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Incorporating the Gulf of Mexico Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill into Geomicrobiology Courses

published Sep 20, 2010 9:59am

Annette Summers Engel, Louisiana State University

Geomicrobiology is one of the most recent, cutting-edge interdisciplinary fields in the geological and biological sciences. Geomicrobiologists are concerned with understanding how microorganisms control important geological processes, such as mineral dissolution and precipitation, as well as how microbes regulate the distribution of elements in diverse environments at and below the Earth's surfaces. As microbes shape their habitats, the environment changes geochemically and physically. These changes, in turn, exert control over the evolution and structure of microbial communities. From fossils and biochemical tracers, scientists are provided a legacy of microbially mediated processes through time.

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill off of the coast of Louisiana was a daily challenge to many citizens in the Gulf of Mexico region, including students at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. Even months after the Macondo well blowout, and following top-kill, relief well, and capping attempts that eventually stopped the flow of oil into the Gulf, the local news has kept the oil spill fresh in everyone's minds. Considering that there are many points of confusion about the oil spill, including the fundamentals about how oil forms, where it comes from, and how hydrocarbons are or can be degraded, I thought there were many facets of the oil spill that I could incorporate into my existing geomicrobiology courses.

For the past six years, I have taught an upper-division, interdisciplinary undergraduate and graduate course in Geomicrobiology, with students from the biology, geology, and agricultural departments. The main course objective is to provide students with knowledge of the field of geomicrobiology by examining current scientific studies and discipline advances. The course covers a variety of topics, including the origins of life, geomicrobiological methods, microbial metabolism, microbial ecology, molecular methods and metagenomics, subsurface microbiology, the hydrogen cycle, the carbon cycle, carbonate geochemistry, climate change, silicate geomicrobiology and soils, the sulfur cycle, and metal metabolism.

At Louisiana State University, the Geomicrobiology course is Communication Intensive, designated as such by the Communication Across the Curriculum program. The course is supposed to develop and improve students' written, spoken, visual presentation, and technological communication skills. The course is also run through Moodle to encourage the dissemination and utilization of technological tools. Therefore, changes that I planned to make to the course content could not alter the communication components. In retrospect, I think that I increased the diversity of communication components by incorporating the oil spill into the course.

Prior to the start of the semester, a questionnaire was filled out by 20 of the 22 students. Students were asked to rate their confidence that they knew the answer to "Microorganisms play an important role in the formation and degradation of hydrocarbons by...". Answer choices ranged from "I am confident that my answer would be 100% correct" to "I am confident that my answer would be incorrect." In response, 85% of the students claimed that they had 50% or less confidence in answering the question correctly. Clearly, the students had much to learn.

The first week's writing and discussion assignment was to link the information from a news report about the oil spill microbiology (e.g., BBC News, CNN, etc.) to what is known of the estimated microbial biomass in different earth habitats based on reading a scientific paper. In the past, students could pick any news item, on any microbe, from any environment; this resulted in a fragmented discussion due to every student's desire to tell their own, different story about their news report. This year, with the common oil spill theme, the discussion focused on the nuances of the media reports, and students were able to reconstruct a time line for oil spill research and response. Additionally, the news articles were used to demonstrate the differences between journalistic and scientific writing styles.

A large, new project is planned that will be based on the recent scientific papers coming out about the oil spill microbiology, which is primarily from deep-sea habitats, and a cooperative group experiment to simulate microbial hydrocarbon degradation from sand, gravel, and muds. Published research results from coastal habitats are not readily available yet, and so the contrast between what is now known from marine habitats to the experimental results simulating nearshore microbial habitats, will be possible. From this investigative project, students will learn about the differences in the nature and behavior of dispersants in open water versus sediments (using soap), as well as about abiotic degradation processes (e.g., photodegradation) versus the metabolic processes that stimulate faster degradation rates (i.e. aerobic versus anaerobic metabolism). The experiment will run for three weeks, and student groups will submit a summary report based on their quantitative findings and how their findings compare to Deepwater Horizon oil spill research. The expectation is that each group will share their findings to the entire class orally. Even though we still have a couple weeks before beginning the experiments, students are already asking about them – they want to know what papers to read to prepare for the experiments.

In summary, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill will have lingering effects to the Gulf of Mexico region, including some yet to be determined. However, this semester, for geomicrobiology students at Louisiana State University, the oil spill is being viewed in a constructive way to enhance student learning, communication skills, and scientific practices.

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