New Virtual Learning Tool Helps Students Study How Oil Spills Affect Fish

App-based lesson plans bring real experiments on Deepwater Horizon into the classroom, home

MIAMI—Scientists are bringing lessons learned from one of the worst oil spills in history into the classroom.

The University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science-led science consortium RECOVER launched the RECOVER Virtual Lab, a free online learning program for budding scientists ages 8+ through college to conduct their own ‘fish treadmill’ experiments in the classroom or at home.

The virtual fish experimentation laboratory, which is available online and in the iTunes store for tablets, currently has one lesson plan led by University of North Texas (UNT) Ph.D. student Derek Nelson to measure the effects oil spills have on the physiology of two economically important fish in the Gulf of Mexico—red drum and mahi-mahi.

The web- and app-based lab includes a downloadable lesson plan and quizzes for teachers and students to conduct similar experiments as university scientists using real data.

Future lesson plans will include microscope experiments of embryonic development led by UM Ph.D. student Christina Pasparakis, visual acuity experiments led by UNT Ph.D student Jason Magnuson, and social interaction between fish led by University of Texas Ph.D. student Alexis Khursigara. Each lesson is led by a Ph.D. student based upon their own academic research.

The virtual lab was developed by the RECOVER science consortium. Led by UM Rosenstiel School Professor and Maytag Chair of Ichthyology Martin Grosell, the RECOVER team (Relationships of Effects of Cardiac Outcomes in fish for Validation of Ecological Risk), conducts studies on the impacts and toxic effects of crude oil on ecologically and commercially valuable fish that reside in the Gulf of Mexico. It includes 35 scientists from four institutions.

Recent studies by the RECOVER consortium members showed that fish embryos and larvae exposed to crude oil during early development results in malformation of hearts, which likely results in mortality or reduced cardiac performance in surviving individuals. The RECOVER team also recently published a study that showed that such surviving individuals display reduced swimming capabilities.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill, in which more than three million barrels of crude oil got released in 2010 into the northern Gulf of Mexico, was the worst oil disaster in U.S. history, contaminating the spawning habitats for many fishes. Researchers continue to investigate the impacts of the oil spill to advance scientific understanding of the impacts of the incident and the potential associated impact of this and similar incidents on the environment and public health.

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About the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School
The University of Miami is one of the largest private research institutions in the southeastern United States. The University’s mission is to provide quality education, attract and retain outstanding students, support the faculty and their research, and build an endowment for University initiatives. Founded in the 1940’s, the Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science has grown into one of the world’s premier marine and atmospheric research institutions. Offering dynamic interdisciplinary academics, the Rosenstiel School is dedicated to helping communities to better understand the planet, participating in the establishment of environmental policies, and aiding in the improvement of society and quality of life. For more information, visit:

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