  • Physical Sciences
    • Chemistry
      • Solutions
  • The Nature of Science
    • The Scientific Process
      • Asking Questions
      • Conducting Investigations
      • Gathering Data
      • Formulating Explanations
  • The Nature of Technology
    • Technology and Society
      • Impacts of Technology
      • Technology and the Environment
    • The Design Process
      • Research and Development

Informal Categories

  • Animals
  • Nature and Environment


To use this activity, learners need to:

  • see
  • touch

Learning styles supported:

  • Involves teamwork and communication skills
  • Uses STEM to solve real-world problems
  • Involves hands-on or lab activities

Designed specifically for

  • Rural dweller

Culture, ethnicity, and gender

  • Girls

    • Explicity developed for this group


Foreign language versions of this resource:

Components that are part of this resource:

Includes alignment to state and/or national standards:

This resource is part of:

Access Rights:

  • Free access


Source Collection

  • Science After School Consumer's Guide

Funding Sources:

  • National Science Foundation Informal Science Education Program
  • Howard Hughes Medical Institute