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Homeschool Lessons on Oil Slicks

Sarah S HeadshotJust like the old saying, the cat’s away, so we mice (that’s Little Man and I) are playing. Hubby got home mid-afternoon and the first question out of his mouth was “What’s up with the oil slick in the bucket in the driveway?”

 Well now, he should really know better than to ask those sorts of questions. I mean doesn’t everyone have an oil slick in a bucket in the driveway? No? Hmmm. We do. And there is a perfectly reasonable explanation. Really.

 Today after lunch Little Man and I went for a trip in my new kayak to the reservoir not far from our house. It was gorgeous, we saw turtles, a green heron, belted king fisher and the annoying passel of Canadian geese. (Why can’t the Canadians keep their geese in their own country?) Little Man practiced paddling the new kayak which was really just a lot of him splashing and me shrieking, “No not like that,” as I tried desperately to counter act his wild flailing and prevent us from capsizing. 

Of course what I imagined would be a serene paddle ended up being a running commentary on EVERYTHING whether or not it pertained to what we saw or not. After all he’s got a captive audience doesn’t he? We’re in a ten foot boat surrounded by water and unless I jump overboard (which gets more and more likely) I either have to answer the question or listen to it repeated five hundred, sixty-eight times. 

So, somewhere between, “But, Momma the buoy says ‘No Wake’ and we’re making a wake.” and “Those kayaks must be lighter than ours because you sit on top,” there was the question “Why doesn’t ocean water put out fires?” What? 

Let me tell you I was completely lost on this one and a tad afraid, but I proceeded. “Why do you think that ocean water won’t put out a fire?” 

“Because when the oil’s on fire it keeps burning.” 

Ahhh. “When we get home, I’ll show you all about it.”  

And that was that. Of course I forgot that promise by the time we got home, got the kayak put away and so forth. But Little Man did not. Oh no, a mind like a steel trap that boy. 

Did I mention that its fire season, there’s a burn ban in effect, I used to work as a fire dispatcher, my brother is a wildland fire fighter and I have been cursed with not only an overactive imagination but also an overactive conscience? As I’m filling a bucket with water I’m pondering the location in which we should do this experiment. Really I want to do it inside the shop where the smoke is contained and no one (neighbors, fire department, and fire lookouts) can see.  

I’m envisioning the whole process: Karen spotting the smoke on her camera screen, reporting it to Randy in dispatch. Dispatch sending out the helicopter. The helicopter hovering over the driveway ready to drop a hundred gallons of water on my science experiment (it’s happened before, trust me) and me smiling and waving at Steve, the pilot, and him getting on the radio and saying, “You’ll never guess what I’ve got.” As much as I don’t want to do it outside, I think better of the smoke in the shop and possible explosions which would destroy a lot of Hubby’s tools and equipment. And quite frankly he needs that stuff to pay the hospital bills when Little Man and I blow ourselves up. 

The driveway it is. I take my bucket of water, scoop a small amount of black gunk out of the pan of oil recently drained from the excavator and get my box of kitchen matches. I dribble oil on the water and we talk about how far one little drop can spread. I pour a little more and we watch the droplets go to the bottom of the bucket and rise to the top. We get a stick and poke it in the water and see how it’s black when we pull it back out - all in all a great ecology lesson.  

Then I get the matches. Little man steps back a few paces – smart kid. I briefly wonder if child services can take him away because I’m encouraging him to play with fire. Oh well, I’m committed now. I light the match and drop it in the bucket. Ssssssssss. Oh, I shouldn’t have dropped it, I need to hold it on the surface. Strike. Sssssssssss. Hmmm. Strike. Ssssssss. Strike. Ssssssssss. Now I’m irritated, I worked myself up for this I want some fire and smoke. Half the box later, I gave up. “Well, sometimes experiments don’t turn out like you think they will.”  

Little Man was disappointed for about a millisecond and then he was on to, “How come green herons aren’t green?” 

Of course as I told Hubby this story he had this know-it-all grin plastered across his face. “You want me to show you how to light it?” 

“No.” The answer is most definitely no! I’ve seen him with fire.  

But, I am curious. “How do they do it?” 

“All you need is a little gasoline.”  

I’m glad I said no. 

 “I think they use Napalm or a gel, because you have to get oil really hot for it to burn.” 

“And the gas will float on the water too?” 


I’m curious, I really am. But if all three of us are blown up who’s going to pay the hospital bills and fight to get Little Man back from child services?