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University of Minnesota

Spotlighting the spill

July 21, 2010

Oil spilled in water.

Over millions of years, organic matter carried and broken down by the Mississippi River helped create the oil deposits off the coast of Louisiana. Now, the oil spill has triggered widespread destruction to plant and animal life in the region.

U course takes in-depth look at the issues surrounding the Gulf oil spill

By Rick Moore

The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill has become a fixture of the daily news, enough so that 99 percent of Americans are at least aware of the spill, if not its daunting ramifications for the communities and landscapes in the Gulf region. Now, students at the University of Minnesota are getting an opportunity to drill deeper into a defining disaster in U.S. history.

The U is offering a class this fall titled “Oil and Water: The Gulf Oil Spill of 2010” (CFAN 3480, Section 4), that takes a systematic view of the spill, from the history of oil in the Gulf to containing the spill to the future of energy production. It’s the latest in a run of “rapid-response” offerings (including courses on the 35W bridge collapse, the Asian tsunami, and the credit crisis) sponsored by the Institute for Advanced Study.

A broad, liberal arts approach to a complex issue

The three-credit, interdisciplinary course will view the spill through a host of lenses, according to Robert Gilmer, a history Ph.D. candidate and former resident of Louisiana who has a keen interest in environmental history.

Gilmer is especially intrigued by some of the paradoxes at play in the region; for instance, the strangely symbiotic relationship (at times) between the fishing and oil industries, and how many families involved with the former also work in the latter, often leading to mixed emotions on moratoriums on the off-shore drilling industry.

“You can’t really understand this topic without approaching it from a variety of different angles,” says Gilmer. “We’re going to be looking at the oil spill from historical perspectives, from legal perspectives, from the ecological science behind it, and also the engineering itself—the science involved in making offshore drilling possible (and what exactly went wrong in that technology), and the technologies involved in helping the recovery effort.”

Each week of the course will focus on a different topic, and several guest speakers will lecture. A research assignment will add depth to the student experience.

“By giving students the freedom to explore some aspect of this topic that’s really interesting to them and that maybe comes out of their disciplinary background, it gives them a chance to become an expert on that specific topic,” Gilmer says.

Only at the U

The “Oil and Water” class is more than a timely look at a hot topic; it’s a critical examination of an event that will be studied for decades, if not lifetimes.

“Having a class like this now is important because the issues coming out of this spill are things that we—both in Minnesota and throughout the country—are going to be dealing with for years to come,” he adds. “Everything from the kinds of food we eat to the way energy is produced in this country to the environmental regulations that we have in place to protect us from things like this. All of this is likely to be changing over the next few years.

“The University of Minnesota is, I think, ideally situated to deal with this because of the resources we have here and also the past experiences of the Institute for Advanced Study in offering rapid-response courses like this.”

Oil and Water: The Gulf Oil Spill of 2010 has been approved for the "Technology and Society" theme for the Liberal Education requirements. For registration information, visit Oil and Water.

Tags: College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences

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