4th graders in "First Lego League" learning about oil spill prevention

Studying a capsize in the Soup Bowl Sea

Studying a capsize in the Soup Bowl Sea

How some 4th graders created a new program

Why are we impressed with some 4th graders at Dos Puentes elementary school in Washington Heights?

Because they are the first people to ask to visit our retired oil tanker MARY A. WHALEN specifically to learn about an oil tanker and how to prevent oil spills! 

These kids are in the First Lego League, designed to teach and grow interest in STEM topics, which has been implemented as an after school program at Dos Puentes. The kids have to make something robotics as a part of the program.  

PortSide New York is especially suited to address these questions because the MARY A. WHALEN is the only oil tanker in the world open for public culture and education. She is also the last of her kind in the USA.

Hearing that these students wanted to learn about oil tankers, here’s what we did.  

Making the NYC Ferry trip to us an education

  • We told told them to take NYC Ferry to us because they would probably see tugs pushing fuel barges in the East River and they would definitely see Vane and Bouchard fuel barges docked on Red Hook piers 7 and 8.  They might see barges fueling a container ship or cruise ship on their way into Atlantic Basin.
  • We sent them links to the webpages for the barge fleets of Vane and Bouchard and for tugboatinformation.com plus how to spot draft marks, fuel hoses, and the bravo flag indicating a loaded barge, etc.  Those fleet lists also show how small our MARY A. WHALEN is relative to modern fuel consumption.
  • We gave them the link to Marine Traffic so they could look up where super tankers are in the harbor (and explained that coastal fuel barges don’t show up on that website since they don't carry AIS transponders.)
  • We gave them info about Exxon Valdez oil spill and told them about the resulting Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA 90). We kept it simple about OPA90 at this point and explained its mandate for double hulls since hull puncture was one of their big concerns.
Bouchard fuel barge on Pier 7, seen from NYC Ferry using dock at Brooklyn Bridge Park Pier 6

Bouchard fuel barge on Pier 7, seen from NYC Ferry using dock at Brooklyn Bridge Park Pier 6

Once they were here, we gave them some info about the MARY A. WHALEN and explained several ways an oil spill could occur (in 4th grade language):

1.    crashing into something (a bridge, a ship)
2.    going aground and puncturing a hole in the hull (with info about double and single hulls)
3.    crew mistake causes a spill while pumping fuel on or off
4.    something bursts or breaks

For situation 3, we asked “how would you prevent an oil spill on deck from running into the water? See if you can find a solution on deck.”  

We gave them several minutes to hunt, and after some tips, one gal identified the oil spill containment rail that was installed in 1991 as a result of OPA 90.  Next exhibit, the higher spill rails around the on-deck pump fittings.

We followed this with an abbreviated TankerTour hitting some of our classics: fidley, telegraph, bellboat bells and speaking tubes, the wheelhouse.

Our fidley is full of attractions. This here is the telegraph which never fails to fascinate.

Our fidley is full of attractions. This here is the telegraph which never fails to fascinate.

Then, we headed to the galley for our first expo of spill clean-ups that compared absorption properties of paper and a zorb and two kinds of oil.

The sqeezy toys on the galley table given to us by Hornblower were an instant hit. The kids grabbed them and put them in the soup bowls of water.  That wasn’t our plan; but the kids were right, we needed a ship if there was going to be a spill.

We poured oil into a fat separator such as is used in cooking and poured out water so they could see the oil floating on top to understand how oil and water don’t mix.

How this oil floats on top of water (some heavy oils sink).

How this oil floats on top of water (some heavy oils sink).

Oil spill in the Soup Bowl Sea

Then, we ran tests in the Soup Bowl Sea. 

Round One was with Mazola, actually rancid Mazola that we use to coat the galley stove top; and WOW, the thickened, rancid oil changed the water surface so much that the squeezy boat immediately capsized. This was a hit.

Mazola coated paper and zorb equally.

Then we got diesel from the engine room. The authenticity of using diesel raised the thrill level.

The kids could see how the paper sucked up water and diesel the same, and the zorb only sucked up diesel.

With a pencil, we introduced turbulence and busted the diesel pool into balls of diesel in the Soup Bowl Sea. One gal moved the zorb around the bowl and collected all the diesel balls until the water was clear. Everyone was impressed and satisfied by this.

Diesel soaked zorb.

Diesel soaked zorb.

The kids and parents had questions about commercial oil spill response solutions beyond the zorbs we used and the booms and boats we described; so after they left, we sent links to oil spill products and response companies. They asked for a zorb, so we gave them one. We love this kind of hands-on education.

Thank you, Dos Puentes 4th grade First Lego League for launching our elementary school oil spill response program and for caring about our waterways!  We look forward to getting photos of your robotics that are inspired by the TankerTour of the MARY.  

Here's the response of one parent "Thank you for the tour. It was fantastic!"  

P.S.  The other special experience was ship cat Chiclet. She was a hit too.

Ship cat Chiclet was very popular.

Ship cat Chiclet was very popular.

If you would like to bring a school group here, please send an email to Chiclet@portsidenewyork.org.  We do educational programs for elementary to graduate students on diverse WaterStories topics. See our education webpage for more info. We also have an e-museum at Red Hook WaterStories.