The Big Learning from the BP Oil Spill May Be About Learning

Now that the BP Deepwater Horizon oil well has been signed, sealed and officially declared dead, we have the chance to look at what we’ve learned from all of this.

We’ve already seen hundreds of articles and writeups about what we can take away from this incident in terms of how oil companies are managed, how risks are mitigated (or not), how government responds to this type of crisis, etc.

But there’s another lesson that hasn’t been much discussed, and that relates to how the public became well-educated about the happenings in the Gulf–about how we as a society became conversant on a subject and terminology that most of us had little or no knowledge of before the accident, and one we most certainly would never have chosen to study on our own.

Personally, I had minimal knowledge of how oil is produced and refined, but virtually no understanding of how oil rigs work, or what happens when they explode and spew millions of gallons of crude through the environment. Through the power of the Internet,  real-time video feeds and tools like Twitter, we learned not just about deepsea offshore drilling in detail, but about blowout preventers, top kills, bottom kills, and junk shots. We became aware of how currents carry foreign matter like crude oil to distant locations, how dispersants work, and how to protect fragile marshland. We got a lesson in economics, in terms of how shutting down oil rigs and fishing waters has a cascading effect on the economy of an entire region. And we got all of this without ever opening a text book or listening to a lecture.

Since this event, we’ve also had the opportunity to learn about the operations of mines in Chile, and how miners can be kept alive for months with proper safe rooms while waiting complicated rescue operations. Just recently, in the Bay Area, we’ve learned the amazing power of high pressure gas transmission lines–something most of us take for granted as they supply our homes and offices with fuel, until 10 days ago when an entire neighborhood went up in flames as a result of a natural gas explosion in San Bruno, CA.

We hear a constant refrain about the poor quality of our educational systems–how teachers can’t teach and kids can’t learn. We put together initiatives and tests to try to squeeze more performance from a system that is barely making the grade.

Education is extremely critical to our society: Our position in the world is at risk moving forward if we don’t do something to create a better way to educate our population.The question is are we trying to educate a 21st century population with a 17th century methodology? We’ve all learned more science from these recent tragedies than most people ever get through a full twelve years of formal education.

How can we use the technologies and the world around us to educate ourselves more effectively–not just school age children but society overall?

Learning how to leverage this phenomenon may be an educational path worth drilling into.

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