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Non-Traditional 'Brownfield Action' CD-ROM Brings New Rules to Teaching and Learning

By Lauren Marshall

Students interact with the Brownfield Action's virtual town through a map interface. By selecting areas on the map, such as the vineyard shown above, students can visit residences and local businesses in the town to gather information for their site investigation.

If students think they will pass Peter Bower's Introduction to Environmental Science course at Barnard by cramming, they should think twice about signing up. Building on concepts they learn each day in class, students are challenged to solve a groundwater pollution problem, the course's central project, in a virtual city using a digital simulation program called Brownfield action. Although this new digital technology has provided opportunities for teaching, it has also revealed the need to strengthen the way students typically learn.

There is no textbook in Bower's class; learning is interactive and investigative. In addition to reading A Civil Action, a novel turned blockbuster movie, and Silent Spring, the book that brought awareness of environmental concerns to America in the 1960s, students gain the skills they need through simulations, lectures and labs. Their task, as environmental consultants in a virtual town, is to investigate a three-dimensional contaminated Brownfield at an abandoned factory site, which is slated to become a high-tech mall.

Students use the Brownfield Action CD-ROM, produced by the Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning in collaboration with Bower, to analyze the city's environmental woes.

Brownfield Action offers a large database of more than 2 million pieces of information, including topography, water tables, soil composition and contamination plumes. In addition, the interactive program is a virtual city complete with resources: buildings, city health, water and sanitation departments, a newspaper and 50 town residents (actual video footage), including the town mayor and Jack Kilroy, retired police chief-turned-bar-owner, who has the inside scoop.

Students "interview" residents by clicking on a series of questions for a video response or by sending an email (responses come from Bower and staff). As they gather the information, students soon discover the story behind the suspected contamination and its exact location. To help his students grapple with such a comprehensive problem, Bower must go beyond basic science in his lectures. He takes a multi-disciplinary approach, lecturing on toxins, human health, basic chemistry, nuclear chemistry, geology, basic civics, the principles behind groundwater and water tower use, legal terms (to read the contract with Malls-R-Us, who have employed the environmental consultants) and even economics.

Like any business, the virtual consultants must complete their projects on time and within budget. Students begin their "contract" with $60,000, and everything they do in their investigation, from drilling to searching for old septic field permits, costs them money.

The results are dramatic. "Students come out of here truly educated, with an ownership of the subject matter," said Bower. "They can talk about contamination authoritatively and with interest." But while students discover a new way of learning, Bower is struggling with the challenges that accompany a non-traditional approach to teaching.

Bower believes his students suffer from the "test-taking mentality," where students are programmed to study for an exam, take it and then move on. And because they often cram for the test, they quickly forget the material. "With Brownfield Action, they can't forget what they've learned because the first day of class is as relevant as the most recent class, and they must use it to make their next choice. It is so much more like real life," said Bower.

As one remedy, Bower is changing his grading strategy, now administering 8 to 10 quizzes throughout the semester rather than the previous two tests and a final. Another challenge is what he calls the "quit syndrome," the psychological compulsion that presses students confronted with difficulty or an unknown situation to quit, rather than plowing ahead. "In Brownfield Action, there is a certain amount of ambiguity and students don't like that. So not only do I have to lecture, but also cajole. It can be a bit of a struggle, but once students buy into the project, things begin to happen," said Bower. He is also developing a student manual for the project to better prepare students on what to expect.

The Brownfield Action CD, offering a complete real-life learning experience for students, is the most comprehensive new media project developed at the CCNMTL to date. More than 20 CCNMTL staff members, led by Ryan Kelsey, project manager at the CCNMTL and doctoral fellow in communication, computing and technology at Teachers College, spent hundreds of hours developing the CD-ROM.

"Peter's commitment to this project reflected what he believes: that your education is what you remember six weeks after it is over," said Kelsey. "He is an ideal collaborator, someone with an idea in mind and a commitment to seeing it realized with us in a true partnership."

After two years of development and revisions to Brownfield Action, Bower continues to fine tune lectures and delivery.

While Bower credits the technology with enhancing learning, he still believes there is an ancient formula for classroom success: "This is a very powerful tool, with very strong results. Digital technologies have opened up a world of education that is much more real world and interdisciplinary. But people who are thinking about this should know—technology does not do away with the need for a well-designed course and a good teacher."

In addition to investigating how to bring Brownfield Action to a commercial audience, Bower and colleagues are considering how the CD-ROM might be used for high school or graduate students.

Brownfield Action is one of many digital learning tools developed at the CCNMTL.

Published: May 08, 2001
Last modified: Sep 18, 2002

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