On April 20, 2010, an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig killed eleven people working on the platform and spilled an estimated 53,000 barrels of oil per day.  By July 15, when the leak was stopped by capping the wellhead it is estimated that about 185 million gallons of crude oil had been released into the Gulf of Mexico. 

While the well was still spilling oil, a new class was designed to provide Penn State students the opportunity to understand what likely happened on the Deepwater Horizon and to be informed about the impact of a spill like this on the Gulf of Mexico.  The class lectures included information about the geology of the Gulf of Mexico, the formation of petroleum, oil exploration, deep-water drilling and well-head engineering.  We also studied the dynamic processes of the spill including the oceanography of the Gulf of Mexico, the dispersal of oil, its reaction with dispersants, its breakdown by microbes, its distribution onshore, wetlands and marine systems, how they function,  and how oil affects plants, water, sediment and wildlife within them.  The course also included attention to the human dimensions of the spill, in particular the ethical, legal, and political issues surrounding the disaster. 

One of the capstones of the class was a trip to the Gulf of Mexico where we had the opportunity to learn “in the field” from resident experts.  The comments to this post are our reflections on what we learned. 

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23 Responses to Learning in the Field

  1. Lora is right on the money when she stated…” I came across SO many articles that put an extremely pessimistic, devastating tone on the spill, but it was extremely rare to find one with a message of “it’s not as bad as people make it out to be”. Does the media want us to think the world is going end?”

    And yes, Laura, that’s exactly what they want us to think.

  2. Kaitlyn Patschke says:

    After a week of seeing family and coworkers, answering a ridiculous number of questions, and explaining all of the pictures, the entirety of the trip has just about sunk in. While all the educational and informative visits were beneficial, most of what I took away was not though the lectures, the technical speeches, or the adventurous day trips, but through the conversations and interactions held apart from those. And while the class revolved around the oil spill, that was not a main concern to the locals, and thus was pushed aside for more pertinent topics, mainly the remaining effects of Hurricane Katrina. The tour we took of the devastated area was probably the hardest thing to sit through, not because, like the other days, I didn’t understand what was being explained, but because of the emotional impacts it had and still has. You hear about these things through several media outlets, how horrible and damaging they were, but it doesn’t personally affect you. But actually seeing it all firsthand, and years later, truly lets it hit you. But the tour was not the end of it. On the ride back to the hotel, Vernon drove by and pointed out his former residence, pre-Katrina. That single instance really hit home. Vernon, someone we basically befriended and were all buddy-buddy with, lost a huge part of his life with Katrina, and just getting to know someone who has themselves been impacted just really hit home.
    Anyways, with all of that being said, when it came time for me to start discussing my paper with potential interviewees, it became evident that Katrina was still the overriding source of ruin, not the oil spill. After the airboat ride, I chatted with Vernon a bit about if and how the oil spill had affected the tourism industry, business, and his job personally. His answer: not really. This, in a way, shocked meas I had simply assumed that because fewer tourists were coming due to damaging perceptions that all business was slowing down tourism-related. Vern quickly cleared up any of my confusion and explained the reasoning behind his continued business. While yes, the number of those in the region for tourism purposes had decreased the number of jobs he had to do remain constant. The logic? – instead of showing tourists the area, he was bringing those who were to clean up the oil to their destinations. In actuality, the number of jobs stayed consistent, just the reasons for travel had changed completely.
    Blogging in the hotel lobby one night, one of the front desk agents asked me if it was okay if he changed the channel to see the New Orleans Hornets score. Apparently this was a huge game, as they were playing the Dallas Mavericks who had slightly edged them in a previous game. As the game neared a close, the score was tight, and by that point both of the front desk agents were cheering and yelling until the final seconds, where the Hornets clinched a win. Since it was only the three of us there, I figured it would be a great time to work on my project, considering they were extremely relevant figures for my “research”. However, through the discussion, it became evident that since Katrina, the area hasn’t been the same, and the oil spill had little impact with this. The common reoccurrence was not of how less people were staying at the hotel, that business was suffering and clientele cancelling, but of how, despite all of these set-backs, one thing has really bonded them all together—sports. While the Saints are always going to be their number one, just the pure excitement during a basketball game exuded the energy sports brought along. While perhaps not entirely beneficial to my project, it gave insight to the morale and atmosphere of the area. It, in a way, made me feel like home, where we live and breathe Boston sports – the Red Sox, Pats, Celts and B’s – and here they did the same, but with more reason and purpose; it was what they had left to hold on to when everything was falling apart. While I still am clueless about all of the engineering jargon and their functions, this trip truly provided more knowledge than initially expected; however, what I learned about my project topic is going to severely hinder all previous work. Oh well, it was so worth it 🙂


    Summarizing this is trip in a few sentences is probably the hardest thing to do for any of us. We all felt different emotions about different topics at different times. For me, I spent most of the trip taking pictures and it seems almost fitting that I incorporate that into my post.

    Take a look at our trip then continue reading.

    New Orleans is a beautiful place. Go there and enjoy it while you can. The people are wonderful and are willing to talk to you. On our last night we ran into all of the folks from Shell on Bourbon street walking around. The culture is phenomenal and if nothing else that is why you rebuild and rebrand the city. Not to mention that 1/3 of our sea food comes from the gulf coast or that millions of gallons of oil come from their.

    So what do you notice in the pictures posted? Any oil? Any sad faces? Well the oil wasn’t really that bad to the coastline or the fishing and with much stricter regulation on the sea food your sure to get good food. The biggest problem isn’t the levees or the oil companies, it’s the perception that people have of the gulf. What drove that conclusion home for me was our swamp tour boat captain. He ran a chartered boat service and since the spill he’s only had a charter once per week. He’s been fishing and eating fish with no problems, except that no one wants to do it anymore.

    Another interesting thing he imparted to us was the total ineffectiveness of the United States government. Eric is still waiting for his FEMA truck that was supposed to come 5 years ago. But that doesn’t stop him from being happy about being alive.

    Perhaps we should trust the groups that can love because it seems that the government can not love. Find a cool way to help out and be apart of something that interests you.


    One can only learn so much through pictures and stories about a place. Until I experienced a place like New Orleans I wasn’t capable of understanding why we shouldn’t just let the city go under. New Orleans has been the topic of conversation throughout the past few years. First there was Hurricane Katrina, a natural disaster that affected our country as a whole; then the tragic incident of the Gulf Oil Spill, a man made disaster that also affected the entire country. By having a city that is constantly in the spotlight someone was bound to question if it’s economically viably to sink billions of dollars into a city that is inevitably going to go under. Clearly those people haven’t experienced the unique culture, architecture, and history behind the city. Throughout the week I experienced different aspects of the city. Shell’s Training Facility went above and beyond to explain and demonstrate all aspects of their emergency response training. By participating in activities that demonstrated how quickly the blow out preventers were activated gave me a sense of relief and trust in Shell. Although I still believe that the most touching part of the tour was the movie that concluded the visit. The movie included information on how Shell will never give up on the city of New Orleans. Even after Hurricane Katrina, Shell chose to move back to New Orleans knowing the risk. Not only did Shell have faith, but they also donated large sums of money to New Orleans organizations to help rebuild the city. The amount of heart and pride that this city possesses can’t be replaced or replicated. After speaking with the numerous people I met in Cocodrie my opinion was even more so solidified. Specifically I spoke to a man who drove the first boat we went on. The more time we spent together the more he opened up to me about his personal experiences in Southern Louisiana. He was born and raised in Southern Louisiana and his passion for wildlife and fishing paved the path for his career as a fisherman. After sharing pictures and stories of his experiences with nature he shared an opinion with me that was mind blowing. Initially one would think that the citizens of the Gulf States would be angry and resentful of BP for the spill, but he was more than understanding. He became almost defensive of BP by telling me that the tragic accident in the Gulf was simply just and accident. BP hadn’t meant for the spill to occur, they were just doing what the public asks of them on a daily basis: to produce MORE oil! So if a man, whose life revolves around the water, can generate sympathy and understanding for BP than maybe the rest of us need to follow in his footsteps.
    Is it ethical for the media to portray BP as a corrupt, lazy company whose values include cost-cutting and taking short cuts? BP is guilty of minor smaller spills and of course the Gulf Oil Spill, but aren’t we all human and make mistakes? Where are the public’s morals? The media shouldn’t be shaping our opinion of a corporation who has good intentions for the public. The public should be able to look through the one-sided stories and opinions of the media and see all of the positive actions that BP has done for the public in the past and have put in place for in the future. We are capable of knowing the difference between right and wrong, and intentional actions vs. accidents. BP has taken responsibility for an accident they’ve caused and in return they’ve taken action to compensate for those accidents. So where does the line get drawn, when do we stop following the crowd and stand up for a corporation that we have believed in up until they made there first major accident?


    Upon returning from New Orleans and telling countless people about my experiences there, I found myself questioning the magnitude of the impact the spill has made on peoples’ lives in New Orleans. The conclusion I have come to is that it has been rather minimal. I did not talk to any person who the oil spill affected directly and I wonder if this is because, in light of Katrina and Rita, the oil spill seemed rather trivial to people we talked to in this region.

    I also have thought about how our experiences would have differed if we had gone to an area that was directly affected by the oil; a town that had oil crashing upon its land. Would these people’s reactions have been different? Or would this disaster still have been over shadowed by the catastrophic hurricanes in 2005? Or had we gone to the Gulf of Mexico in the spring, just after the spill, would the atmosphere have been different?

    Even at the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON), the attitude seemed to be one of “lets wait and see”. The majority of the surface oil has been removed and thus the immediate threat no longer exists. The researchers there did not hold a grunge against the oil and gas industry; they simply admitted they had been careless.

    When traveling up the bayou, we ran across massive drilling structures on the bank. Many of us in the class let out cries of outrage at the scene, but the driver of our boat, a fisherman, did not seem to mind. He told us he was used to seeing drilling infrastructure in the delta area, and he does not mind because it helps stimulate the local economy. This surprised me, because I expected locals to not welcome the presence of the large drilling firms, and resent the industry as a whole for the recent oil spill. However, they also ultimately depend on the industry.

    Ultimately, we are in a “wait and see” period. We need to wait and see how much environmental damage the oil spill caused, what legislation comes out of the events leading up to the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon, and how BP, as a company trying to make a profit, will continue to handle the situation.


    The main reason I took this class was because I thought the trip to New Orleans in the midst of the greatest environmental disaster of the United States would be the opportunity of a lifetime. It definitely was, but not necessarily in the way I thought it would be. I had visions, which were primarily fueled by media coverage on the vast amount of oil spilled, of arriving in New Orleans and seeing oil on the beaches and the people distraught over this disaster. Instead, I was surprised to find that the primary concentration was still on the effects of hurricane Katrina which was over five years ago.

    New Orleans is still devastated from Katrina. Houses that were once homes to generations of families are now replaced by pieces of stone foundations and steps. Many businesses left so the economy is not what is once was. Five years have gone by and there is still so much to do. I had no idea that the consequences of the hurricane were still so acutely felt. It is as if the population of New Orleans cannot fully perceive another catastrophe like the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The impression I gleaned from talking to a few locals was that the oil spill definitely should not have been prevented and there have been some effects felt, but it was not as bad as it originally appeared to be; then usually the conversation quickly turns to Katrina.

    Maybe this viewpoint is caused by the comparison between Katrina and the oil spill. The hurricane hit and there was immediate damage that resulting in the relocation of many people. The oil spill had coverage on the spewing for months until the well was capped and thorough investigations began. It is too soon to calculate the effects of the spill and as for now there appears to be minimal environmental damage, but more economic losses primarily in the fishing and tourism industries which BP is attempting to help. In another decade, we will hopefully be able to better see the results of the spill. I cannot believe that there is no or little effect on the Gulf with that much oil spilled there.

    When I returned home for break I spoke with my Dad about my trip to New Orleans. I told him how focused people are on Katrina and how they are still trying to piece their lives back together from what happened. We began to talk about strength versus insanity of the people who continue to live in New Orleans. It is impressive how people can lose so much and then return to rebuild even in the midst of all that has happened and the likelihood of reoccurrences. But at what point does it become too much? How do you know when to move on? What impresses me the most is the hope that people possess. I cannot discern what fuels it, but when I walked down the streets of New Orleans I could feel it permeating the air. I cannot help but wonder if it is a false hope.

    My Dad and I also talked about the effects of manmade and natural disasters. I had never thought of Katrina as a manmade disaster until this trip and after talking to my Dad. The storm itself was of course a natural disaster, but the many of the detrimental effects of the storm were largely manmade and could have been prevented or handled better. The failure of the levee system and of speedy government aid heightened the damage of the storm. The oil spill was entirely manmade which makes it is easier to pinpoint the blame. When I was in New Orleans, I talked to our bus driver, Vernon, who received some compensation from BP for the poor tourism industry over the summer. Maybe that is another reason why the oil spill is viewed as not being as bad as Katrina. People are getting some aid from BP whereas it appears that many who need aid for Katrina effects are not receiving it.

    The media proclaims that the gulf oil spill is much worse that what those living near the Gulf report. Common sense tells most people that once there is a spill of any type, there is a mess to clean up. So what do you believe? The primary lesson I have learned from EARTH297 is that there are so many diverse perspectives to situations that it is very difficult to know who to trust. I went to New Orleans and I did not see any oil, but I still think there will be detrimental effects of this spill for years to come.


    New Orleans is the most unique place that I have ever traveled to. No exceptions! The culture is unlike anything else and its residents are proud to live there. When outsiders ask if the city should be rebuilt if often results in a lengthy debate. Finances and safety are the main points of discussion. Is it too expensive to keep rebuilding the city when it is scientifically proven to be under water in the next 100 years? Is it unsafe for people to live in a city that witnesses multiple hurricanes every year? However, these are not the questions that need to be asked. In fact, no question needs to be asked at all. To determine the value of this city one needs to travel and experience its distinctive sights, sounds and arts. After one visit it is quite evident that this city must be rebuilt and restored to its original condition. The locals have been through a lot over the past few years; no one is questioning that. Do they regret it or do they simply factor it in as part of the cost of living in a place this special? After talking to a gentleman when we traveled to LUMCON I am certain that the answer is the latter. When I asked him how he felt about the BP oil spill he did not answer with resentment. He genuinely replied, “I’m not angry at all. It was an accident that could have happened to anyone. We need BP and these other oil companies down here so that we can sustain our lifestyles. It’s a tragedy that it had to happen but I don’t hold it against BP.” This is the attitude that the rest of America should adopt. We are too quick to point our fingers at BP and claim negligence on their behalf. BP did what any other company does. They worked at maximum efficiency in order to keep profits as high as possible. They did not intentionally jeopardize anyone’s safety. BP willingly started a 20 billion dollar compensation fund to restore the area to its original condition. This is going to severely impact their yearly revenue and also their ability to operate and avoid bankruptcy. Many companies would not step up the way BP has and we must gain respect for them because of this.
    This trip served as an eye opener for many reasons. We were able to see the damage from Katrina, a vast wildlife, rare people and food, and most importantly we were able to realize how important this city is to its inhabitants and our country. Imagine if your neighborhood was damaged by a natural disaster and there was talk about not rebuilding it. You would be outraged because of the history and meaning it has to you. Take that anger and outrage and multiply by ten and you will see how much New Orleans means to the people that live there.

  8. Leah Kofmehl says:

    Learning in the field, hands on, out of the classroom gives the most invaluable lessons. Seeing New Orleans and Louisiana first hand, I learned so much more than I would have sitting in 541 Deike.

    The first question out of everyone’s mouth when I told them about the trip, was “Did you see any oil?” And of course, we did not. That’s one of the biggest lessons I learned from this trip. The oil spill was a terrible thing, but as of right now, its impact was not as large as expected. While everyone, myself, our class, and the media may have believed otherwise before, being down there showed us that this was (almost) managable.

    Louisiana is a sight unto itself. It has its own charm, own culture, and at times its own language. Another big lesson for me was the reslience of this community. While they had been downtrodden, through natural disaster after natural disaster after man-made catastrophe, they continue to stand strong, stay where they are, and love everything about it. Yes, some may have moved away, but those who stayed have and will continue to carry on, time and time again, until it is physically impossible to stay in their beloved home.

    I am impressed, with the entire trip, and so grateful for the experience. Each part showed me more and more of the two lessons I just shared with you. This could not have been a better time to see this community, and it was a very very valuable learning experience.

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