Background and Context

HON 270, A course meeting at Southern Connecticut State University, New Haven, Connecticut

Dr. James Tait, Department of Science Education and Environmental Studies, Email:, and

Dr. Vincent Breslin, Department of Science Education and Environmental Studies, Email:

Course History

Course Statistics

Previous Course Offerings - Fall Semester 2001, 2002, 2003, 2005.

Course Enrollment - Maximum of 20 students per semester

Course Level - Freshman/Sophomore

Prerequisites - Honors College

Course Management and Strategies

Creation of the Honors College science courses has presented significant opportunities and challenges. The vast majority of the Honors College students are not science majors and their only exposure to science may have been anywhere from one to three introductory science courses early in their high school education. The authors decided to develop a course combining field-based research and guided inquiry focused on environmental issues of the Connecticut coast and Long Island Sound. The course was designed to teach science to non-majors to formulate hypotheses, to collect field samples and extract data, to use of modern analytical instrumentation in a laboratory setting, to engage in quantitative data analysis, and to effectively communicate results in writing and orally. Papers and presentations stress the societal relevance of the investigation.

The course is scheduled with a two-hour lecture/lab session each week followed by a three-hour field exercise. During the field exercise, data of various sorts are gathered and environmental observations are made. For the most part, fieldwork is focused on gathering data on a particular problem or to test a particular hypothesis. At other times the three-hour class is used for doing laboratory analysis of sediment samples collected from coastal waters. The emphasis on field and laboratory work is considered crucial to the intent of the class, which is to learn science by doing science using unscripted problems of general concern to the community.

The semester-long course has four modules. A geology module focuses on the geologic formation of the Connecticut coast and requires students to master identification and interpretation of basic rock types and geologic structures found in the region. The geologic and geomorphic framework of the coast provides a physical context for subsequent modules. The glacial history of the area, for example, resulted in the deposition of terminal and recessional moraines (e.g., Long Island) that formed a protected, low-energy coastal environment characterized by salt marshes.

A coastal processes module examines Connecticut's coastal wetlands and sandy beaches and the contemporary processes that modify them. Students explore local marshes and beaches, making observations of the sediments, waves and tides, topography, and characteristic biota. The culminating theme in the module is living with the coast. Students examine the potential impacts of the recurrence of a storm with the magnitude of the 1938 hurricane. This storm produced water levels 14 to 18 feet above mean sea level and waves as high as 15 feet. Most of
the Connecticut coast is flat lying and heavily developed. A central trust of this module is a topographic survey of selected coastal neighborhoods. Students work quantitatively with survey data to map the extent of inundation and estimate the value of property at risk using publicly available assessment data.

A coastal pollution module examines the industrial history of New Haven, culminating in a study of sediment metal contamination in New Haven harbor. The theme in this case is human impacts on the coast. Students formulate hypotheses concerning the relative concentrations, geographic distribution, and potential sources for metal contaminants. Working as a group, the students plan a research cruise to obtain sediment samples, agreeing on sampling stations that best serve their collective hypotheses. The cruise takes place aboard a chartered coastal research vessel. At each station, students obtain one or more sediment samples using a surface grab. Samples are examined in a cursory fashion, labeled, and stored in a cooler. Precise data on positioning, tide level, and time of day are recorded. In subsequent classes, samples are analyzed for copper content following standard lab procedures and with the use of an atomic absorption spectrophotometer. Copper is used as an index metal for metal concentrations in general. Students are expected to understand the theoretical underpinnings of how the spectrophotometer works. Calculations are then performed on spectrophotometer results to obtain metal concentrations in parts per million. Students compare these results with their original hypotheses, and make interpretations concerning the specific distribution sediment contamination.

The final module stresses climate change and its potential impact on the Connecticut coast including sea level rise and possible effects on living
resources in Long Island Sound. Students work in groups of four or five with each group researching the implications for a specific climate change impact. The groups organized a PowerPoint presentation in which each student presents part of the group's findings. The presentations are required to go beyond mere reportage and must include the group's critical thinking on how severe a particular impact might be, what ramifications (e.g., economic) might occur as a result of that impact, how society might prepare and respond to the impact in question, and actions that concerned individuals might be able to take to alleviate the problems.

Who Created the Course?

This course was developed by James Tait and Vincent Breslin. Both are faculty in the Department of Science Education and Environmental Studies. Dr. Breslin has a background in oceanography and environmental chemistry as well as marine biology. Dr. Tait's background is in oceanography and geosciences with a concentration in the geological and physical processes of the coastal zone. We have made use of our respective expertise to design the course focusing on issues and processes along the Connecticut coastline.

Vincent T. Breslin

Vincent T. Breslin is an Associate Professor in the Department of Science Education and Environmental Studies at Southern Connecticut State University. He received a B.S. in Marine Biology from the University of New England, ME, a M.S. in Marine Environmental Studies from SUNY at Stony Brook, NY and a Ph.D. in Oceanography from the Florida Institute of Technology, FL. Dr. Breslin served on the faculty of the Marine Sciences Research Center at SUNY at Stony Brook, NY prior to his arrival at SCSU in the Fall 2000. He currently serves as the faculty coordinator for both the undergraduate Marine Studies and Environmental Studies minor programs and is a member of the SCSU Graduate Faculty. Dr. Breslin teaches undergraduate courses in the Marine Studies minor program, the Environmental Studies minor program, the Honors College program and the graduate Environmental Education MS program.

Dr. Breslin developed two new courses for the Environmental Education program: EVE 559 Energy Use and Global Climate Change and EVE 552 Long Island Sound: Environmental Perspectives. He also developed new courses in collaboration with other SCSU faculty for the Honors College concerning Science along the Connecticut Coastline and Energy. Dr. Breslin's teaching has been informed by his participation in the National Science Foundation sponsored Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities program designed to improve scienceĀ  education by focusing on real world problems. His courses have field and/or laboratory components that require students to do research and make observations concerning the natural world. In addition, his courses stress doing science that has direct social relevance to coastal Connecticut and the greater New Haven area. Dr. Breslin recently received the 2007 J. Philip Smith Award for Outstanding Teaching at Southern Connecticut State University.

Dr. Breslin has also received funding and published papers in support of laboratory and field-based studies examining the biogeochemical behavior of contaminant metals in coastal waters. His studies have been important in understanding the spatial distribution of contaminant metals in Connecticut harbors and the potential accumulation of these metals in living marine resources. He also serves as a co-coordinator with Dwight Smith (Biology) and James Tait (Science Education and Environmental Studies) for the Connecticut State University Center for Coastal and Marine Studies. The CCMS enhances faculty-directed student research and curriculum development in support of addressing regional issues of concern to coastal Connecticut.

James F. Tait

James Tait is an Associate Professor in the Department of Science Education and Environmental Studies at Southern Connecticut State University. He received a B.S., M.S. and Ph.D. in Earth Science from the University of California, Santa Cruz, CA. Dr. Tait was a Research Associate at the Institute of Marine Sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz prior to his arrival at SCSU in 1997. Dr. Tait teaches undergraduate courses in the Marine Studies minor program, the Honors College program and the graduate Environmental Education M.S. program. In addition to HON 270 Science along the Connecticut Coast, Dr. Tait developed two new courses for the Environmental Education
program: IDS 560 Rivers and Watersheds and EVE 550 Tsunamis and Hurricanes.

Dr. Tait has been actively involved in leadership positions at SCSU in issues concerning undergraduate curriculum development and reform. Dr. Tait has chaired the Undergraduate Curriculum Forum, a university-wide committee charged with the task of devising and encouraging the means for improving overall undergraduate curricular arrangements and quality of instruction. Dr. Tait is currently serving on the SCSU General Education Task Force charged with revising the General Education curriculum at SCSU. James Tait is an active researcher and has published papers and received funding in support of his studies examining coastal processes. He also serves as a co-coordinator with Dwight Smith (Biology) and Vincent Breslin (Science Education and Environmental Studies) for the Connecticut State University Center for Coastal and Marine Studies.

Where is the course taught?

Southern Connecticut State University and the Honors College

Southern Connecticut State University is a large urban-suburban comprehensive public university with a mission to serve the community and to provide access to education. The university is the flagship of a four-campus Connecticut State University system and serves as the principal locus of graduate programs. It has an enrollment of approximately 12,000 students. The campus is located in the in coastal city of New Haven and has ready access to Long Island Sound, an estuary that separates the state from Long Island in the state of New York. The coast of Connecticut is one of the most densely urbanized in the country with both residences and industry. This geography makes the coastal zone both vulnerable to natural processes such as erosion and storm damage and subject to degradation via marine pollution and other anthropogenic impacts.

The Honors College at Southern Connecticut State University offers an interdisciplinary, team-taught curriculum that honors students take in lieu of the University's general education curriculum. The HON 270 Science along the Connecticut Coast fulfills one of two required science courses in the Honors College curriculum. Emphasis is on intellectual interaction, interdisciplinary perspectives, and on the probing of subject matter in depth as opposed to the breadth of coverage typical of many introductory survey courses. The ultimate goal of the honors curriculum is to cultivate strong reading and writing skills with an emphasis on original critical thinking.