Spill Spread

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In this simulation, learners explore how ocean currents spread all kinds of pollution—including oil spills, sewage, pesticides and factory waste—far beyond where the pollution originates. Learners create an experimental "ocean" (water in a tray) and "continents" (rocks), then add melting ice cubes to create temperature-driven currents in the water. Learners observe how "pollution," represented by food coloring, spreads through the model ocean affected by both "currents" and "continents." This activity can be used with lessons on ocean science or environmental hazards.

Quick Guide

Preparation Time:
Under 5 minutes

Learning Time:
10 to 30 minutes

Estimated Materials Cost:
1 cent - $1 per group of students

Age Range:
Ages 8 - 14

Resource Types:
Activity, Model, Simulation


Materials List (per group of students)

  • Clear, shallow tray or salad container (1½” to 2” deep)
  • Water
  • 2 rocks (about ¼ size of a brick) or upside down coffee cups
  • Food coloring (blue, red, yellow, green)
  • One large ice cube or several small ones
  • Newspaper
  • Measuring cup


  • Earth and Space Science
    • Earth Structure
      • Oceans and Water
  • Life Sciences
    • Ecology
      • Human Impact
  • Physical Sciences
    • Chemistry
      • Solutions
  • The Nature of Science
    • The Scientific Process
      • Conducting Investigations

Informal Categories

  • Nature and Environment


To use this activity, learners need to:

  • see
  • see color
  • touch

Learning styles supported:

  • Uses STEM to solve real-world problems
  • Involves hands-on or lab activities


This resource is part of:

Access Rights:

  • Free access



  • All rights reserved, The Regents of the University of California, 2007