Brownfield Action

Peter Bower, Ph.D, Senior Lecturer, Department of Environmental Science, Barnard College/Columbia University, New York, NY

In Brownfield Action students in the course are presented with a fundamental problem in environmental forensics (i.e., what is the nature and extent of environmental contamination at a specific site and who or what is responsible?) and they are charged with discovering what means are available to address the problem and at what cost. The course begins with lectures that cover the specific information that students will need to begin investigating the brownfield, including radionuclides and organic chemistry, the porosity and permeability of soil, the laws governing the flow of groundwater, the effects of toxins on humans, and the basic principles of environmental site assessments. However, the heart of the course is the laboratory component, which is organized around an interactive, cd-rom/web hybrid in which students form environmental consulting teams assigned to investigate a toxic site in a three dimensional digital 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 that contain information on surface elevation, depth to water table or bedrock, and soil or sediment type. As in real life, every lab test or permit requested by the team has a financial cost, and teams must complete their investigation within budget and time constraints. The playing field also includes a fictitious town complete with human infrastructure (buildings, roads, wells, water towers, homes, businesses, and residents). There is a municipal government within this town complete with relevant historical documents and permits. Because every investigative team will take a different approach to solving the problem, Brownfield Action promotes teamwork and rewards creativity and strategic thinking. The real-world ambiguity and the organic, evolving semester-long nature of the course provides students with a better understanding of interdisciplinary nature of scientific inquiry and its complicated relationship with economic, social, legal, and political structures.

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