Building a STEM Future from LA’s Oil History

Did you know that some schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) are built on the remnants of L.A.’s once-booming oil fields? In fact, an estimated 200+ Los Angeles schools have been built on and near oil fields, and quite a few schools are surprisingly close to the city’s active oil pumps.

Even the students and teachers at John Adams Middle School (JAMS) did not realize that until recently that their school rests on top of the old Los Angeles City Oil Field. Back in 1892, the Los Angeles City Oil Field grew from a major oil gusher into over 500 active wells, making L.A.’s landscape far different than it is today. Built in 1923, John Adams Middle School remains within a one-mile radius of active oil extraction. It also happens to be a mile from Professor Birendra Jha’s petroleum research lab at USC Viterbi School of Engineering (which is itself half a mile from the 29 active wells at 1371 West Jefferson Boulevard). Within that mile, L.A.’s oil history has led to a collaboration that helps bring STEM to life for JAMS students.

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Professor Jha presenting his petroleum research to students of John Adams Middle School (JAMS).

Back in 1890, Edward L. Doheny Sr. started drilling for oil with his partner, Charles Canfield. They hit a big well in 1892, launching the Los Angeles City Oil Field. By 1900, over five hundred oil wells crowded the four miles south of Dodger Stadium and the area between Hoover Street and Vermont Avenue to the west; today, many active wells remain. The wealth Doheny acquired from his oil wells has shaped the landscape between John Adams Middle School and USC, from the Doheny Mansion on Figueroa Street to the Edward L. Doheny Jr. Memorial Library on the USC campus, named after Edward “Ned” Doheny, Jr., who attended USC and died tragically in 1929. 

Some photos of current oil wells were published in 2014 by The Atlantic and in the Center for Land Use Interpretation’s online exhibit, Urban Crude. An interactive map of active drills can be found at the LA Curbed site.

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Historical Map showing Los Angeles Oil Field.

Oil wells helped Los Angeles’ economy to prosper in the early 20th century, when L.A. produced a third of the nation’s oil; today, the use of advanced technologies such as horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” to extract the shale oil has shifted the majority of American oil and gas production to other states. The science and engineering of those technologies is now a focus of study for JAMS students thanks to the collaboration between JAMS Science Teacher Cris Barbu and Dr. Jha, Assistant Professor of Petroleum Engineering in the Mork Family Department at USC Viterbi. Professor Jha researches the impact of oil extraction and water injection on rock deformation and earthquakes to design new methods of oil recovery that are cost-efficient and environmentally safe. Together, the two educators share their passion for math, physics, and earth sciences with the 8th grade students in this inner-city school.

 
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Elevated View of Oil Fields showing  homes, oil derricks, storage tanks, steam boilers and well houses in Los Angeles in 19th century.

Professor Jha first visited Mr. Barbu’s classes to discuss the fundamentals of electric energy production based on the extraction of fossil fuels and our society’s dependence on natural resources such as oil and coal. The Professor then joined Mr. Barbu's Physical Science labs, helping students to better understand how to design experiments, to measure  properties of materials, including rocks similar to those studied in Jha's research lab. Next, the students visited USC to learn firsthand about the types of analyses performed by Dr. Jha and his group of postdoctoral researchers and his Ph.D. students. JAMS students also had the opportunity to present their own projects in a full multimedia USC auditorium in front of the Professor, his collaborators, and their peers, thereby having a real college experience.

Mr. Barbu feels the close alliance has motivated his students: “Professor Jha also shared with my students his educational and professional journey and gave students valuable insight and advice about their own educational trajectories. Many students shared how impressed they were with Professor Jha's accomplishments and presentation, and that now they felt more motivated and empowered to pursue academic and scientific careers.”

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John Adams students learn and also present their projects at USC. Mr. Barbu (front) and Professor Jha (rear, left).

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Professor Jha's rock sample ready for testing in his laboratory at USC.

Mr. Carlos Gonzalez, Principal of John Adams Middle School, envisions building on these connections between USC and JAMS. He encourages his students to learn more about their neighborhood and its history. Mr. Gonzalez considers the USC campus as more than a neighborhood landmark, but also as the symbol of his students’ possible future, as he hopes all his students will continue with their STEM studies and go on to college. Dr. Wendy Correa, Assistant Principal at Adams Middle School, is also enthusiastic about the partnership.

Mr. Barbu and Professor Jha plan to continue the collaboration in the new academic year and for several years reaching into the future. By experiencing these standards-aligned lessons in earth sciences, physics, and data analysis within their own neighborhood, the JAMS students are laying the groundwork for a college-bound future. This is human “energy production” for the 21st century that will help fill the nation’s many STEM-ready jobs and give society a chance to understand the consequences of global dependence on fossil fuels.

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Dr. Jha interacting with Cris Barbu (teacher at John Adams Middle School) in the Professor's USC laboratory.

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Cris Barbu (left) and Professor Jha (right).

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