When Perth mother Michelle got a note from her son’s public primary school about an upcoming incursion — a visit by outside instructors — she was taken aback to find out it was a science lesson offered by volunteers sponsored by oil and gas giant Woodside.
- A school science lesson invites students to “drill for oil” with a vegemite sandwich
- Parents are concerned about the lesson being sponsored by an oil and gas company
- The school says it plans to follow up with lessons about climate change
“The children will get the opportunity to make a reservoir using bread slices, vegemite and sprinkles,” the note read.
“They will then become their own exploration company and try to find the best spots to drill into the sandwich to find the oil [Vegemite].”
Michelle told Nadia Mitsopoulos on ABC Radio Perth she was concerned that the year 3 children would be given a pro-fossil fuels message without also being taught about its impact on climate change.
“Usually, when something exciting happens at school, especially something like a cool science experiment with sprinkles and bread and Vegemite, he’d come home from school and say ‘mum, guess what I want to do when I grow up?'” she said.
The experience prompted her to talk to her son Jake about climate change, and to talk to the school about the lesson as well.
“We found some little videos on the internet, which he loved,” she said.
‘What message do they go away with?’
After conversations with the school principal and science teacher, she said the school also planned to offer follow-up lessons on climate change.
While she said people might think she was overreacting to kids having a few hours of fun with food, she believed the incursion offered a one-sided education experience.
The activity sparked intense debate among ABC Radio Perth listeners:
Jay: “There is nothing wrong with Woodside engaging young students in the science and physics of producing the energy we ALL use every day.”
Bruce: “Isn’t it important kids know that oil comes from the earth and is made from dead dinosaurs — so there is limited supply — rather than a drive-in servo that never runs out?”
Gerard “Woodside are not looking at the future. By the time Jake is choosing what uni degree to do, oil and gas will be on its death bed.”
Cam: “We would balk at fast food/cigarette/weapons companies going to talk at schools, and we should have the same reaction to the fossil fuel industry doing the same.”
A PR exercise?
The incursion was offered as part of Woodside’s STEM — science, technology, engineering, and maths — in schools program which it said sends “trained volunteers to primary and secondary schools to run activities and share stories that spark curiosity about STEM and its many career options”.
Woodside’s website advises that the program is fully booked for the remainder of 2021.
Professor Charles Watson, a public health physician and former WA chief health officer, said he was appalled by the program.
“There is a major public relations campaign going on from all of the fossil fuel companies to try and make them sound nicer. It’s generally referred to as greenwashing,” he said.
“They’re trying to use our education system to soften up the public on these issues by telling them that they’re basically nice people, and that oil and gas aren’t really anything to worry about.
“Whereas [climate change] is the biggest public threat we’ve ever faced.
Professor Watson said he intended to write to the WA Education Department urging it to no longer allow the program in public schools.
In a statement the Deputy Director General of Schools, Melesha Sands, said the state’s curriculum took a “balanced approach to teaching students about energy sources”.
“Woodside is one of the external Science Week participants who explain to students the science behind drilling for oil to give them an idea of where current energy sources originate,” she said.
“The Department of Education is working on a new sustainability framework to further explore ways that communities can contribute to reversing the effects of climate change.”
The program is not the first corporate schools initiative to raise concerns.
Numerous states have now ended school banking programs after finding they offered limited education value and exposed children to “sophisticated” marketing tactics.