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Oil Oil Everywhere

  • Lesson
Number and OperationsMeasurement
Lisa Cartwright
Garifield, WA

Oil spills are in the news. To make real-world connections, this lesson provides hands-on experiences with mixing oil and water, provides surface area information about the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and gives students opportunities to estimate small oil spills of their own making.

OilOilEverywhere PHOTO OilSpillStart a class discussion about oil spills in the news and their effects on the environment. If your students remember the 2010 Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill, the discussion could begin there. Early, accurate area measurements for that spill were difficult to locate; as more oil spread, it broke up, and sunk. Weeks after the leak began in April, 2010, descriptions of surface area were no longer used. The following rough numbers were based on information broadcast by National Public Radio:

DateApproximate Area (sq mi)
Before 4/28/101,045

No matter what oil spills have occurred within your students' memories, you can have them research information. Have students search resources such as Scholastic News Online for "Oil Spills." Students should take notes on what they learn.

Prior to the lesson, form your students into groups of 3 or 4 and gather a cake pan for each small group. Prepare a transparency of the 10×10 unit grid for each pan using the Oil Oil Everywhere Grid Activity Sheet.

pdficon Oil Oil Everywhere Grid Activity Sheet 

Demonstrate the process of creating an oil spill for the students by using a document camera. Fill the pan with about 1 to 1 1/2 inches of water. Measure 3 to 5 tablespoons of oil and pour gently into the pan in one place. Less than 3 tablespoons may result in a small area (less than 10 square units) which may be too easily counted by the students. The oil should touch the water directly and not come into contact with the side of the pan; otherwise the oil may stick to the sides.

If the oil forms more than one rounded area, use the spoon and gently move the spills together. Show students that slow movements work best; if the oil moves too quickly it divides into smaller and smaller droplets. This is a cross-curricular connection to science, as constant wave actions breaks up oil in the ocean. However, for this activity the oil spill needs to stay intact.


Show and discuss the Oil Oil Everywhere Grid Activity Sheet transparency with the students. Ask them to observe the grid; explain that each square on the grid is called a square unit. Pour 3 to 5 tablespoons of oil into each group's pan and have students observe their spill. Using the square units, ask students to estimate the size of their oil spill and write their prediction on the Oil Oil Everywhere Activity Sheet.

pdficon Oil Oil Everywhere Activity Sheet 

Have students carefully hold the transparency across the top of the pan. With a non-permanent marker, one student can trace the outside edge of the oil spill, disregarding the grid lines on the transparency. Remove each transparencies from its pan, place on a piece of white paper so it is easily seen, and set it aside.

Use the Fractional Amount Overhead and demonstrate how to find an estimated unit total. Students work in half or whole square units to estimate their oil spill. Take one color pen and color a variety of units that would estimate to a whole unit. Then, take a second color pen and color a variety of units that students would estimate to be about 1/2. The whole and half units are added together to arrive at the total estimate. With the students, use the same process and estimate the oil spill at the bottom of the Overhead for group practice.

1110 overhead Fractional Amount Overhead 

Students then take their own transparency, estimate the area of their oil spill, and write their estimation on their individual activity sheet. Have students compare their prediction to the estimate and determine how close they were. Direct each student to write a comparison statement on the activity sheet. For example: "My prediction was 3 square units more than my estimation." Have students share predicted and estimated whole number units for each group's spills. Clean off each transparency.

Students next use spoons and gently pull the oil spills into different shapes. If the spill divides, it can stay in two pieces or gently be formed into one spill again. The goal is to have a shape distinct from the previous more rounded one. Instruct students to keep the oil away from the sides as much as they can; a tendril-like shape is optimal. The oil tends to eventually move back into a rounded form. Move the oil slowly, and then let it stabilize.

Have students make a new prediction of area and record it on the activity sheet. Then hold the transparency onto the pan in a quick and smooth manner and trace the area of the new shape of spill. Students remove the transparency and estimate the area as they did before. They record the estimate and write a comparison statement for the second, differently shaped oil spill.

Wrap up the hands-on part of the lesson by using these questions to spur student thinking:

  • What surprised you about the interactions between the oil and water?
    [Answers will vary. Students may not have understood that oil and water really do not mix, that the oil floats on top of the water, etc.]
  • Did you expect that the area of the oil spill would remain the same no matter its shape? Why did you think that?
    [Answers will vary. It makes sense that the area would remain constant since no other oil was introduced.]
  • If your oil spill changed its area measurement, what do you think is happening to account for that?
    [Though we know the oil amount has not increased, some oil may sink, stick to the sides or bottom of the pan, spread more thinly on the surface, etc.]

Pose one question at a time and have students talk in their groups. Have students share their answer using popcorn sharing. Set a timer for 2 (or more) minutes and have students randomly "pop" (stand) up around the room one at a time to share their ideas. Do this for each question. Having heard many comments from other students, they can then complete Question 8 on the activity sheet. Student answers should reflect ideas discussed during the popcorn sharing.

Strengthen the connection between the activity and real life. Revisit and discuss the information students researched about oil spills and the effects on the environment. Since students have created oil spills, they can compare and contrast real-life knowledge to the activity and complete Question 9 on the activity sheet. Students can also reflect on the accuracy of measuring real oil spills. In real life it is sometimes unknown how much oil has been released into the water. The oil can stick to objects, be mixed into the water, break up into many parts on the surface, and sink to the bottom, etc. It is therefore very difficult to measure oil spills; once a lot of oil is released and days or weeks go by, oil spills are not usually described in terms of surface area.

Have each group of students draw one of their oil spills on graph paper (1-inch grid). They can draw it to scale and label the estimated area. Next, have each group reflect on real-life and classroom oil spills and write four different statements, each detailing a likeness or a contrast between the two. Lastly, have students glue the drawing onto a poster board, adding the compare/contrast statements, a title, etc.


  • Gordemer, B. (Producer/Director), & Goodwyn, W. (Interviewer). (2010, April 28). [Interview with JOHN HOUSTON, MARY LANDRY, CHARLIE HENRY, DOUG SUTTLES]. Morning edition. [Radio broadcast]. Washington, DC: National Public Radio, WAMU.
  • Winkler, A. (Producer), & Block, M. (Interviewer). (2010, April 27). [Interview with Doug Helton]. All things considered. [Radio broadcast]. Washington, DC: National Public Radio, WAMU.
  • Winkler, A. (Producer), & Raz, G. (Interviewer). (2010, May 1). [Interview with Greg Allen]. All things considered. [Radio broadcast]. Washington, DC: National Public Radio, WAMU.

Assessment Options 

  1. Create a grid with an oil spill traced on it. The oil should fill some boxes only partially so that students need to estimate to the half or whole square unit. Just as in the lesson, have students use two colors to indicate their whole units and half units. Have them count and estimate the two addends and provide an estimated area measurement for the oil spill.
  2. Tell students to create an oil spill covering about ½ the grid copied onto paper. They should make a quick sketch to look like a spill (a rounded shape), so no actual counting of squares allowed (the target is 50 squares). Next, they use the method from the lesson to come up with the actual numerical estimation for their spill.


  1. Estimations can be made to smaller fractional units such as quarter units.
  2. The Oil Oil Everywhere Grid Activity Sheet is a 10×10; students can work using percentages instead of square units.
  3. What will happen if a student doubles the amount of oil in their spill? Will the area of the spill also double? If you use the same amount of corn oil, will the areas differ in size? Turn the lesson into a science investigation by testing variables such as type of oil, amount of oil, temperature of water, etc.
  4. As volume is taught, ask students if they can create a spill where volume is more easily observed. Challenge them to increase the thickness of the oil layer. (Hint: Use ice water).

Questions for Students 

1. How easy was it to decide if a partial square was closer to 1/2 or 1 whole square unit?

[Answers will vary, students may even arrive at different conclusions, and need to discuss.]

2. Did rounding your fractional amounts to the whole number make your estimate more or less accurate?

[Students should have some concept that if more amounts were rounded up or down then the estimate would be higher or lower than the actual units.]

3. Read your comparison statements. Was your predicted or estimated area larger? Was this the same for both the rounded and shaped oil spills? How does this compare with another group?

[Answers will vary. Students may see patterns in others' predictions and estimations, such as, "Most groups predicted higher than the actual estimations."]

Teacher Reflection 
  • How successful was the estimation using fractional units? Did students have good strategies to deal with the half squares?
  • How motivating was it for students to work with the oil and water? Was it motivating to the point of being problematic?
  • What management techniques were most successful and were your behavior expectations followed? If not, what would improve the lesson management next time?
  • Did students make connections between the action of their oil spills and real life spills? What important concepts did they take away with them?
  • What might you change about the lesson the next time you use it?

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Predict, estimate, and record the area of a surface covered by oil.
  • Predict, estimate, and record how area changes when oil spills are split, moved, and/or recombined.
  • Use whole and fractional amounts to estimate.

NCTM Standards and Expectations

  • Develop and use strategies to estimate the results of whole-number computations and to judge the reasonableness of such results.
  • Develop strategies for estimating the perimeters, areas, and volumes of irregular shapes.

Common Core State Standards – Mathematics

Grade 3, Num & Ops Fractions

  • CCSS.Math.Content.3.NF.A.1
    Understand a fraction 1/b as the quantity formed by 1 part when a whole is partitioned into b equal parts; understand a fraction a/b as the quantity formed by a parts of size 1/b.

Grade 3, Measurement & Data

  • CCSS.Math.Content.3.MD.A.2
    Measure and estimate liquid volumes and masses of objects using standard units of grams (g), kilograms (kg), and liters (l). Add, subtract, multiply, or divide to solve one-step word problems involving masses or volumes that are given in the same units, e.g., by using drawings (such as a beaker with a measurement scale) to represent the problem.

Grade 3, Measurement & Data

  • CCSS.Math.Content.3.MD.B.4
    Generate measurement data by measuring lengths using rulers marked with halves and fourths of an inch. Show the data by making a line plot, where the horizontal scale is marked off in appropriate units-- whole numbers, halves, or quarters.

Grade 3, Measurement & Data

  • CCSS.Math.Content.3.MD.C.6
    Measure areas by counting unit squares (square cm, square m, square in, square ft, and improvised units).

Grade 3, Geometry

  • CCSS.Math.Content.3.G.A.2
    Partition shapes into parts with equal areas. Express the area of each part as a unit fraction of the whole. For example, partition a shape into 4 parts with equal area, and describe the area of each part as 1/4 of the area of the shape.

Grade 4, Measurement & Data

  • CCSS.Math.Content.4.MD.A.2
    Use the four operations to solve word problems involving distances, intervals of time, liquid volumes, masses of objects, and money, including problems involving simple fractions or decimals, and problems that require expressing measurements given in a larger unit in terms of a smaller unit. Represent measurement quantities using diagrams such as number line diagrams that feature a measurement scale.

Grade 5, Num & Ops Fractions

  • CCSS.Math.Content.5.NF.B.3
    Interpret a fraction as division of the numerator by the denominator (a/b = a ÷ b). Solve word problems involving division of whole numbers leading to answers in the form of fractions or mixed numbers, e.g., by using visual fraction models or equations to represent the problem. For example, interpret 3/4 as the result of dividing 3 by 4, noting that 3/4 multiplied by 4 equals 3, and that when 3 wholes are shared equally among 4 people each person has a share of size 3/4. If 9 people want to share a 50-pound sack of rice equally by weight, how many pounds of rice should each person get? Between what two whole numbers does your answer lie?

Common Core State Standards – Practice

  • CCSS.Math.Practice.MP1
    Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.
  • CCSS.Math.Practice.MP4
    Model with mathematics.
  • CCSS.Math.Practice.MP5
    Use appropriate tools strategically.
  • CCSS.Math.Practice.MP7
    Look for and make use of structure.