Turning lemons into lemonade: Biology professor creates course to explore Gulf oil spill
January is a time on Centre College’s campus where students take and professors teach just one course for three intensive weeks. And during CentreTerm, many courses aren’t designed around traditional college subjects—but they’re just as important.
For CentreTerm 2011, Centre biology professor Dr. Matt Klooster has created and will be teaching a course titled “Actualizing the Big Spill.” While many college students and professors have worked in the Gulf of Mexico on cleanup and other missions, few institutions have used the 2010 Gulf oil spill as the foundation for an actual course.
On April 20, 2010, an oil-drilling rig exploded off the coast of Louisiana, killing 11 and spilling oil into the water. On July 15, the leak was stopped, and in mid-September, the oil well was declared “effectively dead.” It’s Klooster’s goal to help the 15 first-year students in his course process and synthesize what happened and come to their own conclusions rather than rely on the media’s portrayal.
Klooster is co-teaching the course with Dr. Monty Graham, senior marine scientist at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab in Dauphin Island, Ala. Graham, who attended Centre before transferring to another college to be closer to the ocean, will lead the course while the students are there.
“I expect lives to be changed because of this trip,” Klooster says. “This isn’t going to be a trip to the beach, and I hope students understand that.”
Klooster says his motivation for the course is, “simply put, to turn lemons into lemonade! It’s heart wrenching to think of the negative impacts this oil spill has had on people’s lives and on wildlife. But we would be remiss not to learn from these mistakes and grow in our awareness of the environmental and social impacts associated with some risky human activities.”
During the third week of CentreTerm, the course culminates with a two-van, 1,400-mile round trip drive to Dauphin Island Sea Lab, where, as Klooster says, they’ll be spending four days on site doing “quite a bit of active research.”
The students will go into Dauphin Island to interview business owners and residents to get their stories, which they’ll juxtapose with their own opinions and media perceptions of the disaster. They’ll also visit the labs of scientists working on research related to the oil spill.
In class, they’ll use case studies, scientific manuscripts, media clippings Klooster has been saving for months and other sources to synthesize impacts of the disaster and what it means for the future of the Gulf. One of Klooster’s goals is to examine what an event like this means for folks who don’t live along the Gulf coast.
“One of my goals in this class is to teach the students that we aren’t stewards of the environment, but rather natural extensions of it,” he says. “So when we hurt it, we hurt ourselves. Major natural disasters anywhere on the globe affect us.”
Klooster has several in-class demonstrations planned, including a show of how dispersant (the same mixture of chemicals used to break up the Gulf oil) works.
He’ll also have students estimate how much water fills Centre’s Boles Natatorium, then translate that into how many swimming pools full of oil made it into the Gulf. Ultimately, it’ll amount to tens of thousands of pools, Klooster says.