Background and Context

Brownfield Education, A course meeting at Barnard College, Columbia University, 3009 Broadway, New York, NY 10027. Peter Bower, Ph.D., Senior Lecturer, Department of Environmental Science, pb119@columbia.edu, Phone: (212)854-3589

Course History

Brownfield Action has been used for three years as the foundation for the fall semester of the Introduction to Environmental Science course taught by Peter Bower at Barnard College. The course has two 1 1/4 hour lectures and one 3 hour laboratory per week; there are eight laboratory sections of 14 students each. Brownfield Action itself is an interactive, cd-rom/web hybrid in which students explore and solve problems in environmental forensics in a three dimensional digital world. Brownfield Action is embedded in and connected to a larger curriculum but the curriculum as a whole is all related to and integrated with the semester long effort at a solution to the Brownfield Action problem. Brownfield Action (and the larger curriculum in which it is embedded) is intended to simulate real life and is interdisciplinary, seamless, and organic. The larger curriculum includes the reading of two books: Civil Action by Jonathan Harr and Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. Extensive reading guides have been developed for both of these books. Both of these books connect to the issues of toxification of the environment, the pathways of exposure and health impact of these toxics, and the civic and social concern that the awareness of these issues engenders. These books are used to infuse civic concern into the real life simulation that is Brownfield Action.

Brownfield Action begins in the laboratory where students form environmental consulting companies in teams of two. Each company functions on its own and signs an explicit and detailed contract with a development corporation to perform an environmental site assessment of an abandoned factory and surrounding properties.

The contract summarizes in detail the obligations for each company as well as the goals for the semester-long investigation. The contract provides a budget for each company. Everything that the student companies do in Brownfield Action costs money and each company competes with the other companies to successfully complete its investigation and to maximize its profit.

Brownfield Action is a 3-D, virtual world whose playing surface is 2200 feet x 3200 feet. This surface extends to a depth of 300 feet and consists of over 2 million data points (every ten feet in any direction). Depending on location, the data points contain many different types of natural data including surface elevation, depth to water table or bedrock, and soil or sediment type. Depending on the investigative tool chosen by the student company, a particular location and depth may contain data for specific groundwater contaminants or provide a description of the results of an excavation. The playing field also includes a fictitious town complete with human infrastructure (buildings, roads, wells, water towers, homes, and businesses). There is a municipal government within this town complete with relevant historical documents and permits. There is a story-line that involves individual people and their particular roles and life histories. The story (imbedded and to be discovered in the simulation) is one of groundwater contamination complete with underground contaminant plumes and underground infrastructure (pipes and tanks).