Using a Groundwater Pollution Problem to Develop Professional Communication Skills

Jeff Nunn, Professor of Geology and Geophysics, Louisiana State University

This material is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project


This assignment asks students to work in groups of "consultants" to explore a groundwater pollution issue, analyze similar projects, mine those projects for strategies, and ultimately propose solution.

Instead of preparing a group speech for the end of the semester, students present their process and solution through the production of a video. The final project is a promotional video for their fictional consulting firm, which proposes a solution to a fictional client.

While some technical skills are developed for the production of a video, the most important component is the content. While the consulting firm and the client are fictional, the scientific concepts and project proposal must be very real.

The final video presentation should include all of the following project elements: statement of purpose, description of methods, proposed numerical analysis, anticipated results, limitations, expected costs, and timeline for completion.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications

Learning Goals

Develop the skills necessary to conduct a professional hydrogeologic research project, including the ability to accomplish the following:

  • construction of a numerical grid
  • solution of a simple set of differential equations using MS Excel
  • assignment and/or interpolation of observations onto grid nodes
  • simulation of groundwater flow due to topography and compaction

Students will learn to effectively document and communicate their analytic processes & results in a multi-modal manner including:

  • appropriate professional visualization techniques: charts, graphs, maps, and 3D displays
  • professional written documentation: 4 individual project reports
  • advanced written/spoken/visual presentation to a diverse audience: video pitch for your "consulting firm"

"The Hydrogeology Video assignment was a semester-long, multi-modal project where groups of five students were formed into 'Geo-consulting firms'" The student-firms were charged with scripting, shooting, and editing a 10-minute video related to a genuine water topic in the Baton Rouge area (e.g., salt water intrusion). Within the video, each firm proved their scientific experience, knowledge of the issue, and offered solutions their company could bring to Baton Rouge.

This project was noteworthy for teaching effective strategies for team building; written, oral, and visual communication skills, and proficiency in multimodal synthesis of those subsets; as well as providing a venue for students to go into significant depth about a hydrogeologic topic of interest to them. Students were required to gear the presentation to a public audience so they also learn more about basic principles by having to explain them to someone else. Finally, I was very surprised and pleased that all of the groups interviewed outside experts as part of their videos. This not only included other faculty in Geology and Geophysics at LSU but faculty in other Departments at LSU, faculty at other institutions, USGS and Louisiana Geological Survey personnel, and the manager of the Baton Rouge water treatment plant. One student has continued to conduct research on this subject as part of an MS thesis."

– Jeff Nunn, LSU Professor of Geology & Geophysics, highlights professionalism development for students enrolled in his upper-level Hydrogeology course.

Context for Use

This project is best suited for an upper-level, capstone course. Students should be well-versed in their discipline's content-knowledge and research-techniques, so that the emphasis can be placed on the professional communication of the content and research. Dedicated resources to assist the students with production and editing techniques are crucial. You do not want students to spend an unbalanced amount of time securing equipment and learning to use said equipment. We received extensive support (human & material) from the LSU College of Arts & Sciences Communication Studio, and from their Graduate Assistant, Joseph Watson (Communication Studies PhD Candidate).

This type of project offers numerous benefits to upper-level science students. They receive practice conducting a professional research problem, and are charged with communicating their knowledge and solution to a multi-tiered audience using a multimodal approach. The final product serves as a valuable piece of evidence of both content-knowledge and communication skills for potential employers and graduate school admissions' committees. Geologists must often pitch their expertise to potential clients who are not as versed in the scientific data and methods; a video pitch offers them an opportunity to practice their communication skills with diverse audience and also provides a unique artificat to use in graduate school admissions packets and/or interviews with potential employers.

Description and Teaching Materials

Assignment: East Baton Rouge Parish has posted a Request for Proposals for a five year contract to assess groundwater resources in the parish for the 21st century. As funding for this contract will come from voter approval of a bond issue, the first phase of the project is for prospective bidders to develop an approximately ten-minute video to be made available to the public prior to the bond issue vote.

This video should provide citizens and public officials with information on:

  • one or more aspects of groundwater resources in the parish,
  • potential solutions to real or potential problems in groundwater resources in the parish, and
  • the expertise and experience your firm has in those areas of groundwater resources.

Known problems with groundwater resources in the parish include:

  • overuse of deep confined aquifers,
  • regional subsidence associated with groundwater withdrawal,
  • localized subsidence along faults,
  • intrusion of salt water from the south across the Baton Rouge fault, and
  • pollution of groundwater by leaking petrochemical tanks, leachate from landfills, and chemicals used in lawns and agricultural fields.

Students work in teams to develop a written plan and to produce a video. The project takes place over a two-month period, and involves in-class and out-of-class time. The project timeline with milestone assignment details is provided below.

GEOL Video Project Timeline and Milestones (Acrobat (PDF) 201kB Nov2 09)

Teaching Notes and Tips

Successful execution of a complex project (both the in-depth content-analysis & production of a video) requires extensive planning in advance on the part of the instructor, including:

  • development of a general project plan with clearly identified milestones for students
  • advance identification of human & material resources
  • detailed descriptions and directions for all project components
  • built-in status reports to assure students are on point
  • clearly defined roles and expectations for all participants


The video project is evaluated on scientific content, structure, and overall quality of production using the rubric linked below.

GEOL 4261 Spring 2009 Rubric to Assess Final Video Projects (Acrobat (PDF) 91kB Nov2 09)

References and Resources

Identify campus, community, and virtual resources available to students at your institution. Many colleges and universities have Writing across the Curriculum programs, writing labs, speech tutors, and other support centers for academic excellence.