STREAM Activity: Environmental Engineering

Become a chemical engineer and come up with ways to clean an oil spill!

Activity best for children age 3 and up

Engineers are problem solvers and they help make our world a better, safer place to be. One type of engineer is a Chemical Engineer. They work with chemicals to create things like medicine, soap, new types of fuel, and they help solve problems like pollution. Pollution is when our air, water, soil get dirty and becomes unsafe for people and animals. One way that the oceans become dirty is when there is an oil spill. Oil is an important chemical that helps us in many ways, but if it spills in the water it creates an unsafe mess. Chemical engineers design and create ways to clean up this mess. With the activity today you can be a chemical engineer at home and come up with ways to clean up a mini oil spill and learn why chemical engineers are important in helping make our world a safer place.

Mael Balland 5Vc6oZ33gNM Unsplash

Materials you’ll need:

Cotton balls


2 Containers



Dish soap


Pipe cleaners


Optional: Cocoa powder or food coloring

Guiding Questions:

How does the oily water feel on your fingers? Would this be good for animals? How would it harm the animals?

What materials do you think will help clean up the oil? 

What materials won’t work?

Do oil and water mix?

What will the soap do? Or won’t do?


With a grown-up’s help gather your materials. This is a messy experiment so it is best to do this outside.

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Add some water to one of your containers.

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In another container mix the oils with a few drops of food coloring or a small amount of cocoa powder. This is optional but it helps to make the “oil spill” more visible in the water. 

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Pour the “oil spill” into the container that has the water. Watch what happens. Do the oil and the water mix together? Use some of the materials you have to try to clean up the oil.

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Now add some soap. What has happened? Is it easier to clean up the oil with the soap? The soap breaks up the oil into small blobs that are then easy to scoop up.

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See how long it takes to clean up the oil with and without soap. Which way works better, faster? Which way takes longer and maybe does not work?

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Grown ups, are you looking for more ways to extend your child’s learning? Check out these extension activities to build upon today’s STREAM activity!

Reading Connection
I am Marie Curie  by Brad Meltzer
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Science Connections
Chemical engineers create everything from soap to ziplock bags. Can you find something in your house that was created by a chemical engineer? Nail polish, slime, glue and plastic cups are some items that you might find.

Real-World Connections 
Did you know that cooking and baking is like being a chemical engineer? When you cook you are mixing different chemicals (ones that are safe to eat) together. Try baking a cake with a grown up and observe the different reactions that happen to the cake. Did the cake go from being liquid ingredients into a solid cake? Did it rise and get fluffy or stay flat? Does it have a different smell from before you cooked it? These are some of the different chemical reactions that happen when a cake is made.