Linking Science and Social Issues

What are the capacious civic questions or problems addressed in the course?

Because Brownfield Action ( is a semester-long investigation of environmental contamination and takes place within a simulated city with actual people, the central theme of the semester is fundamentally one of civic involvement. While the problem itself is one of environmental forensics (i.e., what is the nature and extent of the contamination and who and what is responsible?), the problem of brownfields (environmental site assessments of potentially contaminated property) is also of central concern to society. It is of concern to society because there is another pressing question that both permeates this semester-long investigation and is also one of fundamental civic concern. This is the question: is the contamination harmful and, if so, how harmful and to whom, and, finally, what means are available and at what cost can this contamination be remediated. All of these questions need to be asked and answered by civic-minded citizens. Such civic-mindedness is only possible when a developed sense of social concern is invested with a basic knowledge of government and cities, and informed with science.

What basic science is covered and how is it linked to public policy questions?

Students begin the semester without an understanding of topographic maps or the nature of a site investigation. The groundwater system and basic civics (the structure and function of municipal government) are equally unfamiliar. What is a well or a water tower? What is the chemistry of gasoline? What are the health effects of TCE? The lectures are designed to teach students concepts and information needed in their investigation. Lecture subjects range from radionuclides and organic chemistry, to porosity and permeability and the laws governing the flow of groundwater, to strategies for environmental site assessments and the role of municipal government, to toxics, risk, and human health, or to causation in toxic tort litigation. As the laboratory investigation of Brownfield Action progresses, the lecture materials evolve to keep pace with the needed concepts and information.

The virtual world of Brownfield Action serves to draw students into active involvement, and to engage them in an integrated, virtual world with a mystery to be solved. The tools required to solve this puzzle come from an interdisciplinary array spanning geology, environmental science, history,
economics, civics, physics, biology, chemistry, and law. There is an important "on-the-job" social element because students must work together and make decisions in collaborative teams. There are important real-life, psychological, and pedagogical elements, especially because the problems and the tools needed to complete the investigation are ambiguous and unknown at the start. Each decision costs money and each company must learn to obtain the maximum amount of information at the lowest cost, information that will help it make more important and expensive decisions later in the semester in order to fulfill their contractual obligations. Students may obtain historical and anecdotal information by visiting the municipal complex or interviewing individuals within the simulation. They can also choose from an array of technical tools enabling them to determine surface elevations (and construct a topographic map) and bedrock elevations (using seismic profiling to construct a bedrock topographic map), find underground tanks or pipes (using ground penetrating radar, metal detection and magnetometry), or drill (to determine the depth to the water table or take ground water samples). Each of these tools requires reading materials, problem sets, and time for explanation and questions in lecture and laboratory. Students must pass tests to become licensed to use each of the various forensic tools and subcontract with a private firm to obtain data. While students companies may begin drilling at any time, they quickly learn that this is a very expensive procedure not to be applied in random and unknown locations in a blind search for contamination. Lectures and one-on-one contact in the laboratory provide the strategic thinking tools for planning a cost-effective investigation that will evolve over time and that is shrouded in ambiguity.

Student companies learn that anecdotal information from township residents  and former workers at the abandoned factory, that the construction of character and story maps, and that an effort to obtain historical documents such as septic field permits, hazmat reports, and site maps from the municipal government will inform their decision-making in a cost-effective manner and prepare them for the use of more expensive scientific tools. Students also learn that science is interdisciplinary and collaborative and embedded in the real world.

What strategies does the course use to both advance science education and foster civic engagement?

Brownfield Action is seamless, organic, and dynamic. It simulates real-life. The concepts and information learned in the beginning of the course are needed not just for the first exam but are also needed to solve important facets of a complex, evolving investigation of a "real" world and its ambiguity. Concepts and information must not only be learned, but also retained and internalized, that is, be under the purposeful control of each student. This "ownership" and use of the concepts and information grows and evolves over the course of the semester. Laboratory exercises are not just cookbook recipes that are completed and over with at end of the laboratory period. Laboratory exercises for Brownfield Action are integrated into the simulation and, thus, need to be understood in the context of new information and reevaluated in the context of a final report to the development corporation. For example, a standard lab exercise involving the sieving of sediment becomes an investigation of sediment from a drill hole at the abandoned factory and the porosity data from this analysis must be used later in the semester for a D'Arcy's law calculation of groundwater velocity. The groundwater velocity data is used in turn to estimate the distance the contaminant plume has traveled in order to better inform the selection of locations to drill and sample the groundwater. This calculation is also important for understanding the nature and extent of the contaminant plume for legal reasons (i.e., has the plume crossed property lines?).

Students must not only learn about particle sizes distributions and porosity and permeability early in the semester but they must own this information in order to use it in their investigation and reports. Brownfield Action is inquiry-based learning. It is a conscious effort to move away from the traditional pedagogy in which students learn by studying, memorizing, categorizing, and recognizing isolated sets of facts and processes received in lectures, by working on cookbook laboratories, and by completing problem sets and exercises, all in lockstep with an all encompassing textbook and the exam schedule. Much of this pedagogy is useful but Brownfield Action places these useful pedagogical tools within the framework of inquiry-based learning. Brownfield Action forces students to learn by doing, to become hands-on researchers who, while engaged in a semester-long investigation, become owners rather than consumers of their education. They learn to cope with ambiguity, to explain observed phenomena by searching for appropriate concepts, and to make connections between seemingly disparate concepts through hands-on laboratory activities. They become self-motivated, responsible creators of knowledge as they use all of their learning, their results from laboratory analyses, their maps, diagrams, drawings, charts, tables, and graphs to synthesize their final reports.

The interdisciplinary and collaborative context of Brownfield Action allows students to see science in its true relationship to human existence. While an environmental site investigation requires the use of scientific knowledge and tools, within Brownfield Action this knowledge and these tools are connected to and informed and influenced by history, economics, civics, law, and politics. The science itself is interdisciplinary requiring interdependent use of chemistry, ecology, biology, medicine, toxicology, geology, physics, and geochemistry to name a few. The emphasis is on the use of these interdependent sets of knowledge and tools to solve problems, not on the retention of intellectual content and sometimes factoids (often driven by an exam). Problems, however, cannot be solved without content; Brownfield Action puts content into motion as it is actually used in the real world. Students thereby gain confidence in their problem-solving abilities and in their ability to think and become self-informed on scientific issues. These abilities along with significant content are now retained more effectively and long after the course is over.

I often tell my students: "Your education is what's left over after six months. Your education (what you have really taken from this course) will then inform your interactions and discussions with others, will change what newspaper or magazine articles you read, and what TV programs you watch; it will change what is important to you. Your education will affect the choices and concerns of your daily life; these new choices and concerns reflect a new understanding of the world and a change in your attitude; it demonstrates that this course and what you have taken from it is something that you truly own and that your new choices will alter/influence the course of your own life. What you have taken from this course is a seed that you will use to continue the process of self-education and self-transformation. The education that you have taken from this course can be measured six months after the course is over by the extent to which this course still affects your life. The Barnard mission statement calls this "self-renewing intellectual resourcefulness".

Brownfield Action is organic. The laboratory functions as free-flowing workshop. At times there are specific units where everyone works together on the same task; a unit on topographic maps is a good example. The map exercises, however, are directly related to and inform the investigation. The laboratory is designed to be a time for discussion/feedback as well as for work. The web based-nature of Brownfield Action allows a student to take the virtual world back to her room or to the library to continue working. This is also more like real life-like. The specific issues confronting the individual student in the present do not go away. Students must think about them and work on them consistently, not just before the big deadline; moreover, each specific result is not an end in itself; the results are organic and grow with the whole investigation. Brownfield Action allows a multitude of pathways by which to find the hidden reality. Each student company works collaboratively and at its own pace and develops its own approach. The laboratory does indeed become a workshop as laboratory instructors relate to each specific student company and their needs.

Brownfield Action is also collaborative. Students form their own environmental consulting company and work in teams of two. Each student must, however, write and produce her own final reports using the information acquired by the team. In addition, all of the student companies are hired by the EPA and work together in the Phase II Environmental Site Investigation. Student companies also work together as detectives to build elaborate character and story maps in order to develop an understanding of the specific roles of individuals at the abandoned factory site. Brownfield Action builds a sense of community among the students and incorporates teamwork and the development of student leaders into educational format of the laboratory. Brownfield Action has undergone development and fine-tuning over the last two years based upon the experiences and consensus reached among the project developer, the technologist, and the instructors but also based upon the findings of two professional, independent educational evaluators hired to observe each of these past two years.

The findings of the evaluators reveal a dramatic increase in understanding and learning. Student reports are much more authentic and show ownership of ideas and of the ability to analyze and discuss issues meaningfully and independently. The results also reveal new difficulties because Brownfield Action places new demands upon and conflicts with negative, learned student behaviors. Concepts and information must be retained and utilized beyond the next test or assignment. Concepts and information must be "owned" and internalized. There is no set of fixed outcomes (as there would be in a cookbook lab). As in real life, ambiguity abounds. Students must often find their own motivation to explore. There are many pathways to the reality embedded in the simulation. Student work habits often revolve around deadlines; work and study occur just before the deadline of the next test or assignment. Brownfield Action requires consistent and persistent effort without the stimulus of continuous due dates or deadlines. Students often "quit" when outcomes do not provide the immediate sensation of being "done" or a clear sense of the end in sight. Brownfield Action attempts to address these pedagogical issues as well as provide a platform for enhanced learning.