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Instructor Class Description

Time Schedule:

Robert Pavia
Seattle Campus

Science for Honors Students III

Evolution of an idea or concept central to the natural sciences. Intended for non-science majors. Content varies from year to year. For University Honors Program students only. Offered: Sp.

Class description

Title - Disaster Science: Exploring Marine Oil Spills and the Environment

Oil and its environmental consequences are at the center of the Climate Change debate. Could an oil spill fundamentally change U.S. domestic and international policy? Read these recent headlines to understand how it might:

“Syria's Assad accused of boosting Al-Qaeda with secret oil deals ”

“The dirtiest oil on the planet comes from those tar sands. We can't let that oil out of the ground. That's what the scientists say ”

“As ice melts, the race is on for Arctic treasures… With Arctic ice melting at record pace, the world's superpowers are increasingly jockeying for political influence and economic position ”

“A federal appeals court ruled on Jan. 22 that the decision to open almost 30 million acres to energy exploration broke the law. Greenpeace campaigners hailed Shell’s decision as a victory for efforts to abolish Arctic drilling ”

“The number of oil tankers in Washington state waters could increase almost sevenfold under a proposal by a Canadian pipeline company ”

This course explores marine oil spill science and practices in the context of social and political constraints. Students will gain knowledge of key marine science principles and apply them to contemporary issues such as Arctic oil development, fracked oils, and the BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Oil spills provide a lens for exploring the theme of knowledge across disciplines applied to real-word problems of managing marine ecosystems. Students will examine major oil spills to understand both the scientific and human dimensions of preserving ocean resources.

Oil spills can also provide a window on to how society uses science to mitigate the effects of technology. By studying the science of oil spills, students will develop skills for critically evaluating the popular portrayal of scientific concepts and their role in policy debates as a way to gain a deeper appreciation for the complexity of developing sustainable societies.

Over the past decade, there have been between 3,000 and 5,000 marine spills each year. Marine oil spills are among the most visible and potentially damaging threats to fish and wildlife, regional economies, and the people of the region in which the spill occurs. At a larger scale, spills can impact international relations, national energy policy, and even election outcomes, yet few people understand the scientific foundations for evaluating spill effects.

We will begin with an introduction to oil spills that have had a major impact on response science, technology, and policy in the United States. Each spill will illustrate key disciplines that provide the scientific foundation for mitigating spill impacts, such as physical oceanography, chemistry, geomorphology, and marine ecology. Understanding oil spills requires an interdisciplinary approach that considers both natural and social sciences. In exploring spill response science, we will examine:

• Oil spill history – legal, science, and policy frameworks

o The social and political role of oil in the United States

o Spills of the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s

o Evolution of technology and policy

• Oil spill behavior in the marine environment.

o Oil chemistry and toxicity

o Transport and fate

o Natural resources and their sensitivity

• Spill response methods for open water and shorelines.

o Mechanical and alternative response methods

o Determining how clean is clean enough

o Computer-based tools

• Natural resource and human effects

o Principles of ecological assessment

o Natural resource injury and restoration

o Science and politics in disaster response

Student learning goals

At the end of this course, the student will be able to:

Explain how oil spills behave in the marine environment, with an emphasis on effects to humans and ecosystems.

Describe, and compare the advantages and disadvantages of the basic spill response strategies and their differing impacts to the environment and humans.

Recognize the role of old and new media in communicating science and affecting policy.

List, describe, and compare the advantages and disadvantages of the basic spill response strategies and their differing impacts to the environment and humans.

Display a leadership role in the classroom community through discussion, group learning, and class presentations.

General method of instruction

Course materials and lectures will consider the backgrounds, experience, and goals of enrolled students. We expect students to be new to this topic and many to be non-science majors. The course will rely on lectures from the instructor and guest lecturers with first-hand spill experience to convey general principles and key aspects of oil spill science. Lectures will provide examples of how to apply science to improve spill response actions and reduce impacts to coastal communities. Students will learn about and apply methods to understand and evaluate spill response options. Instruction methods will use a variety of approaches beyond lectures to help promote successful learning by all students reguarless of major.

Class time will also be devoted to discussion of readings drawn from scientific literature, government policy, the popular press, and social media. Throughout the course, students will be expected to engage in critical examination of lectures and readings through peer-to-peer discussions, small group work, and short homework assignments.

There will be one group assignment where students will apply knowledge and skills gained in the class to develop alternative approaches to simulated spill of their choosing. The assignment provides an opportunity for each group to evaluate, synthesize, and apply course content.

The class concludes with an oil spill drill where students assume key decision-making roles in a hypothetical oil spill disaster.

Recommended preparation

There are no prerequisite courses required to enroll in this class. Students can prepare by reading stories on the Arctic oil development, oil shipping by rail, and oil spills as they occur.

The course will not have a required textbook. We will use chapters from National Academy Press Oil in the Sea III: Inputs, Fates, and Effects and other readings. These can be read on line or downloaded in whole for free. Other readings will be provided to students as digital documents.

Class assignments and grading

The course will strongly encourage student participation, discussion, and peer collaboration. Differing points of view are encouraged when presented in a positive context. Student can expect a high level of success if they attend lectures and complete the readings and course assignments.

Attendance and general in-class participation – 10%

Discussion briefs and short writing assignments – 20%

Quizzes – 30%

Group Project – 20%

Final Paper – 20%

Grades will be assigned using the University of Washington Standard Grading System found at:

Students will be expected to adhere to University of Washington Academic Guidelines found at:

The information above is intended to be helpful in choosing courses. Because the instructor may further develop his/her plans for this course, its characteristics are subject to change without notice. In most cases, the official course syllabus will be distributed on the first day of class.
Last Update by Robert Pavia
Date: 02/13/2014