Weird Science: Ten Years of Informal Science Workshops

Robert E. Pyatt,
Ohio State University


As educators, we are frequently challenged to develop interesting and educationally robust methods for the promotion of critical thinking in our classrooms. Once our students have graduated, the opportunities for them to further develop their critical thinking skills are greatly diminished. For the last ten years I have conducted informal science outreach workshops outside of the classroom setting, which I call “Weird Science.” In the discussion that follows, I’ll introduce the concepts behind these workshops and the strategies I have used to promote science and critical thinking skills among diverse audiences. I’ll conclude with some challenges I have encountered and provide anecdotal feedback from attendees on the significance of these events.

Weird Science

Weird Science workshops are part journal club, part citizen science project, and part stand-up comedy. Having previously written for the Annals of Improbable Research, I have adopted their slogan of making “people laugh and then think.” Through Weird Science I have appeared before diverse audiences including lunch clubs, summer school programs, book clubs, science fiction conventions, and MENSA chapters in informal learning environments such as public libraries, hotel ballrooms, gymnasiums, waterparks, bars, restaurants, and churches. Each session typically lasts from sixty to ninety minutes and includes a review of three to four science articles and participation in a hands-on experiment. Both parts are designed to be interactive and foster maximum audience participation in the form of a group discussion on data review/analysis and a hands-on activity. The content is tailored for either adult or family audiences.

The educational framework of Weird Science is based on training I received in the philosophical, pedagogical, and scientific aspects of education through the Fellowships in Research and Science Teaching (FIRST) program, which is cooperatively organized through Emory University, Clark Atlanta University, Spelman College, and Morehouse College and School of Medicine. This fantastic program combines a traditional post-doctoral research experience with formal instruction on teaching and learning methods, with a mentored teaching experience at one of the minority serving institutions in the Atlanta area. Specifically, I have covered topics drawn from Barbara Davis’s book Tools for Teaching, which was used as a text for this program: encouraging student participation in discussions, tactics for effective questioning, fielding student questions, and alternatives to lecturing. Although the book focuses on formal classroom techniques, I have found many of its principles to be applicable to informal teaching as well.

Figure 1. The author presenting a Weird Science workshop in late 2014. The caption on the image behind the author reads “Because Chocolate Can’t Get You Pregnant”

Weird Science contains many of the strands recently outlined by the National Research Council for learning in informal spaces. These include reflecting on science as a process, participating in science activities involving scientific language and tools, manipulating, testing, and exploring the natural and physical world, and experiencing excitement and motivation to learn about our world (Bell et al. 2009). My goal is to make each one a funny, educational, and informative session for everyone, regardless of their age or science background.

Part Journal Club

The majority of a Weird Science workshop is composed of audience analysis and discussion of scientific articles as typically found in a science journal club. The types of articles I draw from include primary, peer-reviewed literature as well as reports from the mass media. In many cases, this is the first time audience members have ever been exposed to a peer-reviewed publication, and I find demystifying the scientific literature to be an important goal. While the prospect of fostering a discussion of primary scientific articles involving individuals with diverse science backgrounds may seem daunting, the selection of appropriate papers has been the key to success. I have found that the most appropriate types of publications typically include topics with a minimum of background information needed to understand the hypothesis, experimental methodologies with simple designs used to address that question, and most importantly a subject which can quickly grab attention and stoke curiosity. For example, little background knowledge is needed to understand the importance of identifying methods to safely transplant animals to new habitats, such as those discussed in “Transplanting Beavers by Airplane and Parachute” (Heter 1950). Participants can easily understand the experimental design in “Testing the Danish Legend That Alcohol Can Be Absorbed through Feet: Open Labelled Study” (Hansen 2010), where subjects immersed their feet in vodka for three hours and then monitored their blood alcohol levels.   Finally, the papers already mentioned and many others, including “My Baby Doesn’t Smell as Bad as Yours: The Plasticity of Disgust” (Case et al. 2006), “Robot Vacuum Cleaner Personality and Behavior” (Hendriks et al. 2011), and “Do Women Spend More Time in the Bathroom Than Men?” (Baille et al. 2009) illustrate how a great subject can quickly pique interest.

By using these examples, and many others over the last ten years, I have been able to guide participants with little to no formal training in science through a critical review of the scientific methodology, data analysis, and conclusions presented in these publications. For example, when asked to design their own method to test the myth of alcohol absorption through feet, many audiences initiated spirited discussions concerning what type of alcohol to use (percentage alcohol content) and what controls would be appropriate for such a study. Participants then contrasted their experimental designs to the one used in the published report, which opted for vodka (37.5 percent alcohol by volume) but included no real controls (Hansen 2010). For the study “Robot Vacuum Cleaner Personality and Behavior” (Hendriks et al. 2011), which surveyed a population of six individuals as part of their methodology, participants correctly recognize that such a small sample size does not provide statistically reliable support for the conclusions drawn by the authors. The differences between hypothesis-driven research and observational types of science can be illustrated through case studies such as “Pharyngeal Irritation after Eating Cooked Tarantula” (Traub et al. 2001). Mass media articles like “Swedish Cows Make Lousy Earthquake Detectors” (The Local 2009) can be used to explain what peer review is and to promote a discussion on the differences between peer-reviewed scientific literature and reports from mass media sources. The history of science can be explored through publications such as “The Behavior of Young Children under Conditions Simulating Entrapment in Refrigerators” (Bain et al. 1958). In the end, science articles like these are ideal for stimulating discussions about the scientific method and data analysis in individuals, regardless of their formal scientific training.

While finding appropriate journal articles with these characteristics within the vast body of published literature may seem overwhelming, there are actually many resources that one can mine. Both the Annals of Improbable Research and the Journal of Irreproducible Results feature odd science topics in every issue. There are also a wealth of blogs including Sci-Curious ( and Seriously, Science? at Discover Magazine (, which highlight strange science publications. Additionally, many end-of-year “best of” lists now include odd science discoveries in their categories. Fortunately, I have always had some form of academic position that has included access to nearly all of these publications through the fantastic library resources found at colleges and universities across the United States. With the gradual adoption of open access policies, many of these articles are now accessible for free to participants after the workshop.

Part Citizen Science Project

The last third of a Weird Science session involves audience participation in examining a scientific question. It has been suggested that involving the public in citizen science projects can impact their understanding of science content and the process of science (Cohn 2008). While most citizen science projects are long-term studies in which participants play a minor role, these exercises are smaller in scale and are selected so that participants can be actively involved in both data collection and interpretation. I again draw directly from the primary literature for inspiration; previous topics have included stall preference in public bathrooms (Christenfeld 1995), left/right-side preference for tasks such as holding a small dog (Abel 2010), and whether Dippin’ Dots (tiny frozen spheres of ice cream) can cause ice cream headache (Kaczorowski and Kaczorowski 2002).

While the exact series of steps differs depending on the topic of investigation, this section typically includes a brief discussion on the background knowledge behind a specific scientific question and an experiment in the form of a hands-on activity or survey to test the discussed hypothesis. For example, Chittaranjan and Srihari published a report in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry examining nose- picking behavior in two hundred school-age children in Bangalore City (Chittaranjan and Srihari 2001). As the instrument used in that study is included in the article, I would hand out that short survey and ask that any interested individual anonymously answer the questions on their nose-picking behavior. Once these responses are collected, I would introduce the publication and discuss any limitations in their methodology, in this case issues such as reporting honesty by respondents and response selection bias when using surveys. The group then discusses the results from the paper allowing attendees to compare their own personal answers to questions like “Do you believe that nose picking is a bad habit?” and “Do you occasionally eat the nasal matter that you have picked?” to the complete data set from the article (Chittaranjan and Srihari 2001).

While I vary the articles I cover for every Weird Science workshop, I conduct the same scientific experiment for all presentations during a calendar year running from July to June. This allows me to amass a large data set examining a specific hypothesis and to correlate results from the Weird Science experiments with results from the original manuscript. Most venues invite me back annually, which means I can present the cumulative data set from the complete year upon my return visit and allow the audience to draw parallels and conclusions from our data in relation to the original published study. Most importantly, we discuss how no scientific study is perfect and identify the limitations of our own study methods, which impact how we can analyze the data and draw conclusions from it.

Part Stand-Up Comedy

In the last few years, publications have appeared examining the use of humor in science communication with both positive (Roth et al. 2010; Pinto et al. 2013) and negative conclusions (Lei et al. 2010). While acknowledging that there can be positive effects of humor in education, Lei et al. also comment that some types of humor can be viewed as offensive and therefore unfit for a classroom setting. Additionally, humor that is excessive or forced may also be viewed as negative and can undermine the credibility of the educators (Lei et al. 2010). Through an analysis of video tape recordings of first-year teachers, Roth et al. describe multiple types of humor in the classroom and identify laughter as “a collective interactive achievement of the classroom participants that offsets the seriousness of science as a discipline” (Roth et al. 2011).

Figure 2. Clay creations made by attendees in 2013, testing whether working with modeling clay can alleviate chocolate cravings.

I rely heavily on humor as an instructional and entertainment tool that takes three general forms. First, many of the articles themselves contain classic bits of humor I can draw from directly. For example, in the study “Observing a Fictitious Stressful Event: Haematological Changes, Including Circulating Leukocyte Activation,” the authors determine whether immune cells are activated when participants view a fictitious stressful event by having them watch “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (Mian et al. 2003). In commenting on the study’s conclusions disproving the Danish myth of absorbing alcohol through the feet, the authors write, “Driving or leading a vessel with boots full of vodka seems to be safe” (Hansen et al. 2010). Secondly, as I typically use PowerPoint as a method of delivering figures and images from these publications, I can draw on the extensive collection of clip art from the internet to graphically enhance my presentations. Finally, the responses from participants themselves during the experimental portion are often excellent sources of humor. When reviewing the results of our test to see whether a modelling clay activity can alleviate chocolate cravings, I show pictures of some of the clay creations made during that activity. While I encourage everyone to treat the experiments with an appropriately “serious” attitude, I see a wide range of interpretations. In response to a question concerning their favorite ice cream flavor, participant answers included “blue,” “orange sherbet,” and “Ben and Jerry’s Vanilla Nut Cream of the shimmering hills crowded among the snowy valley.” As part of a study on body hair patterns, participants responded to a question on unusual body hair locations with answers including “I have it on the tops of my feet but no, I am not Frodo Baggins” and “Only when I am around my cat.” While not necessarily fulfilling the intent of the questions asked, these responses are funny in a good-natured way and provide a great teachable moment to illustrate some of the challenges of using surveys as a research instrument.

It has been suggested that humor may not be an appropriate tool for science communication as audiences lack the background knowledge to get the jokes (Marsh 2013), speakers present themselves as elite individuals (science experts) elevated above the audience (Marsh 2013), or because humor can only be derived when the audience asserts their superiority over the shortcomings of the particular situation (Billig 2005). I would instead argue that humor is a powerful tool in any educational setting, and that these pitfalls are avoided by the organization and delivery of Weird Science. The audience members themselves serve as the scientists as they work through the various analysis and experimentation exercises. Consequently I serve more as a “guide on the side” rather than as an all-knowing “sage on the stage.” My selection of articles specifically ensures that extensive background information is not needed to get any particular joke and shows that critical review is an integral part of the scientific process, which need not include an air of superiority. Finally, humor is essential to making these sessions entertaining and promoting a general feeling that an audience’s time has been well spent.

Putting It All Together

To demonstrate how all of these parts come together to form a complete program, I’ll describe a recent workshop I presented at the Multiple Alternative Realities Convention (MarCon) in Columbus, Ohio. The workshop lasted approximately seventy-five minutes and began with a discussion of “Do Bees Like Van Gogh’s Sunflowers?” (Chittka and Walker 2006). I used this paper to foster a discussion on the study’s methods, which measured the preference of bees to pictures with and without flowers, using different media for each image; these included posters with reprints of original works, oil on canvas, and an acrylic on canvas board reproduction of Van Gogh’s painting by another artist. Audiences noted that the inconsistent use of media complicated the interpretation of bees’ preferences for the images. Next we reviewed the results from the previous year’s citizen science project “The Use of a Modeling Clay Task to Reduce Chocolate Craving” (Andrade et al. 2012). After reviewing the results from the study, the audience contrasted the published methods with the study they participated in and noted that while the original had selected for individuals who self-described as “chocolate lovers,” our population was not pre-screened in such a way. This may have contributed to our failure to reproduce the study’s findings.

Next the paper “Skipping and Hopping of Undergraduates: Recollections of When and Why” (Burton et al. 1999) was presented. The authors of the paper highlight that one percent of undergraduates surveyed report never having skipped or hopped, which the audience noted may reflect more on the selective memories of the respondents and the limitations of surveys as experimental instruments than on actual events. The case report “The Case of the Haunted Scrotum” (Harding 1996) was used to illustrate the difference between hypothesis-based research and observational science. Finally, the audience was challenged to design an experiment to test whether watching different types of television programs would impact the amount of food being consumed during snacking, as studied in the paper “Watch What You Eat: Action-related Television Content Increases Food Intake” (Tal et al. 2014). We closed the workshop with a new citizen science project examining the types of rubber glove creations attendees would make in the setting of a pediatric doctor’s office to calm an upset child. Once I recorded the types of creations made, the audience then compared their creations to child preferences in the study “The ‘Jedward’ versus the ‘Mohawk’: A Prospective Study on a Paediatric Distraction Technique” (Fogarty et al. 2014).


While I have loved presenting these workshops, they have not been without their challenges. Because of the diversity of scientific backgrounds in audience members, I have seen participants with more science experience unintentionally dominate discussions. The job of moderator is an important one and requires a sensitive touch in these informal settings to maintain a balance between a lively group discussion and basic crowd control. Additionally, while I have often found myself presenting in bars, I have luckily never found the inclusion of alcohol to be a negative factor. However, its presence can change the discussion dynamics, and I am always on guard in such situations for alcohol-related complications such as heckling.

I find identifying appropriate articles to be relatively easy, but designing the hands-on component has proven to be more complicated. The diversity of locations where I present limits the types of hands-on experiments that can practically be done. Surveys have become an easy solution to these logistical issues, but I have tried to use them only sparingly, when I can’t identify another subject that involves more active experimentation. As a majority these workshop are free, the cost of any reagents (ice cream, chocolate, rubber gloves, etc.) comes directly out of my own pocket, and a lack of external funding further limits experimental complexity.

Occasionally, I have perceived a slight air of disappointment from participants when our attempts to replicate a published scientific study fail, as in the clay modeling activity to alleviate chocolate cravings. While situations such as this provide excellent educational opportunities to discuss how the process of science is full of errors and failed experiments (for whatever reason), a lack of exciting results does work against the entertainment goal of the workshops. I have tried to redirect negative feelings through analogies to the TV show Mythbusters by discussing how replication is the foundation of science and how our negative results may have disproved a questionable hypothesis (with caveats regarding differences between our experimental method and the published study).

Anecdotal Feedback

I have honestly been thrilled with the level of success I have experienced with Weird Science. I have never made a formal attempt to evaluate the effectiveness of these sessions or track my attendance numbers, but written responses to the experimentation portion over the last four years can be used to at least measure the number of attendees participating annually. For each year from 2011 through 2014, between 192 and 207 people participated, with ages ranging from 17 to 79 years. This included approximately equal numbers of male and female respondents. I would estimate that at any one workshop, between one half to two thirds of attendees participate in the science experiment.

Finally, the success of these sessions has led me to create a Facebook group called “Weird Science with Rob Pyatt” to continue similar scientific discussions outside of the workshops by using social media. In preparation for this paper, I asked group members who had previously attended a workshop a few questions regarding their views on and experiences with Weird Science sessions. While this is far from a scientific evaluation, I think these anecdotal responses begin to illustrate the value in this unique informal education format. When asked if something surprised them about a Weird Science workshop, two individuals responded “The amount of time devoted to discussing data collection and study. I learned more about how science works than any actual science itself,” and “Science can be fun.” When asked why they took the time to attend a Weird Science workshop, answers included “Because you don’t just lecture, you involve everyone in the process so that they understand how a scientific study should work,” and “Learning and entertainment!” One final comment from a participant concerning why they have attended a session in the past, “You engagingly discuss science in a way that I who has a minimal science background and my fiancé who has a degree in chemistry can both enjoy.” I’ll close with an unsolicited comment I received in 2013 from a mother who had attended a session with her daughter; I hope it serves to illustrate the impact these workshops can have. She posted “Just wanted to let you know that you are an influence on young minds. My mom was talking about some ‘study’ she saw on TV (with a test group of one) and my daughter immediately started countering with all the reasons this was NOT a scientifically valid study. So proud!”

About the Author

Robert E. Pyatt is an Associate Director of the Cytogenetics and Molecular Genetics Laboratories at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and an Assistant Professor-Clinical in the Department of Pathology at Ohio State University. He received his M.S. from Purdue University and Ph.D. from Ohio State University. Rob is also the chair of the JW Family Science Extravaganza, a satellite event of the USA Science and Engineering Festival held annually in Hilliard, Ohio.


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Figure Legends

Figure 1: The author presenting a Weird Science workshop in late 2014. The caption on the image behind the author reads “Because Chocolate Can’t Get You Pregnant.”

Figure 2: Clay creations made by attendees in 2013, testing whether working with modeling clay can alleviate chocolate cravings.

Sustaining Place, Language, and Culture Together


Our initiative involves a community engagement partnership guided by an understanding of decolonizing methodologies and an overarching goal to sustain the place, language, and culture of the Alaska Native village, Chevak. Furthermore, the Indigenous sovereignty and ownership of ancestral ways of knowing guided the design and implementation of this initiative. The Will of the Ancestors is an ongoing effort that involves a rural, community-based partnership of Elders, Indigenous inservice and preservice teachers, parents, and elementary students from a rural community located near the Arctic Circle and an education faculty from a major state university in Alaska. This synergistic approach includes the following components: teacher education, a collaborative Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics (STEAM) curriculum project, the creation of a local atlas of plants and animals important to subsistence, and language revitalization through a children’s book project and writing workshop.


The Native American Languages Act, Title I of Public Law 101-477 proclaims: “The status of the cultures and languages of Native Americans is unique and the United States has the responsibility to act together with Native Americans to ensure the survival of these unique cultures and languages.” Additionally, Congress made it the policy of the United States to “preserve, protect, and promote the rights and freedom of Native Americans to use, practice, and develop Native American languages.” Adding to the discourse, in April of 2014, the President of the National Alliance to Save Native Languages provided testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives on the need to support programs that help meet the linguistically unique educational needs of Native students while also preserving, revitalizing, and using these students’ native languages (Testimony of Ryan Wilson 2014).

While the charge is clear, so are the reasons behind it. In their work, Angelina Castagno and Brian Brayboy (2008) point out that the rhetoric that recognizes the shortfalls of the K–12 educational system offered to Indigenous students in this country dates back almost fifty years. At 13.2 percent, the dropout rate for Indigenous students is among the highest of any ethnic group in the United States (Aud et al. 2011). The statistics regarding the academic achievement of Native populations, particularly Alaska Native students enrolled in K–12 classrooms, indicate a persistent gap in achievement (also referred to as the “opportunity gap”). Often these system inadequacies are aggravated by the high teacher turnover rate. According to the University of Alaska Center for Educational Policy and Research, the teacher turnover rate in rural areas has been reported to average 20 percent, with some rural districts reporting a teacher attrition rate as high as 54 percent. One of the factors contributing to this rate is the teachers’ lack of knowledge about the local culture and traditions (Hill and Hirshberg, 2013). Additionally, the amount of material available to these students in their native languages is abysmal. This is important given that the number of books in the child’s home and the frequency with which the child reads for fun are also related to higher test scores, as reported by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) (National Center for Educational Statistics 2013).

While there is no denying the discourse centered on the failures and inequities of the past, this project was initiated to provide a more thoughtful, action-driven, and synergistic approach. Our approach seeks to address the needs of K–20 students and their teachers, while preserving the Alaska Native cultures, languages, and subsistence ways of life. To do that, we have embarked on several projects, including the following components: a teacher education plan, a collaborative Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics (STEAM) curriculum project, the creation of a local atlas of plants and animals important to subsistence, and language revitalization through a children’s book project and writing workshop.

Theoretical Understandings of Our Work

The community engagement projects have their foundation in the possibility and hope that through authentic engagement, students and faculty can establish meaningful relationships and a genuine appreciation of the importance of language, culture, and place with members of an Alaska Native community. Thus, this project was approached and implemented using two theoretical lenses: (1) Sociocultural Theory applied to science education (Tobin 2013) as a means of improving practice through research that benefits the participants; and (2) Demmert and Towner’s (2003) “culturally based education” (CBE), which emphasizes the following elements: recognition and use of Native languages; pedagogy using traditional cultural characteristics; teaching strategies and curriculum congruent with traditional culture and traditional ways of knowing; strong Native community participation in education; and knowledge and use of the political mores of the community.

Setting the Context: Life in the Arctic Circle

For thousands of years the Arctic tundra and the nearby Bering Sea and its tributaries have provided shelter and endowed the inhabitants of this remote village with an environment that has supported rich cultural traditions rooted in ecologically responsive knowledge and subsistence living in rural Alaska. Ancestral knowledge dating back thousands of years has been shared through oral traditions of storytelling, songs, and dances. Subsistence gathering and hunting are carried out using principles of harmonious coexistence in one of the harshest environments on Earth. The careful gathering of eggs and berries, ice fishing in the winter, spring seal hunting, and summer fish camps have ensured the survival of the Cup’ik people for thousands of years.

The bicultural, bilingual community of Chevak, Alaska is faced with language retention issues and with the challenges associated with incorporating Western technology while still maintaining a strong cultural identity, culture, and language. The Elders, teachers, and preservice teachers who work in the Immersion program are fluent and literate in their native language and possess anecdotal and practical knowledge of subsistence activities and ways of knowing in science. On the other hand, many of the parents of school-age children do not participate in subsistence activities and/or struggle with the Cup’ik language.

Multiple Approaches to Language and Culture Revitalization

Our involvement with this community engagement project began in 2010 when the superintendent of the Alaska Native community of Chevak approached the College of Education faculty about the revolving door of teachers in his district. Every year, teachers from outside Alaska came to teach at the school and very few lasted more than a couple of years. In extreme cases they did not return after the winter break, leaving children without a certified classroom teacher for months at a time. The request the superintendent made was for our college to provide a quality preservice education program for the Alaska Native paraprofessionals at the school. These individuals have deep roots in the community. Many even have relatives who graduated from the school or children who are enrolled in the K–12 school. This request began a collaboration between the faculty at our college and community members from the village. The Alaska Native paraprofessional initiative inspired faculty members to continue and deepen their collaboration with Elders, teachers, parents, and students. Five years later, these community-engaged projects are all intricately connected and mutually informing. The design and implementation of each initiative emerged from thoughtful conversations between community members and faculty. The initiatives include: (1) Alaska Native teacher preparation project; (2) Traditional ways of knowing in the STEAM curriculum; (3) Local atlas of plants and animals; (4) Children’s book project; (5) Writers group. Although we describe them below as separate projects, they are, in fact, a part of an integrated approach that has emerged through our collaboration. The graphic representation below shows how each project is linked within the partnership, followed by a more detailed description.

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The Alaska Native Teacher Preparation Program

The Alaska Native teacher preparation initiative seeks to prepare teachers who are fluent speakers of Cup’ik and who can serve the cultural, academic, and linguistic needs of students in the K–6 Language Immersion Wing, as well as in the English Language Wing. As the president of the local school board stated,

The members of the cohort will teach in the immersion program. We want to produce homegrown teachers with the help of the university. We support this program and would like to see it expand in the years to come. The presence of the faculty in our village is really appreciated. The cohort is taking the Western-style approach and the cultural roots of our people and merging them side by side, in the way Elder Boyscout envisioned it. This program will benefit our people, our kids. It is a model that other villages can follow. (Jeff Acharian, School Board President, April 12, 2013)

This model is a cohort model, enrolling currently uncertified Alaska Native paraprofessionals, who are already working in the classroom, in the elementary education program at the University of Alaska Anchorage. The cohort has ranged in number from twenty to seven, depending on the semester, starting in 2010. While the students take many of the classes via distance learning, which allows the students to continue to work at Chevak School, take care of their families, and practice subsistence, intensive courses have also been offered on site. These intensives are run over the course of one week and allow the cohort to experience an active learning environment while also cultivating relationships with a variety of university faculty, including those in the elementary education program, early childhood education program, and College of Arts and Sciences (for example science, philosophy, and anthropology faculty).

Although both faculty and cohort members generally prefer face-to-face classes, it is not economically feasible to fly instructors to the village for every class. In the beginning, more classes were offered on site, but as students have gained access to technology and the Internet, they have participated in more online courses. Intensive courses scheduled around subsistence are offered when possible (depending on faculty availability and funds).

During a session at the 2013 Alaska Native Studies Conference, a panel that featured members of the teacher preparation cohort, school board members, and university faculty shared their engagement with the project and its importance to the people in the community. The panel opened with the voice of cohort member Susie Friday-Tall, who shared the story of turning driftwood.

My mother shared the story of the driftwood with me; she heard it from my grandmother: The driftwood is alive and it deserves to be turned over. The pieces of driftwood talk. Each one says something different: I will be a harpoon, I will be a boat, I will be a walking stick. The driftwood will become something useful. We have to turn it, to make it useful. …My dream is to see our local people become teachers from kindergarten to 12. (Susie Friday-Tall, cohort member)

This story exemplifies the partnership that started five years ago, which seeks to provide a culturally sustaining teacher preparation program. The paraprofessionals who are part of the preservice teacher cohort have been working at the school for over a decade. One cohort member shared:

[With] the support I received from the teacher initiative I have been able to take college classes. This is a dream that I thought was so unattainable that it would die. Thanks to this initiative I will someday reach the goal to become a teacher for our Cup’ik children. (Cikigaq Joseph, cohort member, March 12, 2012)

Yet another young woman shared in a spirited voice what the program meant to her:

When we all reach our goals of becoming teachers it is going to be amazing. We know our students, we live among them; we eat the same food. I know that when we teach them they will soak up the information. Our children will excel. I am really thankful to this program. We are going to keep going and the students are going to fly; they are going to be good. (Julia Alberts, cohort member, April 12, 2013)

Finally, university faculty have also attested to the importance of this work and what they have received in return. As Assistant Professor of Early Childhood Education Kathryn Ohle stated,

Going to Chevak to teach Family Community Partnerships was life changing. It forced me to really think about the contexts in which we work while also recognizing and embracing the values of the community of Chevak and not those necessarily characteristic of the university community. We talk about culturally responsive    pedagogies but I did not fully understand what that looked like until I was there, interacting with these paraprofessionals who will change what education looks like for the next generation. I am a better teacher and a better citizen because of my experience there. (Kathryn Ohle, university faculty, August 10, 2014)

With four students already receiving their associate’s degrees and many others closely following suit, this is an initiative that has provided and will continue to provide support to the community by helping them “grow their own.”

STEAM Curriculum

The STEAM Curriculum project began in 2013 when a UAA faculty member, Dr. Irasema Ortega, began discussions with community members, in particular inservice teachers, about the science curriculum within the Immersion Wing. Dr. Ortega saw the possibilities of connecting the existing curricula to the preservice teacher initiative through collaborative efforts to create curricula via methodology and other courses. Before that, the science curriculum implemented in the K–4 immersion school was not available in the form of written lessons. At best, it was written in an abridged format. Previous efforts had involved a project in which twelve paraprofessionals worked alongside inservice teachers to produce picture books about the animals and plants found in the village and the surrounding tundra. (See Figure 2.) This project extended the effort by integrating the books as well as oral stories, plays, photography, and other forms of artistic expression into the immersion curriculum.

In our cooperative effort, our team shared a common goal: to design a curriculum map and lessons that address the revitalization of the language, culture, and traditional ways of knowing in science in an integrative fashion. (See Figure 2.) We also sought to address two needs: (1) the need to cooperate with the educators and community members in the village, and; (2) the framing of a curricular approach that addresses the preservation of their language, culture, and ways of knowing in science. Thus, we adopted the model of Culturally Sustaining Schooling (CSS). Given the wealth of Indigenous knowledge and its role in preserving the cultural and linguistic traditions, this approach validated Cup’ik traditional knowledge of nature and technology and allowed for three intertwined elements: culture and tradition, personal stories, and the stories uncovered in knowledge construction and use.

During the initial phase of the curriculum project, we worked with K–3 teachers at Chevak School and a cultural advisor to create integrated STEAM curriculum that was culturally responsive. The curriculum units were developed in Cup’ik and English and included both Western and Cup’ik perspectives. The stakeholders spent the first three days in the teachers’ lounge listening to stories about traditions and local knowledge. For example,

Making a kayak takes a lot of time and skill. When I was a young man, I started making my own kayak. First, I had to measure four arm lengths to figure out how long the kayak had to be. I had to build it according to my height and weight and it could only be off by ten pounds; otherwise, it would sink in the cold water. I would go out and collect pieces of birch wood. That took a long time. We do not build kayaks like this one anymore. The other day I set the traditional tools for kayak-making right here, by my kayak, next to the modern tools. Then I brought my father and asked him which set of tools he would choose to build a kayak. He looked at me and replied: I would use the Western tools; that way it would take less time and I can have more time for seal hunting and fishing tools (James Ayuluk, summer of 2012).

In this story, the narrator clearly illustrated the idea of the two rivers of knowledge and the desire to engage Alaska Native students in traditional knowledge using modern materials and technology. It was also clear that traditional knowledge included well-defined elements of science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics. These are some of the elements that helped define the curriculum project and illustrate why it is important that the local ways of knowing be documented and shared. The curriculum that is documented is subsequently integrated into coursework for the preservice teacher cohort as well as for science methods courses at UAA.

Below is the curriculum map that was generated during this project.

Local Atlas of Plants and Animals

The atlas project was another initiative that focused on the revitalization of language, culture, and place through Indigenous ways of knowing in science. An example of the synergy and connections this initiative has fostered started in 2013 and ended in 2014. During this project, an elementary preservice teacher and Irasema Ortega, who is a science education faculty member, collaborated with Alaska Native Elders, parents, teachers, and students to design and prepare an atlas of plants and animals based on traditional knowledge of subsistence practices, which the community members would then own and disseminate as they wished. During this project, members of the community provided valuable information and guidance used in the preparation of the atlas. Pictures were collected from a local photographer and cultural consultant and from the State of Alaska Fish and Wildlife website. It culminated in a tablet-based atlas for the community members to use as they wished.

This project also resulted in a meaningful experience for both the preservice teacher and UAA faculty member, as it reinforced the importance of learning from the community and understanding the characteristics of shared cognition of ancestral Indigenous knowledge of place, culture, and language. Thus, the atlas of plants and animals exemplified a mutually beneficial civic engagement project and also demonstrated an alternative approach to engagement with an Indigenous community. Further, it is representative of the connections the partnership has fostered toward the common goal of linguistic and cultural revitalization.

Language Revitalization Through Children’s Books

This is a project that reflects the wisdom of Elder Cecilia Pingayak-Andrews. When one of the UAA faculty visited with her during the Atlas project, she was asked: what would it take to retain the language and culture? Her answer was clear and definitive. ” Children learn our language on their mother’s lap. But how are we going to keep the language alive if the parents themselves do not speak it?” (Cecilia Andrews, informal interview, July 2014).

With that wisdom in mind, a project was initiated with Unite for Literacy, an organization working towards creating an abundance of books through a free, digital library with books that celebrate the languages and cultures of all children while also cultivating a lifelong love of reading. This project hinged on the amazing talents of the paraprofessionals from Chevak School (another indication of the ways in which the various facets of this collaboration work together), who helped translate the books into Cup’ik and narrated them. There are now thirteen books that can be heard in Cup’ik, and by the end of the project in 2015, an additional thirty-seven books will be added. Plans are also in the making to “localize” the books by using pictures from the Alaska context and then to print them as hardcopy books, which will be shared through interested Head Start organizations. This will not only make them available to families without access to the Internet but will also show the community that both their language and culture are recognized in print. Positive support from the On-site Coordinator of the Chevak Head Start has already been expressed, who commented,

We are very excited for our Head Start program to be considered to receive our Cup’ik culture’s tools such as the books you are offering. They are going to be used by our entire staff, Elder Mentors, and volunteers. And it is a bonus that the local Chevak School’s paraprofessionals are the ones who help create them. It will help our entire staff to work together to add 1 to 2 of these books per week into our lesson plans, so our students will hear and see our Cup’igtaq language. (e-mail correspondence, February 25, 2015)

While this project is still in process, the hope is that by providing materials in the native language, both early literacy and language preservation will occur “on the mother’s lap.”

Language Revitalization through Writers Workshop

The final project that is currently underway seeks to promote language revitalization while also documenting the preservation of language and ancestral knowledge of how to coexist in harmony with the environment. This will be done through a writers group, where manuscripts will be developed and featured as participant-authored chapters in a book for Emerald Publications (working title, Language Revitalization and Culturally Sustaining Pedagogies in Teacher Education Programs), which is due to the publisher in January 2016. This project was initiated as a result of a UAA faculty member’s experiences with the cohort as an instructor in a class in which participants shared stories from their lives. It is a project that connects the preservice teachers with their cultural identities through stories, while also providing experiences in methodologies that can be used in classroom teaching. In addition, research focusing on the viability of writers groups as tools for sustaining linguistic and cultural identity will be conducted.

The stories of the participants are powerful, because although contact is for the most part detrimental to their identity as Alaska Natives, they have persisted in their goals. Their stories are examples of self-determination and agency, and they inform our present and future work. They are collective, they can be healing, and they will become powerful publications in every genre.


These projects, including a teacher education plan, a collaborative STEAM curriculum project, the creation of a local atlas of plants and animals important to subsistence, and a language revitalization initiative using a children’s book project and writing workshop, were initiated to address the needs of K–20 students and their teachers, while preserving the Alaska Native cultures, languages, and subsistence ways of life. As we continue to work collaboratively toward sustaining place, language, and culture, we find that the future of our partnership, and of future partnerships, resides in relationships, mutuality, and creativity. Together, we pursue projects that are transformative and sustaining. Such projects have no pre-existing frameworks. They are based on our strengths and on our relationships, and those will last a lifetime. The biggest threat to this and future partnerships is a lack of funding, but we remain hopeful (and we continue to seek funding).

While results of our ongoing efforts are forthcoming, our hope is that this synergistic approach might act as a framework for others working towards similar goals.

About the Authors

Flora Ayuluk is a teacher in the Cup’ik Immersion Wing at Chevak School in Chevak, Alaska. She is involved in many projects dedicated to language and culture revitalization, including the creation of a Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics (STEAM)-based science curriculum that emphasizes the subsistence lifestyle critical to the community.

James Ayuluk is the cultural specialist at Chevak School in Chevak, Alaska. He is involved in many projects at the school and in the community, including the creation of a tablet-based atlas that documents the plants and animals important to the subsistence lifestyle critical to the community.

Susie Friday-Tall is a preservice teacher and the administrative assistant at the Chevak School. She is a member of the Cup’ik Dreams cohort. She hopes to see a school where all the teachers are from Chevak and can teach children Cup’ik language and culture.

Cathy Coulter is an associate professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage who has been working with the Chevak community since 2010. She is the Co-Principal Investigator of the Language, Equity, and Academic Performance (LEAP) Project initiative and teaches courses in the elementary education program related to second-language acquisition and literacy. Dr. Coulter also possesses significant expertise in narrative methodologies.

Agatha John-Shields is an Indigenous assistant professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage who has worked with the Chevak cohort since 2011 as the Immersion program consultant and expert for the Chevak Project. She has co-taught LEAP Project courses with Irasema Ortega. She teaches and supervises intern principals and teaches multicultural courses for the preservice teacher program and for new teachers coming to Lower Kuskokwim School District in Western Alaska. Agatha also possesses significant expertise in Indigenous immersion education, culturally responsive pedagogy, language revitalization and maintenance efforts, and educational leadership.

Mary T. Matchian is a teacher at the Chevak Language Immersion School. She is also a member of the Cupi’k STEAM-based science curriculum that emphasizes the subsistence lifestyle critical to the community.

Kathryn Ohle is an assistant professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage who has been working with the Chevak community since 2014. She teaches courses in the early childhood program related to literacy, math, and science teaching methods. Dr. Ohle also has interests in education policy and the early childhood teacher preparation.

Lillian Olson is a Cup’ik language teacher at the Chevak school. She is currently working on the creation of a Cup’ik dictionary. Lillian is involved in multiple language revitalization initiatives such as the Cup’ik classes for the parents of the Cup’ik immersion Head Start students.

Irasema Ortega is an assistant professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage who has been working with the Chevak community since 2013 as the Principal Investigator for the Chevak Project. She is the Co-Principal Investigator of the LEAP Project initiative and teaches courses in the elementary education program related to science education. Dr. Ortega also possesses significant expertise in place-based educational initiative and decolonizing methodologies.

Phillip Tulim is a kindergarten teacher in the Cup’ik Immersion Wing at Chevak School in Chevak, Alaska. He is involved in many projects dedicated to language and culture revitalization, including the creation of a STEAM-based science curriculum that emphasizes the subsistence lifestyle critical to the community.

Lisa Unin is a first grade teacher in the Cup’ik Immersion Wing at Chevak School in Chevak, Alaska. She is involved in many projects dedicated to language and culture revitalization, including the creation of a STEAM-based science curriculum that emphasizes the subsistence lifestyle critical to the community. Lisa is an artist who specializes in traditional parkas.


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Brownfield Action: Dissemination of a SENCER Model Curriculum and the Creation of a Collaborative STEM Education Network


Brownfield Action (BA) is a web-based environmental site assessment (ESA) simulation in which students form geotechnical consulting companies and work together to solve problems in environmental forensics. Developed at Barnard College with the Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning, BA has been disseminated to 10 colleges, universities, and high schools, resulting in a collaborative network of educators. The experiences of current users are presented describing how they have incorporated the BA curriculum into their courses, as well as how BA affected teaching and learning. The experiences demonstrate that BA can be used in whole or in part, is applicable to a wide range of student capabilities and has been successfully adapted to a variety of learning goals, from introducing non-science-literate students to basic concepts of environmental science and civic issues of environmental contamination to providing advanced training in ESA and modeling groundwater contamination to future environmental professionals.


Figure 1. Call for a Brownfield Action Seminar using the Brownfield action logo that shows a contaminant plume from a factory migrating in the saturated zone of an aquifer.

Brownfield Action (BA) is a web-based, interactive, three-dimensional digital space and learning simulation in which students form geotechnical consulting companies and work collaboratively to explore and solve problems in environmental forensics. Created at Barnard College (BC) in conjunction with the Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning, BA has been used for over ten years at BC for one semester of a two-semester Introduction to Environmental Science course that is taken each year by more than 100 female undergraduate non-science majors to satisfy their laboratory science requirement. BA was selected in 2003 as a “national model curriculum” by SENCER (Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities), an NSF science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education initiative. The BA curriculum replaces fragmented, abstract instruction with a constructivist interdisciplinary approach where students integrate knowledge, theory, and practical experience to solve a complex, multifaceted, and realistic semester-long interdisciplinary science problem. The overarching themes of this semester are civic engagement and toxins, focusing on toxification of the environment, pathways taken by environmental toxins, and the impact of toxins on the natural environment and on humans. Readings that have been used to complement teaching using BA include Jonathan Harr’s A Civil Action and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

The pedagogical methods and design of the BA model are grounded in a substantial research literature focused on the design, use, and effectiveness of games and simulations in education. The successful use of the BA simulation at Barnard College is fully described in Bower et al. (2011). This article describes multiple formative assessment strategies that were employed using a modified model of Design Research (Bereiter 2002; Collins 1992; Edelson 2002), culminating in a qualitative ethnographic approach using monthly interviews to determine the impact of BA on the learning process. Results of these ethnographies showed at a high confidence level that the simulation allowed students to apply content knowledge from lecture in a lab setting and to effectively connect disparate topics with both lecture and lab components. Furthermore, it was shown that BA improved student retention and that students made linkages in their reports that would probably not have been made in a traditional teaching framework. It was also found that, in comparison with their predecessors before the program’s adoption, students attained markedly higher levels of precision, depth, sophistication, and authenticity in their analysis of the contamination problem, learning more content and in greater depth. This study also showed that BA supports the growth of each student’s relationship to environmental issues and promotes transfer into the students’ real-life decision-making and approach to careers, life goals, and science (Bower et al. 2011).

BA is one of a small but growing number of computer simulation-based teaching tools that have been developed to facilitate student learning through interaction and decision making in a virtual environment. In STEM fields, other examples include CLAIM (Bauchau et al. 1993) for mineral exploration; DRILLBIT (Johnson and Guth 1997) and MacOil (Burger 1989) for oil exploration; BEST SiteSim (Santi and Petrikovitsch 2001) for hazardous waste and geotechnical investigations; Virtual Volcano (Parham et al, 2009) to investigate volcanic eruptions and associated hazards; and eGEO (Slator et al. 2011) for environmental science education. These virtual simulations give students access to environments and experiences that are too dangerous, cost-prohibitive, or otherwise impractical to explore (Saini-Eidukat et al. 1998). Through directed role play they also provide opportunities for social interaction and student inquiry into the human element of technical analysis and decision making (e.g., Aide 2008).

What makes the Brownfield Action SENCER Model Curriculum unique among these STEM online simulations is that it includes a significant component of engagement with the civic dimensions of environmental contamination, interwoven with the technical investigations being conducted by the students. The BA simulation is also unique in that it has been disseminated to ten colleges, universities, and high schools, and a collaborative community of users has developed. To the best of our knowledge, BA is the only SENCER national model curriculum with a network of faculty collaborating in a community of practice. Moreover, this network has adapted the original simulation and its related products for use with a widening diversity of students, in a variety of classroom settings, and toward an expanding list of pedagogical goals. This paper documents the experiences of ten teachers and professors (in addition to those at Barnard College) who are using BA to improve student learning and teaching efficacy, to improve retention in the sciences, and to increase student motivation and civic engagement. All of these teachers and professors have shared their experiences, course materials, and curricula developed using the BA simulation in their courses, and the evolution of this collaborative network has now begun to define the direction that BA is taking. Currently the network consists of environmental scientists, an environmental engineer, a sociologist, geologist, GIS specialist, a smart growth and landscape architect, and high school science teachers, all sharing the goal of teaching science from the perspective of promoting civic engagement and building a sustainable society. Team members have developed course content specific to their individual fields of expertise and have made their course materials available to the community. The goals of this collaborative network also include telling the story of the dissemination of BA and thereby encouraging the dissemination of other successful SENCER model curricula. Ongoing efforts are being made to expand the BA network, especially among the hydrogeologic, brownfield, and environmental site assessment community. The BA SENCER Team has also begun to develop BA for use in online education.

The purpose of this paper is to present the collective experiences of the college and university faculty and high school teachers who have incorporated the BA simulation and curriculum into their courses. The experiences using BA reported here demonstrate how the BA simulation can be adapted for use, in whole or in part, for a wide range of student capabilities, and the authors describe how BA affected student learning and satisfaction. The descriptions that follow include applications of the BA simulation to environmental instruction at the high school level (Liddicoat, Miccio, Greenbaum), to the fundamentals of hydrology and environmental site assessments at an introductory to intermediate undergraduate level (Bennington, Graham), and to training both undergraduate and graduate students in advanced courses in hydrology and environmental remediation (Lemke, Lampoousis, Datta, Kney). Although many of the applications reported here apply to courses in STEM curricula, BA is not restricted in its utility to teaching students with advanced STEM skills. Rather, BA has proven to be equally effective whether it is used to introduce non-science-literate students to basic concepts of environmental science and basic civic issues of environmental contamination or to provide advanced training in environmental site assessments and to model groundwater contamination to future environmental professionals.

Figure 2. Data can be obtained for surface and bedrock topography, water table, water chemistry, soil characteristics, and vegetation, as well as data from tools like soil, gas, seismic reflection and refraction, metal detection and magnetometry, ground penetrating radar, and drilling.

For interested instructors, information about BA and a guided walkthrough of the simulation can be found at By contacting the lead author (Bower), one can obtain a username and password to access the simulation, see the library of documents, maps, and images related to the simulation and its use in the classroom, and visit the “User Homepages” where the authors from the collaborative network describe their use of BA in more detail than is done in this paper and provide additional documents and maps. These instructors have expanded the pedagogy of BA by utilizing the simulation in unique ways and in contributing new curriculum. In the “User Homepages,” new or potential users can find an instructor whose use of BA parallels their own, begin a dialogue, and become part of the collaborative network.

Teaching High School Students the Fundamentals of Environmental Science

Joseph Liddicoat, Barnard College

Using the interactive, web-based Brownfield Action simulation, a total of 48 public high school students from the five boroughs of New York City who were enrolled in the Harlem Education Activities Fund (HEAF) were taught environmental science in a way that combines scientific expertise, constructivist education philosophy, and multimedia during 12-week programs in the fall of 2009, 2010, and 2011 at Barnard College. In the BA simulation, the students formed geotechnical consulting companies, conducted environmental site assessment investigations, and worked collaboratively with Barnard faculty, staff, and student mentors to solve a problem in environmental forensics. The BA simulation contains interdisciplinary scientific and social information that is integrated within a digital learning environment in ways that encouraged the students to construct their knowledge as they learned by doing. As such, the approach improved the depth and coherence of students’ understanding of the course material.

In Barnard’s partnership with HEAF, BA was used in modular form to gather physical evidence and historical background on a suspected contamination event (i.e., leakage of gasoline from an underground storage tank) that resulted in the contamination of the aquifer in a fictitious municipality, Moraine Township. The HEAF students assumed the role of environmental consulting firms with a fixed budget to accumulate evidence about a parcel of land intended for a commercial shopping mall and to report the feasibility of using the property for that purpose. Through the integration of maps, documents, videos, and an extensive network of scientific data, the students in teams of three and working with a Barnard undergraduate mentor engaged with a virtual town of residents, business owners, and local government officials as well as a suite of geophysical testing tools in the simulation. Like real-world environmental consultants, students had to develop and apply expertise from a wide range of fields, including environmental science and engineering as well as journalism, medicine, public health, law, civics, economics, and business management. The overall objective was for the students to gain an unprecedented appreciation of the complexity, ambiguity, and risk involved in investigating and remediating environmental problems.

The Barnard undergraduate mentors were familiar with BA from doing the simulation as part of an introductory science course. The mentoring included weekly assistance with writing and mathematical exercises, and guidance in writing a Phase I Environmental Site Assessment report that was required of each HEAF student. Assessment of the program included weekly journals reviewed by one of us (RK) at Columbia University’s Center for New Media Teaching and Learning. The student mentors also provided information throughout the program on the progress of the students and their role in the program.

Overall, the students responded well to computer-based learning, especially the students who perceived themselves to be visual learners. Videos were especially effective in the instruction, as were hands-on laboratory activities (e.g., sieving of sand, permeability measurement exercise, measuring movement of a fictitious underground plume in a water model) as evidenced by open-ended journal responses from the students. One additional activity mentioned by nearly every participating student was the weekend retreat to Black Rock Forest, a 3,830-acre second-growth forest near West Point, NY, which Barnard helps to support. This retreat provided the HEAF students an opportunity to interact informally with each other and the HEAF staff, their mentors, and the Barnard instructors. Those two days allowed immersion in topics about geology, biology, botany, and ecology that the students did not encounter in the urban environment they lived in. As the 12-week program progressed, students frequently expressed their concern about gas stations in their neighborhood, which is a potential form of brownfield known to all of them. An indication of sustained interest in the program was the high percentage of student attendance, considering the students’ sometimes difficult commute on public transportation from the five boroughs to Barnard within an hour of when they were dismissed from their high school. Average weekly attendance was 91% in year one, 98% in year two, and 92% in year three. Recommendations made by student mentors based on their experiences with the program include the suggestion that the mentors be utilized more fully in the instructional process to allow them to provide more context and other scaffolding support during group work time. This would allow for less large group lecturing and more peer instruction, as participants reported benefitting more from structured group time with mentor guidance than from the full group lecture components of the curriculum.

Briane Sorice Miccio, Professional Children’s School

Brownfield Action has been used for four years in a high school Environmental Science class consisting of students in grades 10, 11, and 12. The class met 40 minutes each day, five days a week for seven weeks. During this time, the students investigated the gasoline plume emanating from the BTEX gas station and then wrote a Phase II ESA.

BA has been an invaluable tool in demonstrating many of the concepts covered in the curriculum. It has given the students a “hands-on” opportunity to put into practice the topics and skills they have learned. They were able to study a number of concepts, including groundwater movement (porosity, permeability, D’Arcy’s Law), topography and contour mapping, and the chemical and physical properties of gasoline, while simultaneously experiencing how the knowledge of these concepts can be applied in a real-world situation. There was also an in-class demonstration of the movement of a contamination plume through a cross section of an aquifer, as well as a sediment size analysis using sieves to separate a sediment sample “taken” from the ground near the BTEX gas station. Students were able to physically see the different components of sediment and relate the different sized particles to the speed with which groundwater, and any inclusive contamination, is able to flow. With BA, students are able to learn, apply their knowledge in an ongoing interdisciplinary exercise, and see how all of these separate concepts taught in environmental science class tie together in the real world.

The Environmental Science course has been taught for seven years with BA being used for the past four years. BA made a tremendous difference, satisfying both the goals of the curriculum as well as enhancing student interest. Students are given the opportunity to investigate the environmental, social, and economic issues facing a community that is forced to deal with a brownfield and contamination of the local environment. New York City has over 40,000 brownfield sites, many of which are unknown to its residents. When students who live in the city work with BA, whose narrative deals with the ramifications of contamination in a small town, they are able to gain a better understanding of the magnified ramifications in a larger city. This, in turn, will make them socially aware of the effects of a brownfield on the people surrounding it.

Typically, students execute the “learn and apply process,” where they learn in class and apply these concepts to a one-time lab exercise and exam before moving on to the next topic. However, with BA, the students are enthusiastic about applying what they have learned in a more interesting, realistic, and interactive format. Since the implementation of BA, students have been more receptive, and it has sparked more questions and comments than ever before. The students’ questions have also demonstrated a deeper understanding of the subject matter than with traditional textbook work. The students are also able to incorporate problem-solving skills, exercise leadership skills and management strategies, and work collaboratively. Moreover, they are able to recognize the social and economic ramifications of pollution. In addition, BA’s demonstration of the work of an environmental site investigator has, on more than one occasion, inspired students of mine to pursue the field of environmental science in college. Since my students are all college bound, the fact that Brownfield Action inspires interest in this field, particularly now when we need the next generation to be environmentally conscious, is gratifying and demonstrates the value of Brownfield Action within a high school curriculum.

Bess Greenbaum, Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School

Columbia Grammar & Prep is a private K-12 school in Manhattan, NY. The Brownfield Action simulation was utilized in two sections of the yearlong environmental science elective course, open to juniors and seniors. (One section had nine students; the other had 14. All of the 23 students were in either 11th or 12th grade, except for one in 10th grade). The high school students investigated the gasoline plume and associated drinking water well contamination portion of BA simulation. The goal of the project was to engage the students in some real methodologies used to detect and delineate contaminant plumes.

Students completed the investigation in teams of two or three over seven weeks. Groups were chosen by the instructor, who had, at this point, a fairly good sense of each student’s ability and motivation level. In order to avoid the common pitfall of one student in the group doing all the work, students were grouped according to similar ability and motivation levels. This was a successful tactic. First, students were introduced to the concepts of brownfields and superfund sites. Then, they were shown how to log onto and navigate the BA computer simulation and the features for each new test. The students found the online interface to be very user-friendly.

Each team conducted tests and made maps of the gasoline plume, but each student was responsible for submitting their own final four- to six-page report along with four hard-copy maps. One map was a basic site map, and three were topographic maps of the site highlighting different data: surface topography, bedrock topography, and water table elevations. Students utilized two tests for contamination provided in the simulation: soil gas sampling and analysis and drill/push testing. Prior to conducting these tests, the instructor spent two or three class periods discussing with the students the major components and characteristics of gasoline. Students discovered that gasoline is a mixture of many substances, each with its own physical and chemical properties. We discussed that gasoline contained floating, volatile, and water soluble parts. For this investigation, we focused on two tests for the presence of gasoline provided in the simulation. First, the Soil Gas Sampling and Analysis (SGSA) tested for hexane, a volatile component found in the air pockets of the soil. The second test detected the presence or absence of benzene, a water-soluble component. Once the presence of hexane in the soil was confirmed, students used the Drilling and Direct Push test to see if there was any benzene in the groundwater. Students learned that the tests were performed in this order because it was financially practical; if gasoline had not been present in the soil, it would have likely been wasteful to perform the more expensive and time-consuming test on the groundwater. The final report submitted by each student had three main parts: (1) a summary letter to the EPA outlining reasons for, and results of, their investigation; (2) a description of investigation methods, testing procedures, and data; and (3) analysis and interpretation of the data.

Students varied widely in their spatial visualization abilities. Some were quite challenged by creating and understanding the meaning of the hand-drawn topographic maps. While tedious, this tactile and methodical process improved student understanding of mapping; however, comprehending the meaning of the aerial view of the plot of the hexane data (from soil gas measurements) and the cross-sectional view of the benzene data in the groundwater contaminant plume was not so obvious for some. The concept that each contamination map represented a different orientation (either cross-section or aerial view) of the contaminant plume was repeatedly emphasized. Students understood why there was a need to test for a volatile compound (hexane) in the soil and a soluble one (benzene) in the water table, but their understanding of sediment properties and the movement of groundwater was simplistic.

The BA simulation was a good classroom experience. Based on observations, students enjoyed the self-paced group work. Two adjustments for future use are suggested. First, introduce exercises in spatial orientation earlier on in the year. This would help students grasp the concept of topographic maps more easily, and they would be better equipped to identify and draw contour lines based on elevation points. Second, the experience could be enhanced with hands-on demonstrations of sediment size class and porosity/permeability of different sediments. These adjustments would likely allow students to take a more independent role in the investigation, and require less instructor guidance as they investigate the task at hand.

Although students were given a budget, the focus was on completing the Phase II investigation—regardless of cost. Some students were initially mindful of how much each test cost, but once they knew that it did not really matter how much they spent, they no longer paid attention to this feature of the simulation. Students did, however, take advantage of the Moraine township history and interviews with the citizens in order to make their final assessment and report. Another tactic that might improve student autonomy and the BA experience would be to have them work together to figure out the most logical order of steps to take in the investigation process. A class discussion of crime shows or A Civil Action would facilitate this. Once they reach consensus on a logical way to carry out the investigation, they could be introduced to the simulation’s tools.

Teaching Environmental Science Students Fundamentals of Hydrology and Environmental Site Assessment

Bret Bennington, Hofstra University

Brownfield Action (BA) is used throughout the entire semester in both an undergraduate hydrology course (Hydrology 121) and a graduate hydrogeology course (Hydrogeology 674). These are combined lecture/laboratory courses taken by students pursuing degrees in geology, environmental science, or sustainability studies, most of whom are motived by an interest in applying science to solving environmental problems but who have little prior experience in groundwater science. Students are assigned to groups of three or four to form consulting teams. Teams are provided class time each week during laboratory to meet and coordinate online work performed individually outside of class hours. Students use the simulation to conduct a Phase I ESA (Environmental Site Assessment), and each group is required to make a presentation to the rest of the class detailing their findings and to submit a Phase I ESA report midway through the term. During the second half of the semester the teams work on a Phase II investigation. Final group presentations communicating the results of the Phase II investigation are made at the end of the term, and each student is required to submit an individual Phase II ESA report for evaluation. Students use critical feedback from the assessment of the Phase I materials to improve their Phase II presentation and reports.

A useful attribute of the BA simulation is that important hydrologic concepts introduced in lectures and labs can be incorporated into different stages of the online BA investigation, providing students the opportunity to practice applying these concepts in realistic, problem-solving activities. For example, in one laboratory exercise, students measure the porosity and hydraulic conductivity of a sediment sample obtained (hypothetically) from the abandoned Self-Lume factory site in the BA simulation. In another exercise, students learn how to calculate the direction and magnitude of a hydraulic gradient from hydraulic head data collected from monitoring wells. As part of their Phase I and Phase II investigations, students use these sedimentological measurements and groundwater analytical methods, in combination with data obtained in the online simulation, to calculate flow volume and seepage velocity beneath the Self-Lume site to assess potential impacts to the town water supply well. Students must also incorporate into their investigations knowledge of groundwater law and the regulations and standards governing environmental investigations, methods of aquifer testing and analysis, and the behavior of different forms of groundwater contaminants. To complete their ESA investigations within the BA simulation, students are thus required to integrate a wide range of data, methods, and concepts learned across the course.

Navigating the BA simulation also introduces students to the different components of civil government and the variety of agencies and departments involved in regulating and maintaining public health and groundwater quality. Students are drawn into the simulation by the authenticity of the online world provided, which is supported by realistic, richly detailed documents, newspaper articles, videos, and video and text interviews with public officials. It is a revelation to most students that so much useful information on potential environmental problems can be obtained just from interviews and municipal documents. In addition, the BA simulation provides many opportunities for students to develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills, as well as professional and technical skills, most importantly the ability to interpret, summarize, and effectively communicate technical information. As part of their course requirements, students must produce two formal, professionally written and formatted technical reports, and one informal and one formal oral presentation, and they must draft topographic, water table, and bedrock contour maps, as well as maps summarizing data from different aquifer tests and analyses. Finally, students gain valuable experience working cooperatively as part of a team focused on solving problems on time and within a reasonable budget. (Student teams are billed for all activities within the simulation and are assessed on how cost-effective their investigations are.)

Figure 3. Average student responses to questions asking them to rate the effectiveness of the Brownfield Action simulation for aiding student learning. Responses ranged from 1 (most negative) to 10 (most positive). Error bars indicate average +/- one standard deviation.

In the past year and a half students were surveyed to determine their perceptions of the effectiveness of BA as a teaching tool. Student response to the BA simulation has been overwhelmingly positive, with a large majority of students indicating that BA was successful in facilitating student learning and providing experience with data analysis, interpretation, and problem solving (see Figure 3). More recently, in the fall of 2013, a SENCER Student Assessment of Learning Gains (SALG) instrument was deployed in the Hydrology 121 course at Hofstra University (nineteen undergraduate geology and environmental resources majors) to assess student gains in understanding and skills derived from their experiences with the semester environmental site assessment project built around the Brownfield Action simulation. Results from this assessment indicate moderate to large gains in understanding of course content (Figure 4) and relevant cognitive skills (Figure 5) learned and practiced while working with the BA simulation.

Figure 4: Changes from the beginning to the end of the semester in the mean d Mean) and standard deviation (d Std dev)value of responses to questions asking students to rate their understanding of environmental and hydrologic concepts learned in the course working with the Brownfield Action simulation. An increase in the mean of the responses indicates a gain in understanding relative to a 5 point scale. A decrease in the standard deviation value indicates greater agreement among student responses.

Many students report that BA increased their interest in pursuing hydrogeology and environmental consulting as a career (although some have also indicated that they learned from using BA that this was not the career path for them). Students have also reported that knowledge and experience of how to conduct Phase I and Phase II ESA investigations obtained through the BA simulation have been a very positive factor in interviews for jobs in environmental consulting. As one student wrote, “The Brownfield Action simulation not only helped me define a career goal, but it also helped me land a job in the environmental field. The skills and knowledge I gained through the simulation not only made my résumé look stronger to future employers but it allowed me to impress interviewers through conversation. Many potential employers were impressed by the fact that I knew enough about federal regulations and environmental concepts to even just carry on a discussion about Environmental Site Assessments.”

Figure 5. Changes from the beginning to the end of the semester in the man (d Mean) and standard deviation (d Std dev) value of responses to questions asking students to rate their ability to apply academic skills learned or practiced in the course working with the Brownfield Action simulation. An increase in the mean of the responses indicates a gain in ability relative to a 5 point scale. A decrease in the standard deviation value indicates greater agreement among student responses.

The BA simulation has proven to be an effective teaching tool for three main reasons. It recreates the ambiguity of real-world problem solving by providing students with an open-ended set of environmental problems, and it requires that they apply what they have learned in the classroom without ever being told exactly what to do. It provides a richly detailed and realistic virtual world that students find interesting and that engages their curiosity by presenting them with realistic environmental problems to solve. Finally, the BA simulation provides a framework for demonstrating key concepts developed in hydrology/hydrogeology courses. Because much of the lecture instruction in these courses involves the mathematical analysis of groundwater flow, the students benefit from being able to apply concepts such as hydraulic conductivity, hydraulic gradient, hydraulic head, and seepage velocity to solve applied problems within the framework of the BA simulation. This helps the students to better understand these concepts, and it greatly increases their interest and engagement in hydrogeology. Students routinely comment on how much they enjoy working in the simulation and it has inspired a number of students to pursue careers in environmental consulting and groundwater remediation.

Tamara Graham, Haywood Community College

Haywood Community College serves a predominantly rural community in the Appalachian Mountains roughly one-half hour west of Asheville, North Carolina. Haywood’s Low Impact Development (LID) Program was launched in 2009 to provide workforce training and resources to foster more sustainable development in the region. Though the LID Program is relatively new, it is part of the College’s highly regarded Natural Resources Management Department, which has offered two-year associate degrees and professional certificates in Forestry, Horticulture, and Fish and Wildlife for more than 40 years. The LID Program complements these established programs by offering students the opportunity to study innovative strategies for mitigating the impact of development on natural systems, particularly the hydrologic cycle.

LID 230, The Remediation of Impacted Sites, is a required course in the LID Program that surveys issues related to environmental contamination from the Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century to contemporary 21st-century brownfields remediation programs:

This course is designed to familiarize students with various scale remediation projects to enhance understanding of the role environmental repair has in sustainable development. Emphasis will be placed on case studies that cover soil and water remediation efforts necessitated by residential, commercial, industrial, governmental, and agricultural activity. Upon completion, students will be able to discuss and utilize the tools and technologies used in a variety of soil and water remediation projects. (Course description fromHCC Catalog & Handbook )

From the perspective of LID, the remediation of brownfield sites offers communities perhaps the greatest return on investment in terms of sustainability. Brownfields are among the most contaminated sites environmentally, and their remediation spurs reinvestment in otherwise dilapidated urban areas, creating walkable, vibrant spaces for living and working where infrastructure already exists, rather than necessitating further encroachment of development on rural land or “greenfields.”

In addition to a Brownfield Action (BA) training seminar held at Barnard College, the BA website contains a User Section with curriculum resources that have been have been an invaluable, engaging resource for developing Haywood’s LID 230 course. In the spring semester of 2011 and 2012, BA resources were first introduced at approximately week five of the sixteen-week semester course, with a close reading of A Civil Action. The shared curricula and resources, such as reading guides made available in the BA User Section, provided students with compelling historical background on the origins of current brownfields programs. Building on this foundation, in the final third of the semester students worked in small teams with the simulation to develop a Phase I ESA Report and supporting topographic and inventory maps. The BA video interviews, narrative, and interactive simulation piqued student interest and facilitated understanding of the complex, interdisciplinary, even labyrinthine nature of environmental remediation. Site exploration afforded by the simulation allowed LID students to work at their own pace to cultivate attention to detail (careful detective work) while simultaneously being mindful of the bigger picture. Coupled with students’ study of case studies of local remediation projects, the simulation effectively conveyed the complex and interrelated political, environmental, economic, and social factors at issue in environmentally contaminated sites and the necessity of collaboration among diverse entities to facilitate remediation and reuse.

Rather than appearing trite in the face of the somber topic, the playful nature of the simulation, with myriad puns and entertaining diversions woven through the narrative, helped to engage students and demystify the otherwise intimidating content. The fear of the effects of environmental contamination and intimidation regarding the process are perhaps the largest factors hindering collaborative public and private action to remediate sites. The BA simulation effectively addresses these barriers through its appealing, approachable format, effectively fostering collaboration among students to address complex problems and work toward solutions.

The BA simulation has provided an engaging learning opportunity for HCC’s students. Several LID graduates have obtained employment with local and regional planning agencies, where their experience with the BA simulation has proven invaluable in addressing complex brownfields projects in their respective communities. HCC appreciates the opportunity to integrate this innovative simulation into our curriculum and is eager to assist Barnard College in expanding its access as an educational resource to further sustainable development goals in the region.

Douglas M. Thompson, Connecticut College

The Brownfield Action (BA) simulation has provided an important component of the course Environmental Studies/Geophysics 210: Hydrology at Connecticut College since the fall of 2004. Attendance at a Brownfield Action seminar the previous year showed that the simulation was an ideal means to replace a paper-based simulation used previously. As an experienced user of BA, I can confirm that it is a wonderful learning tool that has brought a very realistic group activity to my classroom. The program also does a very good job helping students develop the scientific background and confidence needed to find employment in the groundwater consulting industry. More importantly, students enjoy the BA module and learn a great deal about basic project management and group collaboration skills that apply to a range of disciplines.

My first job after college was as a Project Geologist for a groundwater consulting company in New England. It was a good first job, but my undergraduate geology major and hydrology course had not prepared me for the types of decisions faced on the job. Years later as an instructor of a hydrology course, it was important that I share my consulting experiences in order to help prepare undergraduates for what can be a very good job opportunity after graduation. The BA simulation provides an excellent replication of many of the components of a Phase I site investigation. Several former students who now work in the groundwater consulting industry have said that they greatly appreciated the background they developed using the simulation.

Figure 6. The Brownfield Action “playing field” in the reconnaissance mode visiting the BTEX gas station.

In my class, students are divided into groups of two or three and are asked to investigate the contamination at the BTEX gasoline station. The students are required to determine whether contamination exists and to delineate the nature, extent, and source of contamination. Students are encouraged to use the soil gas sampling and analysis tool and to determine a rough map of where volatile organic compound concentrations are highest. The students are then required to install at least three shallow wells and one deep well to document the approximate source of the contamination and direction of flow in both the horizontal and vertical directions. Drilling location and well placement are important decisions for a successful project, and students often display a great deal of trepidation when they begin to install monitoring wells. The cost of a poorly placed well is an important reason for this. As someone who has stressed over drilling holes for real monitoring wells, I know that the angst that students display is a good indication that BA realistically simulates the decision-making atmosphere. The students then use the survey instruments, sample analysis options, and the resulting data to produce maps of the BTEX gasoline contamination plume and the free-product plume. Students complete a group report that presents their findings.

To supplement the basic materials supplied with the computer simulation, the program is augmented with additional data sources and activities. Existing documents as well as newly created documents are placed as a reserve in our library to replicate the task of going to government buildings to search municipal and state records. Each group is provided with a small sample of loess and asked to classify the soil based on a textural method. Students are taken on a field trip to the campus power station to see two large underground storage tanks. A mock site visit is also made there to identify potential sources of contamination and locations where monitoring wells might be installed. The BA simulation is also used as a means to demonstrate the basic principles of Darcy’s Flow and hydraulic conductivity learned in the class. The students are asked to complete an estimate of the rate of groundwater movement based on some simulated pump test data created for this purpose and the groundwater table slope they determine from their BA wells.

BA provides an excellent opportunity for students to understand how the site assessment process is approached. The simulation adds a sense of realism to the sometimes abstract topics learned. BA has become a very important component of Environmental Studies/Geophysics 210: Hydrology, and the program will be used as long as its software is viable.

Training Undergraduate and Graduate Students in Advanced Courses in Hydrology and Environmental Remediation

Larry Lemke, Wayne State University

Brownfield Action was originally incorporated into GEL 5000—Geological Site Assessment—at Wayne State University during the Winter-2010 semester as part of an NSF CAREER grant that focused on groundwater contamination in previously glaciated urban areas. BA continues to play an integral role in this course, which is offered to both graduate students and upper division undergraduates and typically attracts 20 to 24 students each time it is offered. BA forms the basis for a term project in much the same way that it is employed at Barnard College: teams of students at Wayne State use the BA simulation as the basis for formulating Phase I and Phase II Environmental Site Assessments and reports.

In the first phase, students strictly follow ASTM Standard E 1527-13 (formerly E 1527-05). After completing site reconnaissance, records review, and interviews (no sampling is allowed except for Topographic Surveys), students document their findings, opinions, and conclusions following the ASTM specified report format. In the second phase, students choose two Recognized Environmental Conditions (RECs) to be investigated following ASTM Standard E 1903-11. The 2011 revision of this standard prescribes application of the scientific method to evaluate RECs. To begin this process, students must schedule an interview with their client (the course instructors) to recommend Objectives, Questions to be answered, Hypotheses to be tested,Areas to be investigated, a Conceptual Modelfor contaminant migration including target analytics, a proposed Sampling Plan, and an estimated Budget. During the interview, one course instructor plays the role of a naïve business manager focused on liability and budget issues, while the second course instructor plays the role of an environmental manager who asks probing technical questions. After receiving client authorization, student teams proceed to implement their sampling plan and complete the Phase II ESA. In our experience, the role play exercise adds another realistic dimension to the BA simulation by providing students practice in communicating technical information and recommendations to clients in an oral format (in addition to writing professional reports).

Most recently, Gianluca Sperone, a co-instructor in the WSU course, developed an effective innovation by utilizing ESRI ArcGIS tools to perform the Phase I ESA analysis. After converting available materials from the BA simulation into ArcGIS Geodatabase format, he mapped the information accessible to student investigators during the Phase I site visit and interview process. Subsequently, he used the ArcGIS Spatial Analyst Extension to model potential subsurface contaminant migration in the event of a release into the BA simulation environment. In this way, Sperone was able identify potential areas for Phase II ESA recommendations and demonstrate the utility of GIS tools to perform analyses and prepare professional materials for communicating project results.

Feedback from our students has indicated that the authentic, realistic nature of the BA simulation greatly enhanced their ability to understand and apply the relevant ASTM standards. One student wrote: “I thought the BA simulation was invaluable to students. The Phase I ESA knowledge gained from reading through the standard is reinforced with the game. It puts a practical twist on a document that can be difficult to focus on (hooray for legal jargon!). The experience will greatly aid students heading into consulting/government jobs.”

Angelo Lampousis, City University of New York

The Brownfield Action simulation and curriculum has been used at two different colleges of the City University of New York (CUNY). In both cases BA was adopted at the undergraduate and graduate levels of the course “Phase II Environmental Site Assessments” (City College of New York EAS 31402 [undergraduate] and EAS B9235 [graduate], Hunter College GEOG 383 [undergraduate] and GEOG 705 [graduate]). The combined number of students introduced to the BA simulation to date is 24. The academic background of the students involved ranged from geology, environmental sciences, and geography, to urban planning and sustainability.

The BA simulation was used as a refresher for the Phase I process, since most students had already completed the Phase I environmental site assessment course that is also a prerequisite for the Phase II course. The BA simulation served this purpose exceptionally well. Students had the opportunity to experience and practice a realistic interview component of writing Phase I reports as they interacted with the characters of the simulation. This addressed a specific gap in the CUNY curriculum that, while strong in using real data on real estate properties located in New York City (Lampousis 2012), treated interviews as a data gap (i.e., per ASTM designation E1527 – 05) due to legal and other restrictions on allowing college students to interact with property owners in an unsupervised manner. The BA simulation addresses this gap through its incorporation of a wide range of very thoughtful fictional interviews. The BA simulation experience for CUNY students was realized through several homework assignments culminating in a Phase I report. Due to time constraints, considerable amounts of information from the simulation, including data for topography, depth to bedrock, and depth to water table, were made available to CUNY students from the very beginning. Students were also assisted by the instructor in their construction of a conceptual site model.

Overall, the adoption of the BA simulation within the two CUNY colleges greatly reinforced student learning on the topic of environmental site assessments. The BA simulation provided an opportunity to test the knowledge and level of students’ understanding achieved up to that point. Students were able to get a panoramic view of the process, from signing the initial contract to submitting a final report. Because everything they did in the simulation cost them money, they also experienced working within a budget. The BA simulation will be used in the future starting in the Phase I course offered in the fall, and there are plans to adapt the BA simulation for a geographic information systems platform in the “Introduction to GIS” scheduled for the spring semester 2014. The latter will be in collaboration with Gianluca Sperone of Wayne State University.

Saugata Datta, Kansas State University

Brownfield Action has been used at Kansas State University (KSU) since 2009 for the undergraduate and graduate students in the lecture and laboratory courses of Hydrogeology (GEOL 611, with an average of 20 students mainly from the geology, biology, agricultural and civil engineering departments), Introduction to Geochemistry (GEOL 605/705, 10 students, mainly from the geology, agronomy, and chemistry departments), and Water Resources Geochemistry (GEOL 711, eight students from veterinary medicine, geology, and agronomy). All three have been offered as interdisciplinary courses.

Figure 7. The Brownfield Action “playing field” in Testing Mode with zoom function applied and magnetometry/metal detection measurements being made.

In Hydrogeology, BA is utilized as the foundation for a one-month practicum. Students work in teams of three and are given complete access to the BA simulation and website including all data and documents. Student teams must choose a topic or specific problem to be solved within the BA simulation. Topics range from using the BA simulation and database for a Phase I ESA of the Self-Lume property or the BTEX Gas Station, for flow net exercises to delineate various contaminant plumes (gasoline or tritium), for simple permeameter measurements to understand hydraulic conductivity, or for utilizing the many soil exploration tools (drilling, seismic reflection and refraction, ground penetrating radar, soil gas) to determine plume location and its migration paths, and chemical characteristics of different contaminants. Lectures are developed based on the topics chosen. Each team is required to write a report on their findings and evaluate what they have learned from their practical experience with the simulation. Poster sessions have often been assigned so that students may share their experiences using the BA simulation with other students to demonstrate how different methods and principles are used to solve complex hydrological problems. Additional faculty members are invited to these poster presentations and interact with and question the student teams.

In Geochemistry, BA is used for one month as a case study as part of the final project. Students use BA in order to understand the chemical characteristics of organic contaminants, the chemistry of groundwater, and the use of various field or laboratory geochemical analytical tools to measure various contaminants, map these contaminants in the surficial soil cover, and create hydrochemical maps with piper diagrams for various inorganic contaminants. Students learn how different plumes will mix or impact each other. BA allows students to develop a clear understanding of the composition of different contaminants and their MCLs in the environment.

In Water Resources Geochemistry, BA has been used in collaboration with other users of BA from Lafayette College (LC) and Wayne State University (WSU). Students are assigned to investigate BA in order to write Phase I and II ESA reports. There are invited lectures from within KSU as well as video lectures transmitted by instructors from LC and WSU. Students from KSU present their findings to students in an Environmental Engineering course at LC and a geology course at WSU, who in turn present their findings to the KSU students. Working with instructors from WSU, students at KSU learn how to use ARC GIS on the BA database. The topics in this video conferenced course evolved from the joint use of MODFLOW and Groundwater Modeling Systems (EMS-i) in tracing groundwater contaminants in the BA aquifer.

Typical student comments about the use of BA include: “One of the greatest ways to connect to a real world problem and it was interesting how we were acting as consultants, and tried not to leak ideas to the other groups,” and, “I learnt more about the application of Darcy’s law when I was taught with BA, even the water table characteristics, and the direction of groundwater flow were more clear when BA was demonstrated to us.” Students also commented on how they learned to work as a consultant and that one cannot make mistakes that might result in losing the contract or not making a profit. Several students have gone to job interviews and used BA to demonstrate their knowledge of ESAs and to respond to questions from the interviewers. BA played a significant role in the hiring of these students by government agencies and has also led to a dialogue with these agencies on how to use BA within communities they serve that are affected by brownfields.

Arthur D. Kney, Lafayette College

Over the last seven years the Civil and Environmental Engineering (CE) program at Lafayette College has used Brownfield Action successfully in two courses: Environmental Engineering and Science (CE 321) and Environmental Site Assessment (CE 422). CE 321 is an introductory course, and BA is used to introduce the issues of brownfields, remediation, and environmental regulations. CE 422 is a course in which students learn how to do Phase I Environmental Site Assessments (ESAs) consistent with ASTM 1527. Because most of the fundamental science needed to understand and participate in the BA scenario is taught to CE students throughout their first few years of our CE program, use of BA in CE 321 and 422 is targeted at applying their accumulated fundamental skills and knowledge in a realistic simulation in addition to teaching the details of the ESA process. Following a two-week exercise utilizing BA, students are prepared to do a real-time site assessment on neighboring properties.

My experience has shown that BA is very applicable to the field of civil engineering from initial investigation through remediation and that the interdisciplinary, realistic nature of BA provides an effective tool with which to teach aspiring civil and environmental engineers. Connections to the practice of civil engineering are played out in numerous scenarios in BA. For example, understanding how chemicals move through the water and soil is made evident through models that civil engineers are taught in water quality and water resource classes. Methods and practices used in remediation are common themes taught in upper level environmental engineering courses. Additionally, ESAs must be accomplished by an “Environmental Professional” as outlined in the US CFR 40:312.21. BA provides a wonderful storyline linked to believable data that ties together individuals and their community with industry and very real economic and environmental concerns. In order to piece together the truth, critical thinking skills must be used to interpret and communicate the significance of data obtained from the simulation.

In CE 422 especially, the incorporation of BA has tremendously improved student understanding of the ESA process as compared to classes taught prior to use of BA. Anecdotal evidence from student conversations, faculty observations, student test scores, and the fact that BA continues to be a central part of CE 422 all support this statement. Beyond CE 321 and 422, students have reported that BA has strengthened their ESA skills in senior-level design projects and has provided evidence of competence when applying for jobs. In fact, it is not uncommon to hear that students have not only gotten jobs because of their ESA skills but have also gone on to perform ESAs in their jobs. Because of these reports from students, future plans include introducing some form of an ESA course for engineering professionals. Incorporating BA would be integral, because of the fact that one can quickly comprehend the overall ESA process through the interactive, informative framework of the simulation.

As part of the collaborative network, Saugata Datta from Kansas State University (see above) and I have used BA to complement several courses. Our most recent course development is a team-taught course module between Kansas State and Lafayette. Graduate and undergraduates from both institutions have worked together reconstructing plume flow via groundwater models like MODFLOW and Groundwater Modeling System (EMS-i), using data from the BA simulation. Students connect the groundwater solution to the models in the existing BA simulation and make the BA narrative come alive as they learn how the various chemical and kinetics principles of contaminants behave throughout the BA storyline. In addition, other collaborative engagements have blossomed through BA team interactions, such as a recent set of academic video discussions between Wayne State University, Kansas State University, and Lafayette College students and faculty revolving around the overuse of key nutrients, phosphorous and nitrogen. Consistent with professional practice, future plans include developing a workshop open to environmental professionals interested in learning how to conduct ESAs. BA would be used to help professionals connect to the task at hand just as it has been used in CE 422.


Assessing the Effectiveness of the Brownfield Action Simulation

All faculty using BA in their courses report high levels of student engagement with the simulation and increased confidence in students’ ability to understand and apply science to solve problems. Although a simulation, BA is grounded in civil, legal, and scientific reality such that experience gained through BA is directly applicable to the real world. This is demonstrated by the many students who report that BA has assisted them in gaining employment as environmental professionals. Other important professional and conceptual skills reported being taught and learned in the context of the BA simulation include data visualization, map-making, budgeting, formal report writing, making formal oral presentations, as well as decision-making, dealing with ambiguity, teamwork, and networking in information gathering.

Reliable summative assessment of the pedagogical effectiveness of the BA simulation has not yet been performed due to the lack of appropriate control groups (the courses discussed above are not taught in multiple sections with some instructors using BA and some not) and a lack of appropriate data on student performance prior to the adoption of BA in courses. However, a variety of formative assessments of the BA simulation were incorporated throughout the design and initial use of BA at Barnard College to provide feedback and confirmation of the effectiveness of the simulation (Bower et al. 2011). We are currently developing and testing a survey-based formative assessment utilizing the SENCER SALG tool available online ( A SENCER SALG instrument consists of a pre- and post-course survey taken online that provides instructors with useful, formative feedback for improving their teaching. A SALG instrument provides a snapshot of student skills and attitudes at the start and end of courses, allowing instructors to gauge the effectiveness of teaching strategies, methods, and activities such as the BA simulation (Seymour et al. 2000). A preliminary version of a SALG instrument designed to measure student learning gains resulting from working with the BA simulation has recently been deployed by Bret Bennington and analysis of the results show marked gains from the beginning to the end of the semester (see discussion above). At the next meeting of BA users in the spring of 2014 we will finalize this SALG instrument and begin deploying versions of it to measure the impact of BA on student learning in a variety of educational settings and applications.

Ongoing Work and Future Directions

The tenth in a series of seminars and training sessions for Brownfield Action will be held at Barnard College in April of 2014. Most of the early seminars were devoted to training new users of the simulation and to troubleshooting problems existing users were having. As the simulation evolved, two new versions of BA were produced making the simulation web-based, enhancing the features of the “playing field,” and developing a “modularized” version that is more adaptable to creative new uses. While new users are still being trained, the ninth seminar held in the spring of 2013 was devoted primarily to the sharing of experiences teaching with BA and presenting new applications of BA developed by current users. These included using the data in the BA simulation to teach modeling and analysis using GIS, using the simulation to teach undergraduates about Phase I Environmental Site Assessments incorporating GIS, the use of the gasoline contaminant plume in the simulation as the basis for a six-week unit on toxins and environmental site investigations for high school students, the creation of evaluation tools for the assessment of the effectiveness of BA in an undergraduate hydrogeology course, the modeling of groundwater contaminant plumes from the BA database as part of graduate level student exercises, and discussion of new possibilities for furthering the BA simulation using 3-D gaming technologies.

It is apparent from the above reports that users continue to develop new ways of using BA to teach science in the context of civic engagement. While BA was not developed to teach GIS, the work done in this area suggests that the BA simulation can be easily adapted to enhance GIS instruction. The data- and context-rich virtual world of BA provides an ideal tool for realizing SENCER goals for teaching science through important civic issues and motivating students to learn and understand basic science. Environmental contamination and brownfields are universal problems in today’s world and incorporate civic issues to which every student can relate. BA provides a virtual world and narrative in which students figure out for themselves how to apply basic scientific concepts learned in a course to solve real, practical problems. There is significant potential for further growth of the community of BA users but it is also apparent that BA must undergo significant technological change to bring it up to date with new advances in online delivery and learning technology. A “next-generation” Brownfield Action project is in the early stages of development in order to create a more interactive, 3-D game-based learning environment for the simulation. We would also like to add new data to the simulation, expanding the range of environmental toxins represented to include dense non-aqueous phase liquids (DNAPLS) and nitrates, two major sources of groundwater contamination. Developing the next generation of BA will require funding, and appropriate documentation of learning gains will be needed to make a case for continued investment in BA. To this end we are currently developing standardized student assessment tools using the SENCER SALG that will be deployed across the community of BA adopters. But most importantly, improvement of the Brownfield Action simulation will be facilitated through expansion of the community of instructors who use BA in their courses and who will continue to develop innovative approaches that can be shared across the BA collaborative network.

About the Authors

Peter Bower

Peter Bower, conservationist and educator, is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Environmental Science at Barnard College/Columbia University, where he has taught for 28 years. He has been involved in research, conservation, and education in the Hudson River Valley for 35 years. He is the former Mayor of Teaneck, New Jersey, where he served on the City Council, Planning Board, and Environmental Commission for eight years. He received his B.S. in geology from Yale, M.A. in geology from Queens, and Ph.D. in geochemistry from Columbia.

Ryan Kelsey

Ryan Kelsey is a Program Officer for Education at the Helmsley Trust, where he focuses on national work in improving educational practices, with a special emphasis on higher education, STEM learning, and effective uses of technology. Prior to coming to the Trust, he spent thirteen years at the Columbia University Center for New Media Teaching and Learning, most recently as the Director of Projects. Ryan earned his Ed.D. and M.A. in Communication and Education from Teachers College and his B.S. in biology from Santa Clara University.

Joseph Liddicoat

Joseph Liddicoat has been teaching Brownfield Action since it became part of the Introductory Environmental Science course at Barnard in 2000. He is now retired from Barnard but still teaches Astronomy, Chemistry, Environmental Science, and Global Ecology at New York University where he has been an Adjunct Professor of Science for nearly 25 years, and as a SENCER Leadership Fellow has represented NYU at the SENCER Summer Institutes since 2008. He received his B.A. in English Literature and Language from Wayne State University and his M.A. and graduate degrees in Earth Science from Dartmouth College (M.A.) and the University of California, Santa Cruz (Ph.D.).

Douglas Thompson

Douglas Thompson is a scientist trained in the field of fluvial geomorphology. He has taught for seventeen years at Connecticut College in the Environmental Studies program and has written one book, over 30 scientific articles and book chapters, and made over 50 scientific presentations. He currently serves as the Karla Heurich Harrison ’28 Director of the Goodwin-Niering Center for the Environment at Connecticut College. He received his B.A. from Middlebury College, and his M.S. and Ph.D. from Colorado State University.

Angelo Lampousis

Angelo Lampousis is a Lecturer in the Dept. of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences of the City College of New York. He is a member of the ASTM subcommittee E50 and the task group responsible for developing the ASTM Standard E1527, Practice for Environmental Site Assessments. He received his B.S. in agriculture from Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece and M.Phil. and Ph.D. from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

Bret Bennington

Bret Bennington conducts research in paleontology and regional geologic history at Hofstra University where he has taught for 20 years. In addition to paleontology, he teaches courses in physical geology, historical geology, hydrology, geomorphology, and the history of evolutionary thought. He also co-directs a study abroad program that brings students to the Galápagos Islands and Ecuador to follow in the footsteps of Charles Darwin in studying the relationships between ecology, geology and evolution. He received his B.S. in biology / geology from the Univ. of Rochester and his Ph.D. in paleontology from Virginia Tech.

Bess Greenbaum Seewald

Bess Greenbaum Seewald has taught middle and high school science for nine years. She currently teaches high school level biology and environmental science at Columbia Grammar & Preparatory School in New York City. Bess graduated from Barnard College in 2000 double majoring in Biology and Film Studies and received a M.A. in secondary science education from The City College of New York.

Arthur Kney

Arthur D. Kney is an Associate Professor and Department Head in the Dept. of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Lafayette College. He has served as chair of the Pennsylvania Water Environment Association (PWEA) research committee and of the Bethlehem Environmental Advisory Committee, vice president of Lehigh Valley Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), and secretary of ASCE/Environmental and Water Resources Institute (EWRI) Water Supply Engineering Committee. He received his Ph.D. in environmental engineering from Lehigh University in 1999 and his professional engineering license in 2007.

Saugata Datta

Saugata Datta is an Associate Professor of Chemical Hydrogeology and Environmental Geochemistry in the Dept. of Geology in Kansas State University. He teaches courses in hydrogeology, low temperature geochemistry, water resources, and soils and environmental quality with research expertise in trace element and oxyanion migration and contamination, especially in groundwater, urban air particulates, subway microenvironments, and unproductive soil environments. He received his M.Sc. in geology from the Univ. of Calcutta and his Ph.D. in geochemistry from Univ. of Western Ontario, Canada.

Larry Lemke

Larry Lemke is an Associate Professor of Geology and Director of the Environmental Science Program at Wayne State University. He spent 12 years exploring for oil and gas in the Rocky Mountains, the Gulf of Mexico, the North Sea, and the Peoples’ Republic of China. At Wayne State, his research focuses on modeling the fate and transport of contaminants in groundwater, air, and soil in natural and urban environments. He received a B.S. in geology from Michigan State University, an M.S. in geosciences from the Univ. of Arizona, an M.B.A. from the Univ. of Denver, and a Ph.D. in environmental engineering from the Univ. of Michigan.

Briane Sorice Miccio

Briane Sorice Miccio has taught environmental science at the Professional Children’s School for seven years. She received her BA from Barnard College in Environmental Science and Education and her MA in Climate Science from Columbia Univ. She has worked at the New York State Dept. of Environmental Conservation as well as the International Research Institute for Climate and Society at Columbia Univ. While at Barnard, she used the Brownfield Action simulation as a student and has successfully adapted the simulation in her own classroom for the past 4 years, thereby creating a curriculum for use by high school educators.

Tamara Graham

Tamara Graham is an Instructor in the Department of Low Impact Development and Natural Resources Management at Haywood Community College. In her work as a designer and project manager for landscape architecture firms and in community development, she utilizes sustainable and smart growth planning approaches to create projects that simultaneously accommodate sound development, contribute to a vibrant sense of place, and strengthen community connections to the environment. She has worked as a consultant on park and greenway projects in Asheville, North Carolina. She received her BA from Yale Univ. in art and architecture and an M.L.A from the School of Environmental Design at the Univ. of Georgia.


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Standard Practice for Environmental Site Assessments: Phase I Environmental Site Assessment Process—ASTM Designation E1527 – 05

Standard Practice for Environmental Site Assessments: Phase II Environmental Site Assessment Process—ASTM Designation E1903 – 11


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Quantifying the Atmospheric Impact of an Urban Biomass Incinerator


This study examines the carbon footprint of a proposed biomass incinerator in Minneapolis and Saint Paul, Minnesota. This research was integrated as a service-learning project into the curriculum of an undergraduate differential equations course. Mathematical models were developed and analyzed to examine the local contribution of emissions to the atmosphere and the extent of land needed to offset incinerator emissions both in the short (daily) and long (yearly) term. [more] Our results show the sensitivity of atmospheric carbon content to the incinerator output rating, area and type of land dedicated for offsets, and atmospheric wind speed. The amount of managed land ranges from 7,000–20,000 hectares of land, or approximately the area of Saint Paul. The land requirements seem feasible in the context of the amount of available (unmanaged) land both locally and worldwide, but these requirements are diminished given the potential air quality effects resulting from biomass incineration.


The Rock-Tenn paper recycling plant located in Saint Paul, Minnesota employs over 500 people and contributes significantly to the economic health of the greater Minneapolis-Saint Paul metropolitan area (Nelson 2007). The company initially had its thermal energy supplied by Xcel Energy, the local power provider. In late 2007, Xcel Energy decommissioned the plant that supplied Rock-Tenn’s thermal energy. Alternative sources of energy were needed to maintain the long-term sustainability of the recycling plant.

Refuse derived fuel (RDF) was a proposed alternative to provide energy for the recycling plant. This technique derives energy from the incineration of plant material, refuse, and compost (Nelson 2007). RDF is an example of bioenergy. Generally defined as the use of plant material to supply energy, bioenergy supplies 15 percent of the world’s energy needs (Lemus and Lal 2005). Bioenergy is an alternative energy to fossil fuels. Trees, through the process of photosynthesis, convert carbon dioxide into carbon, so any combustion of tree residue (and associated release to the atmosphere of this comparatively recently-fixed carbon) theoretically results in no net change of atmospheric carbon (Smith 2006).

Surrounding the Rock-Tenn plant are residential neighborhoods. In response to the proposed plan of the biomass incinerator, a grassroots organization, Neighbors Against the Burner, formed to oppose the incinerator, citing air quality effects on health (Pope et al. 2002) as one of its main objections. Based on the strong community response, in November 2008 the Saint Paul City Council passed a resolution against having the biomass incinerator be the energy source for Rock-Tenn. The Council advocated investigation of other alternative energy options, such as using biogas from anaerobic digestion (Saint Paul City Council 2008).

Augsburg College is a private, liberal arts college in Minneapolis, Minnesota, approximately three miles from the Rock-Tenn Recycling Plant. In spring semester 2008 as part of a semester-long research project for a course on differential equations, 11 students, with this author as the instructor, engaged in a service-learning project to investigate the atmospheric effects and carbon footprint of the proposed biomass incinerator. The project was integrated into the course content to provide a real-life example that had both civic and environmental connections. Two key research questions were addressed by the students:

  1. How much do incinerator emissions elevate local atmospheric carbon?
  2. What conditions need to be satisfied for carbon neutrality both short and long term?

For the purposes of this study, carbon neutrality implies zero net change in the atmospheric carbon content.


This study was integrated in the curriculum for a one-semester differential equations course. At the beginning of the term the instructor introduced the project objectives. The students formed teams to investigate the project objectives through construction and analysis of a mathematical model. The teams reported updates with the instructor throughout the semester. Additionally, a representative from Neighbors Against the Burner attended a class session to answer student questions and provide feedback. At the end of the term, students presented their results and wrote a report describing their results in the context of the mathematical, environmental, and civic dimensions of the project. The results presented in this study derive from these student projects.

Mathematical models

All mathematical models are formulated to measure the rate of change in atmospheric carbon content. Two overarching processes are assumed to affect this rate of change: emissions from the burner (increasing atmospheric carbon content) and biophysical processes that decrease atmospheric carbon. The following word equation describes this process:

Rate of change of atmospheric carbon =
Incinerator emissions – Biophysical processes

Emissions from the incinerator are assumed to occur at a constant rate, dependent on the emission type and incinerator output rating. To maintain carbon neutrality, we assume the existence of an active forest that removes carbon. With these assumptions, each team then had to quantify the appropriate mathematical model based on Equation 1. The mathematical models are qualitatively described below; additional mathematical descriptions are in the Appendix.

Emissions Contribution to Atmospheric Carbon.

Emissions from the incinerator and subsequent dispersion into the atmosphere create a plume of incinerated material and gases. This model, derived from models of contaminant transport in fluids (Brannan and Boyce 2007; Falta Nao and Basu 2005), describes the rate that incinerated carbon enters the plume. The biophysical process term is assumed to be directly proportional to the wind speed versus higher wind speed values decrease the amount of carbon near the incinerator and increase the concentration of carbon in the plume. Outputs from this model could subsequently be used to quantify spatial distribution of carbon in the plume through diffusion, advection, and other atmospheric properties.

The incinerator emissions are inversely proportional to the smokestack output area, assumed to be 250 square meters for this study. The flow (in terms of volume per time) of emissions into the smokestack must equal the flow of emissions into the atmosphere. If the area of the smokestack increases, the rate of change of atmospheric carbon must decrease to maintain the constant flow of emissions.

Short and long term carbon neutrality.

Long term atmospheric measurements of carbon dioxide over various ecosystems have shown the short and long term responses of ecosystems to carbon uptake through the dynamic processes of photosynthesis (conversion of carbon dioxide to simple sugars) and respiration (release of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere) (Baldocchi et al. 2001; Wofsy et al. 1993). Aggregated up to annual timescales, this balance between photosynthesis and respiration typically is negative (meaning the photosynthesis flux is stronger than all respiratory fluxes), indicating the ecosystem is a sink of carbon to the atmosphere. Diurnal fluctuations in temperature and moisture, seasonal variation, species composition, and plant species successional stage all contribute to an ecosystem being a given source or sink of carbon to the atmosphere (Baldocchi et al. 2001). The productivity of a forest (or its ability to decrease atmospheric carbon) can therefore be quantified with long-term records of net carbon uptake.

As previously stated, we assume the existence of a forest that will offset incinerator emissions. In our models this is represented by having the emissions term inversely proportional to the forest area. As forest area increases, emissions contribute proportionally less to atmospheric carbon because there are more trees to remove atmospheric carbon.

The biophysical process term was quantified in two different ways to describe short term (daily) and long term (yearly) carbon uptake. Short term carbon uptake was modeled with a dynamic, periodic term modeled after patterns of diurnal net ecosystem carbon exchange (Wofsy et al. 1993). Long term carbon uptake or forest productivity was assumed to occur at a constant rate, with values determined from Baldocchi et al. (2001).

Model Results of Atmospheric Carbon Content from Incinerator Emissions as a Function of Wind Speed
Figure 1. Model Results of Atmospheric Carbon Content from Incinerator Emissions as a Function of Wind Speed


Figure 1 shows results of the influence of wind speed on atmospheric carbon content. As wind speed increases, local emissions decrease independent of burner output. Increasing the incinerator output rating o (measured in MBtu per hour) also increases atmospheric carbon content, inferring a higher concentration of carbon in the plume.

Figures 2a-b show model results of the daily temporal change in atmospheric carbon content. Vertical axis values in Figures 2a-b are scaled as a percent change from the initial atmospheric carbon content. Positive vertical axis values suggest that the incinerator is increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, or a “carbon-positive” incinerator, whereas negative vertical axis values indicate the incinerator is “carbon-negative,” or that the forest removes additional carbon dioxide beyond incinerator emissions. The periodic behavior in atmospheric carbon results from the selection of a periodic function for the carbon uptake function (see the Appendix). Daytime has a stronger net carbon uptake, indicating trees in the forest are removing carbon from the atmosphere through photosynthesis, thereby decreasing atmospheric carbon content. As photosynthesis is a light-dependent reaction, during the night the forest is a source of atmospheric carbon.

Model Results for the Short‑Term Carbon Neutrality of the Burner
Figure 2. Model Results for the Short‑Term Carbon Neutrality of the Burner

Figure 2a reflects short term temporal emissions when the output rating of the boiler o is varied from 200 to 400 MBtu per hour. These output ratings were estimated from similar steam-producing systems as the one studied by the students (Energy Products of Idaho 2009). In all cases, it is assumed that there is an actively growing forest of 14,500 hectares (approximately the area of Saint Paul) to offset incinerator emissions. For an output rating of 400 MBtu per hour the atmospheric concentration is increasing at a constant rate of 10 percent per day, whereas for an output rating of 200 MBtu per hour the forest is large enough to reduce atmospheric carbon content by 10 percent per day.

Figure 2b shows the effect of changing the forest area on atmospheric carbon content. If the forest area is reduced to 10,000 hectares, then the incinerator becomes a source of carbon to the atmosphere with emissions growing at a rate of approximately 10 percent per day, indicating that the forest itself is not large enough to offset emissions from the plant. On the other hand, if the forest area is increased to 20,000 hectares, then the incinerator is “carbon negative,” decreasing atmospheric carbon concentrations approximately 10 percent per day.

Model Results for the Long-Term Carbon Neutrality of the Incinerator
Figure 3. Model Results for the Long-Term Carbon Neutrality of the Incinerator

Figure 3 shows the area of land that would need to be dedicated to maintain long-term carbon neutrality as a function of the output rating. As the output rating increases, a larger forest area will be needed to sustain carbon neutrality. The slope of the linear dependency in Figure 3 depends on the forest productivity (F) in removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Different values of F result from the overall forest species composition (Baldocchi et al. 2001). The less productive forest (smaller values of F) will require a larger area to offset incinerator emissions.


Evaluation of model results

A strong concern to the incinerator is the decrease in air quality in the neighborhoods surrounding the recycling plant. The results shown in Figure 1 qualitatively support this concern. Higher incinerator output ratings increase the amount of atmospheric carbon in the emissions plume. While atmospheric carbon decreases with increasing wind speed, conservation of mass infers that this carbon is dispersed to neighborhoods surrounding the incinerator.

Recent studies have shown linkages between public health and air quality (Pope et al. 2002; Zhang and Smith 2007). In addition to the carbon released through incineration, aerosols and other particulate matter may also be released into the atmosphere by incineration. While these other aerosols were not investigated in this study, the models presented here could easily be adapted to take these into consideration. Additionally, coupling this model to an atmospheric transport model could quantitatively describe increases in carbon or other aerosols and the spatial extent to neighborhoods around the incinerator.

Our results indicate that the amount of forest area needed to maintain carbon neutrality ranges between 7000–20000 hectares, depending on the type of species planted and the output rating (Figures 2 and 3). These estimates are a small fraction of land both locally and worldwide that could be dedicated to bioenergy. In Minnesota approximately 563,000 hectares of land could be rehabilitated to support bioenergy crops (Lemus and Lal 2005). Worldwide, the amount of land in need of restoration from degraded agricultural soils is approximately 1965 million hectares (Lemus and Lal 2005), which is a large proportion of the 2380 million hectares of land not classified as urbanized or protected (Read 2008). The total area of managed, or plantation, forests are 187 million hectares, consisting of 5 percent of worldwide forest area (Mead 2005).

Dedicating land to bioenergy crops helps to mitigate increasing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, restore soil organic carbon that were depleted from agricultural practices, and prevent erosion (Lemus and Lal 2005; Lal 2004; Sartori et al. 2006). In spite of these benefits and comparatively small area of land required to offset incinerator emissions, other factors not accounted for in our models would modify our estimates for the amount of land needed to offset emissions. First, technological advances will be required for their application, which may not be appropriate at all regional and local levels (Smith 2008). Second, bioenergy should be part of a suite of strategies targeted to mitigate climate change, which include the reduction of existing emissions through changes in consumption and improving agricultural efficiency (Smith 2008; Rhodes and Keith 2008). Third, life-cycle analyses for bioenergy crops (Adler, Del Grosso, and Parton 2007; Spartari, Zhang, and Maclean 2006) have shown a slight decrease in their mitigation potential when the growth and maintenance of the bioenergy crop (which requires energy) is taken into consideration. Additionally a recent study by Fargione et al. (Fargione et al. 2008) has quantified a substantial carbon “debt” incurred by clearing land for bioenergy crops. Further investigation into these factors is needed to refine and quantify the carbon footprint of the incinerator.

Evaluation of teaching and learning outcomes

Key learning outcomes of the project were to (a) develop and apply differential equation models to a contextual situation, (b) interpret results in the context of the carbon neutrality of the burner, and (c) provide valued recommendations based on the observations of the mathematical models.

The use of a service-learning-based project aligned well with both course learning objectives as well as the Augsburg College mission, which has a strong history in service learning (Hesser 1998). The students were given a survey to assess project outcomes in three categories: (a) overall learning (application and connection to course learning outcomes), (b) resource utilization (ability to complete the project independently), and (c) community connection (public acknowledgment of student efforts). The eleven students in the class responded to each category on a 5 point Likert scale. The average results were 3.9 (median 4) for the overall learning, 4.2 (median 4) for resource utilization, and 3.6 (median 4) for community connection. Students overall remarked positively about the service-learning project. One student remarked that “It was interesting to see real-world applications of math,” and another student commented “The project was an excellent way of learning how to put our concepts into a practical perspective, and it was also edifying to learn the nature of carbon neutrality.”

Based on the evaluations, it can be concluded from the student assessments that the first two outcomes were met (the construction, application, and interpretation of mathematical models). The lower ranking of the community connection category indicated not fully meeting the final objective. While students articulated recommendations on model results, a stronger connection to the relevant stakeholders in the issue (Neighbors Against the Burner and Rock-Tenn Recycling) could have been made. Multiple student evaluations expressed the desire for a tour of the recycling plant, or have more interaction with local community organizations beyond the mid-term visit. It would have been desirable to have a public forum of presentation of results, thereby increasing the visibility of the project in the college community.

This project has shown the qualitative contribution of the biomass incinerator to local atmospheric carbon content and the amount of land required to offset incinerator emissions. The project articulated the value of mathematical models and connected classroom learning to a civic and environmental issue.


The author would like to thank the students enrolled in the spring 2008 section of MAT 247: Modeling and Differential Equations for their diligent work and efforts; Mary Laurel True of the Center for Service, Work and Learning at Augsburg College; Benjamin Stottrup; and Tom Welna of Neighbors Against the Burner. Special thanks are expressed to the Barbara Farley, Vice-President of Academic Affairs at Augsburg College for conference travel support to present preliminary results at the Mathematical Association of America MathFest 2008.

About the Author

John Zobitz ( is an assistant professor of mathematics at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, Minnesota. John received his Ph.D. from the University of Utah in 2007, specializing in mathematical biology. Current research includes the development of mathematical models quantifying forest carbon uptake from automated data streams. He continues to find ways to intersect environmental mathematics with his mathematics teaching at all levels of the curriculum.

Appendix: Description of Mathematical Models

The quantity described in all models is the atmospheric carbon density (grams carbon per square meter, or g C m-2), represented with the variable c. Models were expressed as a differential equation, and where appropriate, solved directly or with standard numerical techniques (Blanchard, Devaney, and Hall 2006). The initial condition (c0) for all models assumes a fixed CO2 mixing ratio of 385 parts per million by volume (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration 2009; Peters et al. 2007), assuming an air density of 44.6 mol m-3(Campbell and Norman 1998) uniformly distributed up to 21.5 m above the ground surface. Energy units are expressed in MBtu, or a million British thermal units.

Model results were investigated in the context of the following key parameters:

  1. Incinerator output rating o (MBtu hr-1),
  2. Atmospheric wind speed v (m hr-1, expressed in all figures and results as miles hr-1)
  3. Forest area A (m2, expressed in all figures and results as hectares)
  4. Forest annual net carbon uptake or productivity F
  5. (g C m-2year-1)

Emissions Contribution to Atmospheric Carbon

The model of the emissions contribution to atmospheric carbon was modified from models of contaminant transport in fluids (Brannan and Boyce 2007; Falta Nao and Basu 2005) with the following differential equation:

where c, t, o, and v are defined above, t is time (hours), α is a conversion factor from grams to pounds (453.59 grams pound-1), ε is a conversion factor to determine the amount of carbon in carbon dioxide (0.2727 g C g-1 CO2), E is the emissions fuel type for wood (assumed to be 195 lbs CO2MBtu-1 [Palmer 2008]), o is the boiler output rating, S is the incinerator total smokestack area (assumed to be 250 m2). For a circular smokestack this would be a diameter of 17.8 m, and m0 is the initial atmospheric carbon volume (0.206 g C m-3). Assuming the carbon dioxide concentration equilibrates rapidly to steady state (that is, dc/dt = 0), an expression can be determined that relates atmospheric carbon content c to the wind speed v, as shown in Figure 1 for different values of the output rating o.

Short- and Long-Term Carbon Neutrality

The short term carbon uptake was determined via the following differential equation:

where c, t, α, ε, E, and A are defined above. The periodic function represents the diurnal uptake pattern typically found in a forest (Wofsy et al. 1993). For this study, f1 = 0.1 g C m-2 hr-1, f2 = π/12 ≈ 0.262 hr-1, f3 = 0.524, and f4 = 0.05 g C m-2 hr-1. The values of f1, f2, f3, and f4, were visually determined from data of the average diurnal uptake pattern for a coniferous forest during the peak summer carbon uptake period (Monson et al. 2002; Zobitz et al. 2007).

To investigate the long-term carbon footprint, the following model was used:

where all variables are defined above. Again assuming steady state dynamics (or no change in atmospheric carbon) a linear equation between A and o can be formulated and is represented for different values of F in Figure 3.


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Preparing Future Teachers Using a SENCER Approach to Positively Affect Dispositions Toward Science


Pre-service and in-service elementary teachers tend to have poor attitudes and beliefs about science that stem from their own early science-related experiences. The development of positive dispositions toward science among pre-service teachers is problematic but essential if we are to improve science education. Attitudes will affect behavior and positive attitudes among pre-service teachers will lead to good learning and subsequently to good science teaching. Previous studies suggest college science courses that contain elements of inquiry-based learning, practical application to teaching, and engagement with broader real-world issues can affect positive change in these dispositions. [more] Here, I report on the efficacy of a new biology course at Longwood University in improving science dispositions among pre-service teachers. The course, modeled on a SENCER (Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities) approach, engages students in biological concepts using focal topics that involve timely, complex, and biologically relevant issues confronting society. Four semesters of assessment data demonstrate a favorable change in students’ attitudes toward science, science teaching, and engagement in broader civic issues after completing the course.


Wanted: College and university science teachers wishing to become engaged in a comprehensive, important, and potentially transforming educational movement. Those who accept the challenge will join with K–12 teachers in a quest to give every American an essential understanding of the physical and biological processes that characterize our world, and to nurture curiosity and scientific habits of mind. In the process, all participants will experience change and renewal.

This opening paragraph of “College Pathways to the Science Education Standards” (Siebert and McIntosh, 2001), both highlights the critical need for systematic consideration of science education in higher education but also identifies one of the greatest obstacles to holistic change: the cyclic nature of our educational systems. Teachers often teach as they were taught (Watters and Ginns, 2000), and thus meaningful and positive change is required not only to improve scientific understanding of all citizens but also to affect the “pipeline” that develops future K–12 teachers.

Pre-service and in-service elementary teachers, in general, tend to have poor attitudes and beliefs about science and their capacities to be effective teachers of science (Stevens and Wenner, 1996), and many experienced teachers report feeling uncomfortable and unqualified to teach science (Kahle, Anderson, and Damjanovic, 1991). Research suggests that these attitudes develop as a result of their own science-related experiences in elementary and high schools (deLaat and Watters, 1995) and support the teacher preparation pipeline problem: a student’s interest in pursuing science is shaped by experiences at a young age and his/her most frequent exposure to science is through those teachers. While these pre-service and in-service teachers often have a love for the profession of teaching, they may lack a passion for or real connection to the science content. Given this situation, the development of positive dispositions towards science and science teaching among pre-service teachers is problematic (Watters and Ginns, 2000).

If we seek to change this cycle by impacting the preparation of our future K–8 teachers in their science courses in higher education, we must accept some of the constraints of our own systems. In most college and university science departments, courses are taught by disciplinary experts who may have little or no formal training in teaching or science education. As such, at the college level we have the same issues as at the K–8 levels but in reverse: faculty with a love for the content but who may not be prepared to or comfortable with modeling and teaching pedagogical approaches for these teacher candidates. How then can we seek meaningful change in the preparation of K–8 teachers while working within the higher education systems, neither overwhelming faculty with proposed changes nor selling short our future teachers on the content and context they need to successfully teach their own students?

My research in this area supports the utility of the SENCER approach (Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities) as a way to reform science courses in higher education and positively impact teachers. SENCER (2009), a national initiative funded by the National Science Foundation and housed at the National Center for Science and Civic Engagement at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology, seeks to improve learning and stimulate civic engagement by teaching science through complex, largely unsolved civic issues that interest large numbers of students. In this paper I present survey data collected in a SENCER-styled course for pre-service teachers at Longwood University. The survey was designed to assess the efficacy of this course in improving dispositions that lead to increased student learning of science concepts, greater confidence in teaching science, and enhanced engagement in broader civic issues. The underlying idea of this study is that attitudes will affect behavior and that positive attitudes among pre-service teachers will lead to good learning and subsequently to good science teaching.


Institutional context
Longwood University has a long tradition of developing teachers, and until 1975 was an all-female institution with a predominant focus on teacher education. Today, pre-service teachers continue to make up the largest major program on campus (approximately 750 of 3900 undergraduates). The home for these pre-service teachers is the Liberal Studies program in the Cook-Cole College of Arts and Sciences. This program seeks to provide a strong Liberal Arts content background to pre-service teachers before they begin their formal training in education. In addition to their required General Education science course, students within the Liberal Studies program who are seeking elementary licensure (grades K–6) are required to take four science courses: one two-hour physics course, one two-hour chemistry course, one three-hour earth science course, and one four-hour biology course. Students electing to obtain certification to teach science at the middle school level (grades 6–8) have the additional requirement of selecting General Chemistry 101 as their general education science requirement.

Course context
The Fundamentals of Life Science, Biology 114, is a required science course for all of Longwood’s Liberal Studies majors and is the only life science course they are required to complete in preparation for their teaching careers. As a four-credit hour course, students participate in three hours of lecture and two hours of laboratory each week. The course was first offered in the fall of 2004 following a curriculum change to science requirements in the major; prior to this term, students seeking K–8 teaching licensure were required to complete four-credit courses in zoology and botany. These courses were taught using a traditional lecture-lab format. As the primary instructor for the new course, I had the opportunity to design a new course model.

Building on student feedback from previous courses, relevant pedagogical research on the effectiveness of topic-focused and inquiry-based approaches (Korb, Sirola and Climack, 2005; Crowther and Bonnstetter, 1997), and my department’s involvement in the SENCER program, I structured Biology 114 around a number of focal topics. These topics involve timely, complex, and biologically relevant issues confronting society. Students are engaged in these topics from the start and are required to reflect on and inquire about these issues throughout the course. For example, we spend several weeks engaging the topic of cancer, a subject that most students consider interesting and important and one with a rich civic context. To build student interest in the topic, they are assigned context readings beforehand. These may be cancer survivor stories or articles on new treatment technologies. Along with discussions and reflective writing assignments over these readings, students analyze recent trends in cancer rates and are asked to generate hypotheses explaining them. Students then test their hypotheses, in effect, by writing a brief research paper that explores recent research related to the hypotheses. While engaging this topic and its broader impacts on society, students learn important biological concepts such as cellular chemistry, cell division, DNA structure and function, and cell regulation.

Other focal topics follow to sustain student engagement and interest in class and in their learning; these include genetic engineering and the stem-cell debate, HIV-AIDS, drug and alcohol abuse, human overpopulation, and the biodiversity crisis. Each topic is introduced with context readings and analysis of relevant statistics and data. Interest is sustained through additional readings, discussions, relevant news clips and videos, and short reflective writing assignments. While these focal topics function as umbrellas under which students learn much basic science content and make connections to live as citizens, they are also required to synthesize the material in the specific context of their chosen profession.

Students are further prepared for work in their future classrooms by participating in active, inquiry-based laboratories and through a novel assignment that requires them to reflect on biological content covered throughout a focal topic and then locate relevant K–8 Virginia Standards of Learning (SOLs)that apply to the specific content (Virginia Department of Education, 2007). This encourages students to consider and make connections between the college-level concepts learned in class and the K–8 content they will be teaching in the future.

Assessment tools
To evaluate change in pre-service teachers’ dispositions I constructed a survey composed of twenty statements designed to assess attitudes related to science and the teaching of science at the K–8 level (Table 1, below). Students were asked to reflect on their level of agreement with each statement and respond using a Likert scale (Edwards, 1957), where 1 = strongly disagree, 3 = neutral, and 5 = strongly agree. The twenty survey statements were constructed around four categories focusing on different dispositions and capacities. Statements 1–5 addressed students’ level of confidence in their science content knowledge, science process skills, and ability to teach scientific concepts. Statements 6–10 assessed students’ awareness of the importance of learning and teaching science in a greater societal context. Statements 11–15 assessed students’ appreciation of scientific contributions to society and the importance of scientific research. Statements 16–20 addressed students’ feelings of achievement related to their personal development in how they think about science and science teaching. Additionally, students were solicited for comments regarding their feelings or attitudes about science in general and their ability and desire to teach science in their future classrooms.

The assessment plan and protocol was approved by the Human and Animal Subjects Research Review Committee of Longwood University prior to the initiation of data collection and was renewed annually. Students were informed of the study, assured the anonymity of their responses, and provided the option to participate. The disposition assessment and solicitation of comments were administered on the first day of class and again during the last week of class for four consecutive semesters (fall 2005, spring 2006, fall 2006, spring 2007). Of 309 students enrolled in the course during this period, 91 percent (n = 281) participated in the pre-course assessment and 84.5 percent (n = 261) in the post-course assessment. Of the participants completing the pre-assessment, 12.8 percent (n = 36) provided pre-assessment comments while 15 percent (n = 39) provided post-assessment comments. The student population in Biology 114 was predominantly underclassmen and female (95.8 percent). The majority of participants (84.6 percent, n = 238) planned to start a teaching career in the K–6 grade levels.

Disposition Assessment Tool Developed for Biology 114
Table 1. Disposition Assessment Tool Developed for Biology 114

Survey data were pooled from all four semesters into pre- and post-assessment groups. For this report on the project to date, I calculated means and standard errors of student responses to nineteen survey statements. One survey statement (number 16) was omitted from all analyses due to relevancy of the statement to the survey population. I also compiled summary data by disposition category and report pre- and post-assessment means of scores and the mean change in pre- and post-assessment scores by category.


Pre-service K–8 teachers participating in the Biology 114 pre- and post-course disposition assessments demonstrated a favorable change in their general attitudes toward science and science teaching. The mean of scores reported by students increased for all nineteen survey statements between the pre- and post-assessment (Figure 1). The largest positive mean change in response between pre- and post-assessment occurred in the personal achievement category (mean ∆ = 1.13), indicating participants felt more positive in their personal development of how they think about science and science teaching after completing the course (Figure 1). The second largest mean change in student response was in the category addressing students’ level of confidence in their science content knowledge, science process skills, and ability to teach scientific concepts (mean ∆ = 0.88).

I also found consistent improvements between pre- and post-assessment comments regarding participants’ feelings or attitudes about science in general and their ability and desire to teach science in their future classrooms. Students also responded favorably in post-assessment responses to the SENCER-style approach of the course. A representative sample of these comments is provided in Table 2. During the pre-assessment, 6.4 percent (n = 18) of participants indicated a career plan that included obtaining middle-school science licensure; in the post-assessment, that percentage had increased to 8.9 percent (n = 23).

Biology 114 Pre- and Post-Assessment Mean Scores and Standard Errors for Student Responses by Survey Statement and by Disposition Category
Figure 1. Biology 114 Pre- and Post-Assessment Mean Scores and Standard Errors for Student Responses by Survey Statement and by Disposition Category


Recent research suggests that college science courses that contain elements of inquiry-based and hands-on learning (Palmer, 2001), practical application to teaching (Korb, Sirola and Climack, 2005), and engagement with broader real-world issues (Middlecamp, Phillips, Bentley, and Baldwin, 2006) affect positive change in undergraduate students’ dispositions toward science. This preliminary study of the outcomes of Biology 114, a course that incorporates each of these elements in a SENCER teaching approach, lends further support to these positive effects on pre-service teachers. Though the recorded changes were uniformly positive in four semesters of data collection, the means and degrees of change varied among disposition categories.

Students’ self-reported feelings of achievement related to their personal development in how they think about science and science teaching (statements 17–20) showed the most change, while student confidence in their science content knowledge, science process skills, and ability to teach scientific concepts (statements 1–5) showed the second greatest change. These results demonstrate the course was successful at improving students’ confidence in their science abilities, which should translate into a more positive attitude toward teaching science in their own classrooms (Young, 1998).

Interestingly, though still positive overall, there was less cumulative change in dispositions related to students’ awareness of the importance of learning and teaching science in a greater societal context (statements 6–10) and in dispositions related to appreciation of scientific contributions and the importance of scientific research (statements 11–15). Mean scores for pre-assessment responses to statements in these two disposition categories were higher than were the mean scores for pre-assessment responses in the former two categories. Relatively high responses to pre-assessment statements in these categories suggest students entered the course with at least a perceived awareness and appreciation for the contributions and relevance of science. Exposure to intense media coverage of many controversial and capacious issues involving science may foster student perceptions of being informed and aware of these specific issues. This response trend may also be related to students’ previous science experiences, a possible covariate that will be explored in future analyses.

Representative Sample of Pre- and Post-Assessment Comments
Table 2. Representative Sample of Pre- and Post-Assessment Comments

The amount of change between pre- and post-assessment mean of scores reported by students increased over the course of four semesters. In fact, in consecutive semesters, students responded increasingly more positively to post-assessment survey statements in all four disposition categories. This temporal trend of improvement in science dispositions likely reflects the time required to develop and refine course content and context in this SENCER model. This consideration is important for others wishing to adopt this pedagogical approach.

Informal discussions with students further support post-assessment comments that students appreciated making science content relevant to teaching and to everyday living experiences: they find worth in studying science when they recognize it relates to their life and profession (Korb, Sirola and Climack, 2005). Many students found it challenging to match course content to K–8 SOLs and then provide a rationale for those connections, especially with the more abstract or complex college-level concepts that had no obvious K–8 counterpart. As these assignments had direct connection to their future teaching, students found them useful and helpful, even if difficult (Table 2). For an instructor with little formal training in teaching methodologies, these structured assignments provided an intentional link between content and teaching; yet by placing the burden on the students to make and justify their own connections to elementary course content, I was able to maintain class focus on subject content and context instead of on teaching methods.

Future plans for this endeavor include a continuation of the assessments in Biology 114 and discussions with colleagues on expanding the use of the pedagogical methods discussed here to other science courses required in the Liberal Studies major program. Also, as this dataset grows, I will examine the roll of covariates on assessment responses; factors such as the number of previous science courses the student has taken prior to Biology 114 and the grade level the student plans to teach may function to determine the degree of change in assessment responses. Additionally, I intend to broaden the use of these assessments to test the hypothesis that dispositions toward science, science teaching, and civic engagement continue to improve, first, as pre-service teachers move into their pre-professional education training and second, as new teachers gain actual experience in their own classrooms.

Biology 114 continues to evolve as a course as I modify content and context to reflect new trends and research in focal areas and discover alternative ways to engage future teachers in biology and science teaching. Future teachers who enter the workforce with an appreciation of and sense of excitement for the sciences will help to break the cycle and ensure that our children leave school with a better understanding of our world and the immense challenges and opportunities we face.


This research was supported through an Educator Preparation Program Effectiveness Grant from Longwood University’s Professional Educator’s Council. I thank my colleagues, Dr. Enza McCauley, for providing her guidance and expertise in the development of the assessment tool, and Dr. Alix Fink, for her encouragement and advice on the challenges and rewards of teaching through focal topics.

About the Author

Dr. Mark Fink is an Associate Professor of Biology at Longwood University. His research at Longwood focuses on basic and applied questions relating to the ecology of birds. His current research focuses on aspects of avian reproductive ecology and understanding the impacts of habitat alteration on reproductive success and population dynamics of early-successional birds of the Virginia Piedmont.

He is also interested in pedagogical questions relating to how undergraduate students, especially pre-service teachers, best learn science concepts and appreciation. He is currently examining the influence of existing science courses at Longwood University on dispositions toward science and science education among pre-service and in-service K–8 teachers.

Dr. Fink has been at Longwood since 2001. He has a doctoral degree in biology from the University of Missouri and Master of Science degree in wildlife and fisheries science from Texas A&M University.


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