To demonstrate how much our society depends on petroleum products and to show how advances in technology have allowed us to find, obtain, and transport oil more efficiently.


This lesson is part of the Energy in a High-Tech World Project, which examines the science behind energy. Energy in a High-Tech World is developed by AAAS and funded by the American Petroleum Institute. For more lessons, activities, and interactives that take a closer look at the science behind energy, be sure to check out the Energy in a High-Tech World Project page.

The motivation of this lesson asks students to think about how they and we as a society depend on oil. While they may be aware that oil and natural gas are used to heat houses, they also will learn about the many other products created with petroleum. Then they will be asked to think about how it affects their own lives. What petroleum products exist that they use? What would life be like if oil and its products didn’t exist?

The lesson uses Adventures in Energy, an interactive that covers a lot about oil and natural gas. For this lesson, three (of seven) modules are used to point out oil and natural gas products, how we look for clues to find these resources, and how these resources are transported. Technological improvements in the oil industry have allowed humans to find and obtain it more efficiently, as well as transport it more safely than in the past and in a cost-effective manner.

The Motivation makes the point that oil has radically changed how people live. The Development makes the point that technology allows us to obtain oil efficiently.


There will be opportunities for open and sometimes philosophical discussions about technology, especially at the end of the lesson. We recommend reading the essay for The Nature of Technology from Science for All Americans to help you better foster these discussions.

We also recommend that before or during the lesson, you explore the same site students will read, as this site is rich with information. The assignments at Adventures in Energy are as follows:

  • For the Motivation, read “Oil and Natural Gas in Your Life”
  • For the Development, read the entire “What are Oil and Natural Gas?” module; Exploration in the “Exploration and Production” module; and the entire “Transporting Oil to the Refinery” module


The first motivation question reminds or informs students that oil is a nonrenewable energy source and that there are several energy resources. Ask students:

  • What are some energy resources?
    (They will likely know: oil, sun, coal, natural gas, water, petroleum, wood, and biomass. Write their answers on the board and then spend a couple of minutes discussing which are renewable and nonrenewable. For instance, the sun is renewable because it will not “run out,” fossil fuels are nonrenewable because there is a finite amount available. Briefly discuss these differences.)

Tell students that this lesson will focus on oil and natural gas. Ask:

  • What do you depend on oil or natural gas for?
    (Students may know the obvious, that these energy sources are used to heat homes and oil is used to make gasoline for cars. They may not know the less obvious, which they will read about in the interactive.)

Tell students to go to their Adventures in Energy student esheet, which will send them to the Adventures in Energy website. There they will read most of “Oil and Natural Gas in Your Life.” As a class, discuss these questions:

  • What are oil and natural gas used for?
    (They are used for a variety of purposes, including fueling vehicles, providing the fuel needed to create electricity, heating buildings, and cooking food.)
  • What are some of the products that are made with oil?
    (There are a ton of examples in this interactive, including detergent, plastic wrap, the insides of juice boxes, packaging for cough syrup and shampoo, crayons, etc.)
  • Our society has become so dependant on oil. What would be different in your life if there were no petroleum products? Here are some talking points:
    1. More than 44 percent of the total demand for petroleum products is for motor gasoline. What if it weren’t easy to fuel a car? Or what if it were more expensive?
    2. If airplanes and trucks couldn’t be fueled easily or it was more expensive to fuel them, how would that affect products you and your parents buy in stores? Would we still be canning fruits for winter and farming our own vegetables in summer if trucks couldn’t bring food to the supermarket? Or would things be more expensive? If our time was spent farming, would we have time for sports and television?
    3. Did you know that CD players, DVDs, ink, some clothing, computers, containers, telephones, and toothpaste are also petroleum products? You also read about quite a few. What would your life be like without these?
  • Do you know where oil and natural gas come from and how they get to us?
    (Students will likely know that they come from the ground. The Development will give a very detailed account about how oil and natural gas are found, extracted, and transported.)


Have students continue to explore the Adventures in Energy website. They will read “What are Oil and Natural Gas?” and only the first section titled Exploration in the “Exploration and Production” module, where they will learn how technology helps scientists locate and obtain oil. Students should answer these questions on their own and then stop to discuss them:

  • How do we find clues for oil and natural gas sources from the sky?
    (Technology is the overriding answer, but students also may say using airplanes and satellites to map the surface to look for clues of seeps. You may want to discuss that in the olden days, people would simply walk the land looking for clues. Remote sensing technologies conducted from the airplanes and satellites work by bouncing beams of energy, such as visible light, off the earth. Then they measure how those beams are absorbed or reflected to find clues for oil and natural gas seeps.)
  • How does technology play a role on the ground in finding clues that there might be oil and gas underground?
    (Seismic surveys send high energy sound waves into the ground to see how long it takes for them to reflect back to the surface. This information can be used to determine where seeps might be. Gravity and geomagnetic surveys also give clues. When clues look promising, a well is often drilled.)
  • What are the benefits of technologies used off-site and on-site when searching for oil and natural gas?
    (These technologies save time, manpower, and money. They also help preserve the environment because they can successfully locate resources before drilling. For instance, the seismic surveys used today use big thumpers to make the sound waves; in the past, explosives were used to make the sound waves.)

Now students will read the entire module “Transporting Oil to the Refinery.” There are five topics under this module.

The History of Tankers tells how new technology has shaped the tanker industry and shows the history from 1885, when oil was transported in wooden barrels on sailing ships, to how the tankers of today help conserve energy and reduce transportation costs.

Tanker Design tells how modern day tankers ensure a more safe delivery of oil, and are safer for the environment.

Navigation profiles the captain of an oil tanker and the technologies he uses to navigate a safe trip.

Lightering explains the transfer of crude oil from super tankers to smaller tankers that can make their way to U.S. ports. Many large tankers can’t access the ports because the bottom of the ship is too deep.

LOOP describes an offshore facility that allows super tankers to transfer crude oil directly into a pipeline network.

When students have finished reading the “Transporting Oil to the Refinery” section, discuss these questions as a class:

  • How is technology responsible for influencing transportation where oil is concerned?
    (Students should cite specific examples from the “Transporting Oil to the Refinery” module, particularly how tankers have changed over time.)
  • How is the technology of communications and information processing used where oil is concerned?
    (Navigation tools, such as the automated radar plotting aid, are good examples. Students do not need to know the exact names, just what they do.)
  • Do you think oil is easily transported?
    (The answers to this question will depend on students’ opinions, really. The word “easily” is subjective. The goal is to make students think about it. They may notice that it is more easily transported than it was in the past, due to modern technology.)
  • How have modern day tankers helped reduce costs in obtaining oil?
    (Modern tankers allow larger quantities to be transported, which is cost effective. The first section of the module gives specific examples.)


To demonstrate how technology has changed the way oil is transported over time, assign students to diagram or draw two ships: one from 1885 and a modern day tanker. They also should add some text to describe the differences. They can go back to the interactive to gather information.


Ideas presented in this lesson can be extended by leading students through these Science NetLinks lessons:

One of the goals in making tankers better is to make sure they deliver oil safely. Discuss with students why this is a goal after they go to one or both of the following sites which give background on two historical oil spills. Alaska: Technology and Environment gives the background on the Exxon Valdez as well as other environmental problems in Alaska related to the oil industry. The Story gives background about the spill of the Prestige tanker off the coast of Spain.

Students have only explored a fraction of the Adventures in Energy website. This site is rich with information and an extra reading assignment could be based on one of the other modules.

Students can get more information about energy in general by visiting these websites:

  • The Energy Story
  • Energy Basics