Pollution in the Environment

Vijay M Vulava,
College of Charleston


In this course you will obtain theoretical skills required to understand how natural and anthropogenic factors influence pollutant behavior on Earth's near-surface environments. We will primarily focus on fresh water (i.e. streams, lakes, and groundwater) and shallow geological environments.

Course Size:
less than 15

Course Format:
Students enroll in one course that includes both lecture and lab. The lecture and the lab are both taught by the professor.

Institution Type:
University with graduate programs, primarily masters programs

Course Context:

This is the only environmental pollution themed class offered for geology majors and environmental studies minors at the college. Since the course is cross-listed with MS in environmental studies graduate program, several graduate students also enroll in this class and these students come with a variety if backgrounds, including some with non-science college degrees. However, due to the quantitative nature of this course, it is designed for students that have a two-course sequence of introductory geology (GEOL 101/103 and 105), chemistry (CHEM 111 and 112) and college level introductory math courses, those that are deficient can also do well in this course. Such students may need to spend additional time getting up to speed with the basics. Basic arithmetic is used throughout this class (logarithms, manipulating and solving simultaneous equations, etc.), so if you're out of practice, either look up basic math (Math 101/102) textbooks or come and see me if you need additional help.

Course Content:

This course used geochemical tools to delineate and understand anthropogenic impacts on our natural environments. The primary focus is on aqueous and soil environments, but some atmospheric components are also covered. In the laboratory component students are also given a hands-on introduction to characterizing polluted environments using some cutting-edge analytical tools.

Course Goals:

On successful completion of this course, students will:
1. develop a solid understanding of environmental processes and pollutant behavior in the environment,
2. develop the requisite skills to apply this knowledge to solve environmental problems, and
3. learn how to make quantitative predictions about outcomes of chemical reactions that occur in context of geological processes.

Course Features:

The class meets 3 times/week for 50-min lecture and discussion and once/week for a 3-hr lab session. Some of the lab sessions will be held over the weekend to accommodate more time for field analysis.

Course Philosophy:

The traditional approach of top-down incremental knowledge approach seems too contrived for this kind of a class. Instead, this class takes an unstructured case study approach to understanding environmental pollution issues. This approach will help students focus on the ``big picture" and develop a context for using basic science concepts to understand how environments work. As students try to unravel specific environmental pollution issues, they will learn core science skills necessary to understand and predict outcomes in similar situations. Since this is a significantly different approach than what students probably see in other classes, I expect all of them to fully participate and give me periodic feedback on what is working and what isn't.

One of the main goals of this course is to enhance students understanding of environmental pollution issues and be able to both qualitatively and quantitatively predict various outcomes. This requires critical thought and practice in both group settings and in individual settings. A traditional way to test your understanding is to have an exam and test their competence, but this is not the best approach for this course. Hence, there will be no exams (or a final exam) in this class, instead, there will be group and solo problem-solving activities and assignments. There will be several collaborative opportunities in this class on research and problem-solving activities.


Student performance in this course is assessed based on their understanding of basic environmental pollution concepts and the demonstration of their ability to apply this knowledge. This involves a combination of (i) group problem-solving exercises -- students work in groups or by themselves, (ii) solo problem-solving exercises, (iii) paper and presentation associated with your research projects and case studies, and (iv) class participation.

1. Group problem-solving exercises will include solving problems and synthesis and interpretation of published data - there will be approximately 10 of these -- 20\% of total grade. Notes: All students in the group get identical grade and hence it is important to work well together. It is not necessary to work in a group, but, it is strongly encouraged. In some cases, I'll pre-assign groups and all students within the group will have to work together. I'll clearly specify if the exercise can be worked as a group assignment.
2. Solo problem-solving exercises include similar problems as above - there will be about 5-6 exercises total -- 30\% of total grade.
3. Brief, but in-depth, pollution case studies in areas \textit{not} covered by me. This will be a small group (3-4 students) exercise. Each self-selected group identifies appropriate research papers ahead of time and shares these papers with entire class and then leads a discussion group of 15-min each. One or two of these exercises over the semester -- 10\% of total grade (entire group gets same grade.)
4. A 5000-word lab-based research paper that is comprehensive and original in scope and takes a good look at specific aspect of a pollution related topic. Come and see me before you create an outline to discuss your topic. Use the journal ``Environmental Pollution'' as a model for your paper (see \url{http://bit.ly/qyZNhg} for instructions on preparing the project report in a manuscript form) -- 30\% of total grade. Notes: Grade includes grades for all aspects of the paper, including the outline, the draft, and the final paper. Check course schedule for deadlines.
5. A 15 minute presentation of your project to the class during last week of class -- 10\% of total grade.
6. Laboratory grade is separate from the lecture grade and will be based on lab reports (70\%), lab journals (15\%), and the quality of lab work (15\%). Weekly projects are collaborative efforts, but each of you will synthesize and submit your own reports.


Syllabus for Pollution in the Environment Class (Acrobat (PDF) 164kB Apr25 13)

Teaching Materials:

References and Notes:

There are no textbooks available for this format class. But the following books are strongly recommended:

  1. Harr. 1996. A Civil Action. 502 pp. Random House.
  2. C.A.J.\ Appelo and D.\ Postma. 2005. Geochemistry, Groundwater and Pollution (Paperback), 668 pages, Taylor \& Francis; 2 edition, ISBN-10: 0415364280. An excellent book about various aspects of aqueous geochemistry and contaminant transport. Includes a lot of field data and applications with several practice problems with answers. Also check out the website of the author at \url{http://bit.ly/9dY6g0}. Costs about \$48 on Amazon.com. (\url{http://amzn.to/aaLpHb})
  3. R.A.\ Hites. 2007. Elements of Environmental Chemistry (Paperback), 224 pp., Wiley. Compact introduction to various concepts in environmental chemistry.
  4. Werner Stumm and J.J. Morgan. 1996. Aquatic Chemistry (Paperback), 3rd Ed., 1040 pp., Wiley. The BIBLE of aqueous chemistry - there is no better reference book than this. Includes several practice and worked problems and also in-depth coverage of several topics.
  5. R.\ Chang. 2005. Chemistry, 9th Ed. 1152 pp., McGraw-Hill. A good introductory chemistry book used at the College for CHEM 111/112 sequence.
  6. H.F.\ Hemond and E.J.\ Fechner-Levy. 2000. Chemical Fate and Transport in the Environment, 2nd Ed., 433 pp., Academic Press – Elsevier. Good introduction to pollutant concepts -- focus on chapters 1-3.
  7. I.J.\ Tinsley. 2004. Chemical Concepts of Pollutant Behavior, 2nd Ed., 402 pp., Wiley. Good introduction to pollutant concepts -- focus on chapters 2, 3, 5, and 7.
  8. C.R.\ Fitts. 2002. Groundwater Science, 450 pp., Academic Press – Elsevier. Excellent introduction to groundwater and contamination -- focus on last two chapters of this book.