Scientists team with high school students on oil spill research

The BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill may have been nearly four years ago, but scientists are still analyzing the after effects of the disaster that threatened the Gulf Coast.

And now, they’re bringing in high school students to help.

On Feb. 28, a research team from Florida State University and the Massachusetts-based Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution will be joined by about 25 Pensacola-area high school students from West Florida High School of Advanced Technology to scour a nearby beach in Perdido Key for oil patties that formed as a result of the Deepwater Horizon blowout.

“An activity like this creates excitement for the students,” said Eric Chassignet, director of the Deep-C Consortium and the Center for Ocean-Atmospheric Prediction Studies, which houses the consortium’s efforts at FSU. “It’s real research. They’re out there with actual scientists, collecting samples. And it provides researchers with needed samples from the Gulf of Mexico.”

The Deep-C research project is a long-term study investigating the environmental consequences of oil released in the deep Gulf on living marine resources and ecosystem health.

The patties — about a half inch wide— can reveal how oil released in the ocean is degrading and how it is impacting the environment, explained Chassignet.

Said Chassignet: “We are trying to determine what happens to the oil after it is released. Where does it go? How does it end up as patties along the beach? And how does it affect the local ecology?”

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill is considered the largest accidental oil spill in the history of the oil industry, dumping roughly 4.9 million barrels — or 210million gallons — of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

BP, as part of its cleanup efforts, set aside millions of dollars for research. The Deep-C Consortium, which consists of 10 universities and research institutions, received a three-year, $20 million grant from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) to conduct research and educational outreach.

Amelia Vaughan, an education and outreach coordinator with Deep-C Consortium, has been making regular trips to Pensacola to help train students for the upcoming trip.

“It can be hard for students to conceptualize what science or what research is,” Vaughan said. “But with this, they’ll be out in the field seeing what it’s really like.”

Students, alongside their mentors from FSU and Woods Hole, will spend several hours at two sites on the beach collecting these oil patties and placing them in glass sample jars. These samples will then be immediately sent to Woods Hole for analysis.

Additionally, each student’s sample will receive a tracking number so that the students can follow the path of the patties and learn what scientific information they revealed.