Searching for Oil: The Role of Science and Technology

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Searching for Oil: The Role of Science and Technology Photo Credit: Clipart.com


To explore how geoscientists use technology and computer modeling to find oil and natural gas.


This lesson will focus on the role of geoscientists in oil and natural gas exploration. Through this lesson, students will examine how the study of geoscience is applied as a career and in obtaining energy resources upon which we all depend. As the National Science Education Standards highlight, one of the greatest challenges that teachers face is to make science meaningful for students. Rather than presenting students with content that has no apparent context within students’ lives, science lessons and investigations should derive from questions and issues that have meaning for students. One way to do this is to highlight scientific and technological issues through current events. Actual science- and technology-related problems provide another source of meaningful investigation. This lesson incorporates a number of scientific and technological disciplines—including geology, physics, and computer modeling—with the real-world challenge of finding the oil and natural gas that fuel our world.

While there are many possible career paths for geoscientists, this lesson will focus on the role of such scientists in the petroleum industry. The petroleum industry employs the most geoscientists, with nearly 40% employed in the exploration and production of oil and gas. However, according to Career Cornerstone, there are four other major industries in which geoscientists traditionally work. All of these options should be discussed with students in order to encourage them to view science as an interesting and engaging career option.

A second career pathway for geoscientists is education. Within this field, geoscientists may work as university professors or secondary school teachers. Many geoscientists, regardless of their employer, are involved in some sort of public outreach. This is because it is important that all people know about the earth, its resources, and the technology needed to obtain and utilize these resources in an effective and efficient manner.

The mining industry is another large employer of geoscientists. Expertise in geosciences is needed in many different aspects of the mining industry, from exploration, to mine design, to ore evaluations. This leads into the fourth major career path for geoscientists: the environmental industry. Land management and water quality issues have required more environmental geoscientists to work both in private industries and the government. Natural safety hazards to humans, such as avalanches and landslides, are another area of concern for environmental geoscientists. Finally, the government provides many career opportunities to geoscientists, spanning from basic research to policy development.

Geoscience rewards creativity—many of the great oil finds resulted from geoscientists who allowed themselves to look at the data a little differently than others. Geoscientists must have a fundamental knowledge of all of the basic sciences: physics, chemistry, and biology in order to make interpretations. Teamwork and communications skills are important: geologists, geophysicists, petroleum engineers, and economists all work together to develop exploration prospects. Drilling won’t begin until concise oral and written reports are presented to managers who must decide whether or not to authorize expenditures.

The increasing global demand for energy and raw materials and an aging geoscience workforce will create a broad range of career options for new geoscientists. It is also important to impress upon students that geoscientists do not just study the earth. As we explore space, geoscience expertise will be needed to determine the physical makeup of other planets. In fact, remote sensing technology has allowed geoscientists to collect geological data of planets such as Mars before a manned mission can even be considered.

When teaching this lesson, it is important to be inclusive in the gender pronouns used to refer to geoscientists. Traditionally, science has been considered a “male profession” and scientists are imagined as white men working in solitaire in laboratory-like settings. Thus, when referring to geoscientists, be sure to include the use of female pronouns such as “she” or “her.” Encouraging females to consider geosciences is important considering recent findings by the National Science Foundation. In 2004, less than 50% (44.6%) of masters’ degrees in the geosciences (earth, atmospheric, and ocean sciences) were awarded to women (Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering, May 2008, National Science Foundation, Washington, DC). The percentage is even less when one looks at doctorate degrees; in 2005, only 34.1% of all geoscience doctorate awardees were women (Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering, May 2008, National Science Foundation, Washington, DC).

Before beginning this lesson, students should have an understanding of fossil fuels—specifically, oil and natural gas—and the differences between them. Although students will have an opportunity to briefly explore the formation of oil and natural gas in this lesson, a more thorough understanding of the differences between the two is helpful before beginning this lesson. Students also should understand the terms “density,” as it is used in this lesson to explain the migration of oil and natural gas towards the surface, and “faults,” which are fractures along which rocks are displaced and sometimes serve as pathways for oil and natural gas migration. Students also should know that sound travels as a wave, since there is a portion in the online segment that discusses how geoscientists use sonic waves to locate oil underground. Overall, this lesson works well in a geology or energy unit and provides students an opportunity to explore how science is applied as a career and in everyday life. Through the activity, students also examine the symbiotic relationship between science and technology.

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Begin the lesson by showing students the American Petroleum Institute’s (API) online introductory video, The Story of Oil and Natural Gas.

Ask students:

  • What was this video about?
      (Answers should include that the clip was about obtaining oil and natural gas, developing products from them, and distributing those products.)
  • What types of sciences and scientists were mentioned in the video clip?
      (Geology, engineering, chemistry, technology, and robotics were mentioned.)

Tell students that the class will focus on geoscience. Ask students:

  • What is geoscience?
      (It is the study of the earth, its structure, composition, and history.)
  • Why is geoscience important in finding oil?
      (Answers will vary. Students should mention that oil and natural gas are found within the earth. By studying the internal structure and composition of the earth, geoscientists can determine where oil is located and how it can be removed safely.)
  • How do you think geoscientists find oil and natural gas in the earth?
      (Answers may vary. Highlight when students indicate the use of technology and computers.)
  • Why do geoscientists need to find oil and natural gas?
      (Students should mention the growing demand for energy. You may want to use examples, such as electricity and transportation, to show how oil and natural gas are in more demand.)


While many students are aware of the use of oil and natural gas as energy sources, there is little knowledge about how these natural resources are discovered below the earth. Students will explore the role of scientists in finding oil and natural gas, and the scientific and technical techniques utilized in such exploration.

Ask students:

  • Why are geoscientists so crucial to the oil and natural gas industry?
      (They are the ones who find the oil and natural gas.)
  • What challenges do you think geoscientists face when trying to locate oil and natural gas?
      (Fossil fuels are usually not visible to the naked eye and buried below the earth’s surface. They must be located from above the surface.)

Inform students that there are many steps involved in getting oil and natural gas out of the earth and making it into a usable form, such as the gas we pump into our cars. The very first step is exploration to find the hidden pockets under the surface of the earth. Oil and natural gas may be under layers of rock or under the ocean floor. There is often no evidence on the surface of the earth that would indicate a pocket of oil or natural gas underneath.

Tell students that they will watch a short video about the exploration for oil and natural gas and how this challenge of finding them beneath the earth’s surface is overcome.

Ask students to use their Exploring for Oil and Natural Gas student esheet to view “Exploration,” on The Story of Oil and Natural Gas site. They can answer questions about this resource using their Exploring for Oil and Natural Gas student sheet. Once students have viewed this section, ask them:

  • How is science involved in the exploration for oil and natural gas?
      (The oil and natural gas are buried under layers so this requires an understanding of geology. Also, tools must be built to recover this oil and natural gas.)
  • How is technology involved in this exploration?
      (Computer models are generated. Seismic surveys and satellites are used to collect data.)

Students should continue their exploration of the API resource by using their E-Sheet to go to these sections: “The Big Squeeze,” “Migration,” and “Knowing Where to Drill.” Students should answer questions about these sections on their student sheet. Once students have finished these sections, hold a class discussion with these questions:

  • How did oil and natural gas begin?
      (They began as plants and animals living in the ocean millions of years ago.)
  • Briefly explain the role of sedimentation and dead organisms in producing oil and natural gas.
      (Organisms living in the ocean died and sank to the bottom of the ocean, where a layer of sediment would cover them. Over time, alternating layers of dead organisms and sediments were formed. As the layers stacked up, the tremendous heat and pressure converted the dead organisms into oil and natural gas.)
  • Why do oil and natural gas move upwards towards the surface?
      (Because they are less dense than water.)
  • Describe the difference between reservoir rocks and impermeable rocks with respect to the movement of fluids and gases.
      (Reservoir rocks, such as sandstones, have pores large enough to allow fluids and gases, such as oil, water, and natural gas, to pass through them. Impermeable “trap” rocks, such as shale, trap fluids and gases so they cannot pass through.)
  • In some places on earth, oil seeps through the surface while in other places, it is trapped below the surface. Explain how the rocks below the surface of the earth cause this difference to occur.
      (In places where oil seeps through the surface, the rock below was reservoir, allowing it to pass through. In places where oil is below the surface, impermeable rock prevented the oil from seeping through. Oil and natural gas also can move vertically along faults into reservoir rocks and either become trapped or move to the surface if no trapping rocks are encountered.)
  • Through what type of rock are geoscientists trying to access oil and natural gas today?
  • How do geoscientists use sound waves on the ground to locate oil and natural gas trapped below the surface of the earth?
      (Geoscientists send sonic sound waves through the ground and record how long it takes for the waves to echo off each layer of underground rock. These data are used to create maps, which may reveal attractive places to drill.)
  • How do geoscientists use sound waves to locate oil and natural gas trapped below the seafloor?
      (Scientists submerge an air gun and shoot bursts of sound. Hydrophones pick up reflected sound waves. The data is collected onboard or by satellite.)

Students may not understand the term “hydrophone” used in the “Going Deep” narration. Ask students to examine the word in two pieces: hydro and phone. Tell students that the term “hydro” comes from the Greek word meaning “water.” The term “phone” comes from the Greek word meaning “sound” or “voice.”

  • How do geoscientists use computer modeling with the data gathered through sound waves?
      (The data are used to make two- and three-dimensional maps of the subsurface geology to look for potential reservoirs and traps.)
  • What are the three dimensions referred to in the term “3D”?
      (They are height, width, and depth.)
  • What is the fourth dimension referred to in the term “4D”?
      (It is time.)
  • Why is the fourth dimension important in mapping oil and natural gas?
      (It is important to show how they migrated and changed over time under the earth’s surface.)
  • Why are “virtual drilling” and visualization rooms so important to geoscientists?
      (They allow scientists to see where to drill efficiently, with the least disturbance to the surface environment.)

Explain that the term “seismic” comes from the Greek word meaning “earthquake.” The term “seismic” is used by geoscientists to refer to any vibration or shaking of the earth and its crust. Sound waves send vibrations into the underground layers of the earth, which is why this data collection method by geoscientists is called a “seismic survey.”

  • What is an exploratory well?
      (A well that is drilled to determine whether oil or natural gas is present.)
  • When is an exploratory well drilled?
      (After geoscientists have mapped their data and used computer modeling to determine the potential of oil or natural gas in a particular place.)
  • Once an exploratory well finds oil or natural gas, what are the four aspects that geologists must consider before recommending additional wells for production to occur?
      (They must consider the estimated amount that can be produced, the technology required to bring it to the surface, the cost of getting it out of the ground, and the time required to start and to maintain production.)
  • What happens if an exploratory well finds little or no oil or natural gas?
      (The well is termed a “dry hole” and is sealed to protect the environment.)


Review the questions on the student sheet. Ask students to share the steps of the outline or chart they made on their student sheet. As students go through the answers together, draw a schematic on the board that outlines the steps of oil exploration and the tools involved for the entire class. The chart should include basic steps such as:

  1. Oil and natural gas formation over time
  2. Migration of oil and natural gas through layers of rocks
  3. Seeping through the surface if rocks are porous or accumulation under the surface if rocks are impermeable
  4. Seismic studies using sound waves on land and offshore
  5. Data collection
  6. Mapping data using computer modeling
  7. Generating 3D and 4D maps
  8. Virtual drilling
  9. Drilling an exploratory well

At step nine, the chart will diverge depending on the results of the exploratory well drilling. If the well is found to have little or no oil, then it is sealed up and termed a “dry hole.” However, if the exploratory well is found to have oil and natural gas, then the geoscientists have to consider the four conditions that are outlined in the American Petroleum Institute narration: the amount that can be produced and delivered, the technology required to bring it to the surface, the cost of getting it out of the ground, and the time required to start and to maintain production.

Remind students that this is just the exploration phase of obtaining oil and natural gas.


Allow students to organize themselves into five groups, each selecting one of the other sections of the American Petroleum Institute’s The Story of Oil and Natural Gas: production, transportation, refining, distribution, and products. Each group can summarize these different stages in oil’s movement from the ground to usable forms by humans.

Have students research the various careers in the petroleum industry that involve science, technology, and engineering. These online resources can be used by students to investigate career paths:

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Lesson Details

Grades Themes Project 2061 Benchmarks National Science Standards