Field trip brings Gulf oil spill into focus for Penn State students

January 04, 2011

It’s one thing to study the causes and aftermath of this summer’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s another thing to travel 1,200 miles from central Pennsylvania and wade through a marsh along the Louisiana coast.

Which is exactly why Timothy Bralower and Nancy Tuana, the faculty members teaching an honors course at Penn State this fall on the science and ethics behind the spill, hauled 24 students to New Orleans for a week in November to see for themselves what is happening along the coast six months after the country’s worst oil spill.

“It was definitely the coolest field trip ever,” said Christen Buckley, a junior in Penn State’s Schreyer Honors College pursuing majors in International Politics and Theatre. “When I first got the schedule, I was worried we’d be sitting in lecture rooms all day listening to people talk but it turned out that one day we’re at Shell Oil’s headquarters in a conference room in business clothes, and the next day we’re out on a boat at a research center. Actually going down there and talking to the people who live there totally changed my opinion as to what they think of the spill. To get the best understanding of the situation there, I learned you need to experience it and study it from different angles.”

While the field trip, which took place Nov. 13 to 19, was a marquee capstone project, the discussions and projects that took place throughout the semester met the course objectives Bralower outlined shortly after the spill. He remembers being in Houston, Texas, just days after the explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig and catching the first news reports of the disaster.

“Over the course of the summer, the story just got bigger and bigger and bigger,” said Bralower, head of the Department of Geosciences in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences. “With all of the ethical, political, and environmental conflicts involved with this, I just thought it would be a really good course to look at the spill from every angle – the geological angle, the ecological angle, and the human angle. It’s not just the science but also the social sciences that make this type of course.”

To examine the ethical issues exposed in the disaster, Bralower enlisted the support of Nancy Tuana, director of Penn State’s Rock Ethics Institute in the College of the Liberal Arts.

“Tim knew from the get-go that he had to bring ethical issues into play in looking at this event,” Tuana said. “Right up front, it was evident that any examination of the Gulf oil spill would not only look at the professional ethics about what was done at the drill site itself, but would also look at justice issues around the impact of this event in an area that is still recovering from the disaster of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Since my research specialization includes science and ethics, he immediately called me and said 'What do you think?' It was one of those offers I couldn’t refuse.”

The course, listed as "Earth 297H: The 2010 Gulf Oil Spill: Science and Ethics of a Natural Catastrophe," attracted students from across the University. While it was no surprise that there were several students studying Earth and Mineral Sciences or the interdisciplinary Energy Business and Finance major, what was unexpected was finding several International Politics and Political Science majors and two students enrolled in Hotel, Restaurant and Institutional Management on the course roster.

“It was a very diverse group of students,” Tuana said. “One of the ways we framed the class was to focus on what we as citizens would need to know about this, or by analogy another incident, to make informed decisions and contribute to a democratic society. We can’t be experts in everything but we have to have a basic understanding of the relevant facts and concepts to pursue the complexities of the issues in something like the Gulf oil spill. As citizens, we need to understand what happened from an engineering perspective, the reasons why we might conclude that drilling in the Gulf is important, what kind of risks are we accepting as a society to do deep water drilling, and the like. We’ve brought in speakers to talk about geology, ecology, engineering, ethics, the history and social context of the Gulf Region. We’ve looked at politics. We’ve looked at legislation and regulation. These students have really gotten an appreciation of the value of this kind of general education. They’ve been willing to open their minds to think about very complicated and interconnected issues.”

In addition to speakers and the New Orleans trip, the course included ethics discussions and “ethics spotting” essays, student reactions to new articles which addressed ongoing developments in the spill aftermath.

“One of the impacts I’m really hoping for is that all of these students, only one of whom is a philosophy major, will become more ethically literate, that they’ll begin to study and understand the ethical dimensions about basically everything in their lives,” Tuana said.

That lesson sounds like it has taken hold with students like Megan Carbine, a junior majoring in Energy Business and Finance.

“Going to Shell’s training facility was really cool,” she said. “We got to see how much safety training the company’s rig workers undergo before they go to an off-shore rig. We visited the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium – LUMCON – in Cocodrie and we went out to the bayou and talked about the cypress forests and why they’re being depleted and we went out to the swamp and took soil samples. Because I’m essentially a business major, I could see the profit perspective more than other people, and I found myself being torn constantly with profits versus safety, ethics, and good business practices. It definitely challenged me.”

Buckley, the International Politics major, called Earth 297H “probably the best” honors course she’s taken to date.

“I came to this class just having heard media sources over the summer – it was all ‘BP is evil’ and there was all that frustration over why they couldn’t just cap the well,” Buckley said. “After all of the people we talked to and the things we read and the trip, the most important thing I learned is that there is never one side to a situation.”

Bralower said such a response from the students reinforces the benefits of this kind of course.

“Going down there and seeing firsthand what the environment looks like brought everything together,” Bralower said. “This is active learning. When we went to the coastline, we talked to people who live there and fish there and do other things there, and we heard how the fishing industry and the oil industry are very much intertwined. What we heard while we were there is that people along the coast have a much more philosophical approach to oil and oil spills. Going into this, based on news reports over the summer, we had students thinking that the oil companies are rogues and that the people down there had been harmed, and it’s not as simple as that.

“This is a wonderful group of students. They are very creative, patient, and mature – they’ve been wonderful to teach. What’s been very positive, I think, is that they’ve learned a lot about how science and policy interact, which is really what we set out to do.”

For more information about the Schreyer Honors College, contact Chris Arbutina at 814-863-4560 or at

  • A researcher at LUMCON, the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, in Cocodrie, La., explained to a group of Penn State students how to gather a core sample from soil in a Gulf Coast marsh. For additional photos of the students trip to Louisiana, click on image above.

    IMAGE: Megan Carbine
Last Updated January 10, 2014