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Science in the Courtroom: The Woburn Toxic Trial

Teaching Materials by Scott Bair - Starting Point page by R.E. Teed (SERC).
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This material is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project
Initial Publication Date: July 4, 2005 | Reviewed: November 25, 2019


In this exercise, hydrology students role-play expert witnesses in a mock trial dealing with contamination of groundwater. Student prepare for the role-play by studying the movement of groundwater and the transport of contaminants through computational and map exercises and field trips. For the role-play, the hydrology students work with law students. The hydrologists divide up and serve as expert witnesses for the plaintiffs and the defendants; the law students are the attorneys. This exercise teaches hydrology students the value of integrating computational and communications skills in order to present and defend their understanding of a situation.

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Learning Goals

The exercise teaches students:
  • How to develop and defend their opinions.
  • How to question the opinions of others.
  • The limitations of data collection and analysis.
  • The importance of integrating computational and communication skills.

Context for Use

The mock trial is the finale of a ten-week hydrology course and takes a full period. The material in the previous nine weeks prepares the students and includes field trips to leukemia research lab, a municipal wellfield, an aggregate quarry, a county landfill, and a wetland, numerous lectures and problem sets to teach students about the rate of groundwater movement and the transport of contaminants.

Teaching Materials

The web site for Woburn Toxic Trial - Ohio State University's Mock Trial Course contains:
  • A syllabus for the course
  • Spreadsheet data for streamflow gain / loss analysis on the Aberjona River
    • This file is in .rtf format and is a little tricky to drag into a spreadsheet.
  • Photos associated with the original case
  • A descriptions of the novelization of the case in A Civil Action by Jonathan Harr, 1995, Random House, Inc., New York, NY. It is now a movie as well and might make a useful supplemental text.
  • More useful links

Teaching Notes and Tips

The designer recommends restricting the class to 12 students (never more than 15).


The students must each write a term paper and a professional opinion expose. The two assignments are very different. The term paper should be as objective and complete as possible, and all information must be carefully cited, while the expose needs to be brief and supportive of one side of the case.

References and Resources

This role-playing exercise is described and analyzed in Bair, 2000 . Journal of Geoscience Education v. 48 no. 4 (September 2000) p. 450-454.