Brownfield Action

Peter Bower, Ph.D, Senior Lecturer, Department of Environmental Science, Barnard College/Columbia University, New York, NY


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In Brownfield Action students in the course are presented with a fundamental problem in environmental forensics (i.e., what is the nature and extent of environmental contamination at a specific site and who or what is responsible?) and they are charged with discovering what means are available to address the problem and at what cost. The course begins with lectures that cover the specific information that students will need to begin investigating the brownfield, including radionuclides and organic chemistry, the porosity and permeability of soil, the laws governing the flow of groundwater, the effects of toxins on humans, and the basic principles of environmental site assessments. However, the heart of the course is the laboratory component, which is organized around an interactive, cd-rom/web hybrid in which students form environmental consulting teams assigned to investigate a toxic site in a three dimensional digital world whose playing surface is 2200 feet x 3200 feet. This surface extends to a depth of 300 feet and consists of over 2 million data points that contain information on surface elevation, depth to water table or bedrock, and soil or sediment type. As in real life, every lab test or permit requested by the team has a financial cost, and teams must complete their investigation within budget and time constraints. The playing field also includes a fictitious town complete with human infrastructure (buildings, roads, wells, water towers, homes, businesses, and residents). There is a municipal government within this town complete with relevant historical documents and permits. Because every investigative team will take a different approach to solving the problem, Brownfield Action promotes teamwork and rewards creativity and strategic thinking. The real-world ambiguity and the organic, evolving semester-long nature of the course provides students with a better understanding of interdisciplinary nature of scientific inquiry and its complicated relationship with economic, social, legal, and political structures.

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.

The Course

A major priority in the design of this course is the engagement of students as scientists and citizens. This is accomplished through the variety of techniques described below.

Brownfield Education Syllabus

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Course Description

Physical processes of the environment and their interaction with human development, industrialization, and pollution. Special emphasis on environmental site assessments, brownfields, groundwater pollution, toxics, radionuclides, and human health including a reading of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Jonathan Harr’s Civil Action.

Classroom Etiquette

Every few years the behavior of several students compels me to remind the whole class of what may seem obvious to most:
a) talking during lecture is inconsiderate and disconcerting to me as well as to those trying to listen, think, and take notes;
b) it is rude to walk in front of class (between the lectern and the lecturer) after class has begun; if you come in late (after 11:00 A.M.), enter on the upper (3rd floor) level; quietly proceed to take a seat in the back (upper) half of the room;
c) and, always turn off your cell-phone and/or beeper before you enter the lecture hall or the laboratory.

Laboratory Meetings

On Wednesday, September 4th, students will select their laboratory section. September 10-14 is the first full week that students report to the laboratory in 616 Altschul. Students must report to their assigned laboratory section. Be sure to be on time because attendance is taken promptly at the beginning of class (9:10 A.M. or 1:10 P.M.) and is immediately followed by a short quiz. Deadlines for assignments will be strictly observed. Grades for late work are subject to a maximum 30% reduction at the instructor’s discretion.

Changing Laboratory Sections

Students must report to their assigned laboratory section unless they have applied for and received authorization to change their section. Application to change a laboratory section may be made by phone, e-mail, or in person to either Joe Liddicoat or Diane Dittrick. Students must continue to attend their assigned laboratory section until they have been given authorization to change.

Make-Up Laboratories

No make-up laboratories (including laboratory quizzes) will be given without advance notification of at least one week before any absence due to
religious observance. Otherwise, no make-up laboratories will be given except for bonafide emergencies or illness. Except in the most unusual circumstances advance notification is required. A letter from your Academic Dean or your doctor is required before the scheduling of any make-up test. If permission to make-up a laboratory or laboratory quiz has been received, it should be rescheduled as soon as possible.

Laboratory Attendance

Failure to attend or complete the work of three laboratories will result in automatic failure for the course. Each of the first two absences from the
laboratory will result in a zero. Lateness to the laboratory by more than 10 minutes on three occasions is the equivalent of one absence.

Teaching Assistants

Teaching Assistants (TAs) are Barnard undergraduates, often Environmental Science majors, who assist the Laboratory Instructors during weekly laboratories. Under the supervision of the Laboratory Instructor they also provide assistance to students during the laboratory. Except by prior arrangement and permission of the Laboratory Instructor or Lecturer students are not to meet or discuss the course with TAs. All questions and concerns about the course should be addressed directly to the Laboratory Instructors or to the Lecturer.

Evaluating Learning


Grades will be assigned according to performance on twelve tests (each having equal weight and constituting 48% of the final grade) and one comprehensive final exam (17%). Read Make-up Tests and Test Procedures below. Performance in the laboratory will constitute the remaining 35% of the final grade (read The Laboratory, Laboratory Quiz Procedure, and Make-up Laboratories below). The final grade may also be affected by attendance in the laboratory (read Laboratory Attendance below). For those students taking the lecture only, the final grade will be determined from performance on twelve tests (84%) and one final exam (16%). Paying attention, taking good notes, and the ability to follow instructions are simple skills that are a key to success in this course. Application of these skills requires both good attendance as well as punctuality. The pace of the semester is unremitting, but not ruthless. Assignments and instructions come inexorably and, if not attended to, can suddenly assume the form of a tsunami.

All grades will be based on a scale of 100 with A+ = 97.00-100, A = 93.00-96.99, A- = 90.00-92.99, B+ = 87.00-89.99, B= 83.00-86.99, B- = 80.00-82.99, C+ = 77.00-79.99, C = 73.00-76.99, C- = 70.00-72.99, D = 60.00-69.99, and F = 59.99 or less.

Definition of Grades

A+= Rare performance. Reserved for exceptional achievement.

A = Excellent work. Outstanding achievement.

A- = Excellent work that exceeds course expectations.

B+= Very good work. Solid achievement (expected of Barnard/Columbia undergraduates) that meets all course expectations.

B = Good work. Acceptable achievement that meets almost all course expectations.

B- = Satisfactory work. Acceptable achievement that meets major course expectations.

C+= Fair achievement just above that which is minimally acceptable.

C = Fair achievement but only minimally acceptable.

C- = Barely acceptable achievement.

D = Very low performance. Unsatisfactory work. Lowest achievement to still allow for a passing grade. This grade may not be counted toward the major or minor option.

F = Failure.

Consult the Barnard or Columbia College Catalogs or the Registrar’s Office for other information about grading, including: the definitions of other letter grades, pass/D/fail option, incompletes, and calculation of GPA.

Summary of Grading for Course

Course Requirement % of Final Grade
I. Lecture 60
12 Tests (Each 3%) 36
Comprehensive Final Exam 24
II. Laboratory 40
12 Quizzes (the best 10 are each worth .5%) 5
Brownfield Investigation (12 Labs) 35
III. Adjustments for Absence or Lateness

Exams and Quizzes

Test Procedures

Tests will be given at the beginning of the lecture period. The test will be handed out but no one may begin work until told to do so. You will have 15 minutes to work on the test. No writing is allowed after you are told that the “time is up.” Anyone who continues to write (no matter what the reason) will be given a zero for the test. If you are late to class, you will have less time to complete the test. If you miss the test or the class, you will be given a zero for the test.

Make-Up Tests

No make-up test will be given without advance notification of at least one week before any absence due to religious observance. Otherwise, no make-up test will be given except for bonafide emergencies or illness. Except in the most unusual circumstances advance notification is required. A letter from your Academic Dean or your doctor is required before the scheduling of any make-up test. If permission to make-up a test has been received, it should be rescheduled as soon as possible.

Procedure for Handling Questions and Complaints About the Grading of Tests, Quizzes, and Other Assignments

If you have a question or complaint concerning the grading of your work, you must detail the question or complaint in writing. Attach this
written question or complaint to the test, quiz or other assignment and give it to Prof. Bower directly or leave it in his mailbox in the Environmental Science Department. Once your question or complaint has been reviewed, your work will be returned to you with an explanation of the action taken. At this time if there are still questions, the issues may be discussed. Under no circumstances will a discussion about grading take place prior to above mentioned review, and no review will take place unless the problem or complaint is put in writing. Your laboratory instructors and teaching assistants have also been instructed not to discuss questions and complaints about grading with students. Remember! Put it in writing!

Background and Context

Brownfield Education, A course meeting at Barnard College, Columbia University, 3009 Broadway, New York, NY 10027. Peter Bower, Ph.D., Senior Lecturer, Department of Environmental Science,, Phone: (212)854-3589

Course History

Brownfield Action has been used for three years as the foundation for the fall semester of the Introduction to Environmental Science course taught by Peter Bower at Barnard College. The course has two 1 1/4 hour lectures and one 3 hour laboratory per week; there are eight laboratory sections of 14 students each. Brownfield Action itself is an interactive, cd-rom/web hybrid in which students explore and solve problems in environmental forensics in a three dimensional digital world. Brownfield Action is embedded in and connected to a larger curriculum but the curriculum as a whole is all related to and integrated with the semester long effort at a solution to the Brownfield Action problem. Brownfield Action (and the larger curriculum in which it is embedded) is intended to simulate real life and is interdisciplinary, seamless, and organic. The larger curriculum includes the reading of two books: Civil Action by Jonathan Harr and Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. Extensive reading guides have been developed for both of these books. Both of these books connect to the issues of toxification of the environment, the pathways of exposure and health impact of these toxics, and the civic and social concern that the awareness of these issues engenders. These books are used to infuse civic concern into the real life simulation that is Brownfield Action.

Brownfield Action begins in the laboratory where students form environmental consulting companies in teams of two. Each company functions on its own and signs an explicit and detailed contract with a development corporation to perform an environmental site assessment of an abandoned factory and surrounding properties.

The contract summarizes in detail the obligations for each company as well as the goals for the semester-long investigation. The contract provides a budget for each company. Everything that the student companies do in Brownfield Action costs money and each company competes with the other companies to successfully complete its investigation and to maximize its profit.

Brownfield Action is a 3-D, virtual world whose playing surface is 2200 feet x 3200 feet. This surface extends to a depth of 300 feet and consists of over 2 million data points (every ten feet in any direction). Depending on location, the data points contain many different types of natural data including surface elevation, depth to water table or bedrock, and soil or sediment type. Depending on the investigative tool chosen by the student company, a particular location and depth may contain data for specific groundwater contaminants or provide a description of the results of an excavation. The playing field also includes a fictitious town complete with human infrastructure (buildings, roads, wells, water towers, homes, and businesses). There is a municipal government within this town complete with relevant historical documents and permits. There is a story-line that involves individual people and their particular roles and life histories. The story (imbedded and to be discovered in the simulation) is one of groundwater contamination complete with underground contaminant plumes and underground infrastructure (pipes and tanks).

Related Resources

SENCER Resources

Below are resources from SENCER documents and publications related to the Power of Water Course


Reinventing Myself as a Professor: The Catalytic Role of SENCER by Terry McGuire

Why Should You Care about Biological Diversity? by Eleanor J. Sterling, Nora Bynum, Ian Harrison, Melina Laverty, Sacha Spector, and Elizabeth Johnson (PDF)

Ektina, E. and Mestre, J.P. 2004. Implications of Learning Research for Teaching Science to Non-Science Majors, 1-26.