Digging for signs of pollution - with a mouse and a hard drive

Environmental-science students at Barnard College in New York have found learning means putting on a "consultant" hat and investigating contamination at an old factory site.

But rather than drive 50 miles and pull on work boots, students need only point their Web browsers to the class's site, where they'll find a digital brownfield of industrial debris. Using the Internet and a CD-ROM, students can do what real-world environmental consultants do: They can "walk" (or in this case click) over the brownfield site, map it, run soil and water tests, and retrieve public records.

Until last year, the project was taught using a collection of 3-by-5 index cards. Students would bring their questions to a table manned by Prof. Peter Bower and his teaching assistants, who looked up the appropriate card and wrote down the answer for them.

"It was a lot of paper pushing and took a lot of time, so the problem had to be [simple]," Professor Bower says.

Then Bower met up with Frank Moretti, director of the Center for New Media Teaching and Learning at Columbia University in New York (of which Barnard is a part). The center helps professors bring digital technology into their courses. It was a natural project for the center to take on, Mr. Moretti says. "Simulations have terrific possibilities in a new-media environment."

Bower explained to Moretti what the project would be like if it were touched by a "techno fairy godmother," and Moretti put a team to work making it a reality.

The center's "educational technologists" spent several months - and about $60,000 - building the digital brownfield. It's made up of more than 2 million data points that define not only the surface of the old factory site, but 37 layers including bedrock, soil, ground water, and contamination.

Within the virtual site, students can enter the neighborhood bar and see a photo of Killroy, the bartender who used to be the town's police chief.

Like Erin Brockovich, the students can get information by hanging out with Killroy, which they do over e-mail. They can "talk" to former employees and neighborhood residents, and interview local officials, perhaps from the mayor's office or the local subdivision.

Killroy's end of the conversation, as well as the others interviewed, is carried on by the professor and his TAs. Documents, including some from the buildings department and health department, can be retrieved from an archive or through special requests.

Students can hire a company to drill deep into the ground, and they can use ground-penetrating radar to explore the site's depths. Those options are costly, however, and expenses must be kept within their Monopoly-money budget, managed on a spreadsheet.

Bower coordinates his lectures with what students need to know to explore the brownfield. Textbooks are replaced by books like "A Civil Action," "Silent Spring," and medical and legal dictionaries.

"They learn in context, and in a way, it's a game," Bower says.

Does playing that game really help students learn, or is it just more fun?

According to Robert Highsmith, the full-time evaluator that Columbia hired, these kinds of projects really are more effective than traditional lecturing and textbooks alone.

Highsmith compared the final "consultants' reports" that students prepared in previous years with ones that were submitted after using the virtual brownfield.

"There is a dramatic difference," he says. In the new reports, "they sound more like they're environmental consultants. They have the assertiveness and conviction that what they know is so strong and so deep that they can take an advocacy stance."

Columbia is continuing to add new capabilities to the project, and is looking into the possibility of marketing it to high schools and other colleges.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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