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Out in the brownfields: An inquiry-based simulation for environmental science education

  • Dr Peter Bower, former professor of environmental science at Barnard College/Columbia University, USA, and team developed Brownfield Action, a network-based, interactive, digital space and simulation in which students explore and solve problems in environmental forensics.
  • This simulation transports students to a realistic but imaginary town with brownfields to be investigated and, given that actual fieldwork is often not feasible, enables them to address complex realistic scenarios.
  • Disseminated and used by educators across many institutions, Brownfield Action has been found to be an effective and realistic teaching tool that can help transform environmental education.

Environmental scientists play a crucial role in tackling the complex issues affecting our planet today, including climate change, pollution, and the depletion of natural resources. One of the key issues addressed by environmental consultants entails the study of brownfields, properties that have been abandoned or are underutilised due to actual or potential pollution. Polluted sites can be environmental hazards as they are difficult to reuse or redevelop due to the presence of toxic substances, but after site investigation, many properties can be remediated, revitalised, and redeveloped.

Student team using the Brownfield Action simulation to obtain data and make their water table map.

Dr Peter Bower, former professor of environmental science at Barnard College and Columbia University, USA, has collaborated with the Columbia Center for Teaching and Learning to develop an interactive digital simulation that teaches environmental science students to tackle brownfield-related problems in an engaging way. This simulation is called Brownfield Action (BA).

The working of Brownfield Action

BA allows students to navigate brownfields in a simulated town and conduct environmental site assessments to locate and determine levels of pollution, especially of groundwater, and devise steps for redevelopment. The BA website has three key sections: the first section is for educators and assignment submissions, the second contains simulation-related resources, and the third is the BA simulation. The simulation can be accessed through the website.

Brownfield Action is an interactive digital platform that teaches environmental science students to tackle brownfield-related problems in an engaging way.

When accessing the simulation, students enter an imaginary town spanning more than 150 acres of land. The town is visualised on a map that contains over 2 million spots where students can collect hydrogeologic (groundwater) data with tools commonly used by environmental consultants. These include laser-based devices known as theodolites, radars that penetrate underground, tools to analyse the properties of materials, measure magnetic fields or detect metals and gas, excavation tools, drilling technology, and tests to detect pollutants in the soil and groundwater. Additionally, the students can interview local people in the town and access historical records in the municipal government.

In the three-dimensional grid mapping the virtual town, students can see other details relevant to environmental site assessments, such as the topography, the depth to the water table and bedrock, and the type of soil. The map also clearly delineates specific properties and sites, such as roads, gas stations and diners, wells, homes, businesses, water towers, and government buildings.

Bringing BA to the classroom

The imaginary town simulated in BA has an underlying storyline designed to guide the students’ actions. The town is presented to be at a time of economic redevelopment, with a company looking to redevelop a local factory as a mini-mall. This company contracts with an environmental consulting firm (a student team) to perform an environmental site assessment of this brownfield property before the purchase of the factory. After considerable investigation, it is determined that the groundwater at the factory site as well as under adjacent properties is contaminated due to leakage from a septic field and the failure of underground pipes and tanks.

Visiting the Volunteer Ambulance Corps: in the site history mode, students can visit various locations and interact and gain information from characters in the BA storyline. Here, Emma Tee of the Volunteer Ambulance Corps answers questions selected from a menu.

During class exercises, students can be divided into pairs or small groups and asked to act as environmental consultants hired to determine the nature and extent of the town’s contamination problems. The students’ investigations will reveal that the town’s pollution was caused by a factory that previously manufactured radio-luminescent signs and discarded radioactive materials into its septic field. Because running tests and using tools in the simulation costs money, educators can also ask students to compete in trying to solve the problem in cost-effective ways.

Making environmental education practical

The BA simulation platform is an innovative digital space where students can apply what they learned in class, while also getting a better grasp of what they would be expected to do as environmental consultants. In addition to being more entertaining than traditional worksheets, lectures, and lab work, the platform has notable educational advantages. By simulating a realistic world that users can independently explore, BA teaches students to approach complex scenarios with an open mind, overcoming hasty judgements, conducting detailed assessments, and considering multiple dimensions of a problem.

BA teaches students to approach complex scenarios with an open mind, overcoming hasty judgements, conducting detailed assessments, and considering multiple dimensions of a problem.

As the storyline progresses, students face considerable ambiguity and will need to rely on their judgement and decision-making. Ambiguity is a key aspect of real-world environmental science, yet traditional laboratory exercises typically require students to follow a list of instructions, preventing them from encountering the uncertainties that they would face as professionals in real life. In contrast with conventional class exercises, BA can increase the students’ awareness of their skills and knowledge, teaching them to apply them critically and creatively. The platform also fosters teamwork both inside and outside the classroom, as students can continue working with their teammates from anywhere (with just an internet connection).

Magnetometry/Metal-Detection(MMD): This page shows a zoomed-in portion of the BA site map with the Testing Mode activated and with a student selecting the MMD tool. Note the red dots (x,y coordinates) where an MMD test will be run. The student chooses these grid points by using cross-hair pointers and clicking the desired location. The student company will then receive a readout of any ferrous signal occupying the selected area and their account will be charged.

To succeed as environmental consultants in the virtual town, the students need to apply both knowledge they learned in class and problem-solving skills associated with various professions. These include journalistic skills, when interviewing locals and gauging their statements’ truthfulness, as well as technical skills employed by engineers or environmental scientists, and business decision-making skills.

Student notes on several underground features.

They also need to consider the health hazards associated with different pollutants, interpret public records, and learn aspects of land and property management. Learning to combine a multitude of skills and knowledge is incredibly important, as interdisciplinary problem-solving approaches are often the most effective in solving real-world environmental problems.

A promising educational platform

The BA simulation and website have already been used by educators at many institutions across the United States. Larry Lemke, a professor at Wayne State University, introduced it as part of his Geological Site Assessment class, while Professor Angelo Lampousis at City University of New York incorporated it in the curriculum for his Phase II Environmental Site Assessment classes. BA has also been used by Professor Bret Bennington at Hofstra University and Professor Douglas M Thompson at Connecticut College to support the learning of hydrology and hydrogeology.

Moraine 3D field of play in the BA simulation.

Feedback from educators has been overwhelmingly positive, suggesting that the platform helped their students understand how concepts learned in class can be applied in real-world settings. Students appeared to greatly enjoy assignments in the simulation, with some suggesting that BA had encouraged them to pursue environmental consulting careers. The professors who used the platform praised its realism, as well as its ability to replicate the complexities and uncertainties associated with real-world environmental problems. Bower suggests that the simulation could be integrated in environmental science and STEM higher education programmes to better prepare students for their future professional endeavours in a creative yet realistic way.

How can Brownfield Action benefit/advance STEM education? What are the platform’s unique advantages and features?

Both of these questions demand an explanation of the pedagogical rationale for BA. Most STEM workers/educators use computers and other technology in their day-to-day practice. Technology can have powerful effects in putting constructivist principles into practice. An incredibly useful multimedia-supported learning environment must present the nuts and bolts of the discipline being taught, provide a realistic context in which those basic principles operate, and allow students to explore the forms, relations, and implications of the data they encounter. Most importantly, the simulation should embody a rich and complex narrative, a compelling story — ideally including conflicting threads of information to unravel and false leads to decode — in which students must solve substantive problems, occupy constructive roles, overcome hasty judgments, and resolve ambiguity.

Because there is no set of fixed outcomes, ambiguity is a fundamental component of BA imitating real-world investigations. This crucial feature is absent in most traditional, well-designed, laboratory science exercises, which often take a ‘cookbook’ approach to learning — that is, if the instructions are understood and followed, students know there is a solution that can be achieved before the end of the lab period. Student awareness of this ambiguity is an important pedagogical tool as students attempt to reverse ‘cookbook’ expectations, deal with the insecurity of ambiguity, and find threads that lead to real solutions.

Unsurprisingly, the inquiry-based approach of BA produces conflicts with previously learned student behaviours that accompany traditional, lecture-absorb, didactic methods. For example, students often become frustrated when outcomes do not provide the immediate sensation of being done or with a clear sense of the end in sight. Furthermore, student work habits typically involve spikes of effort revolving around the next test or assignment. For continued success in BA, students must own, internalise, and utilise concepts and information beyond the next test or assignment. There are many paths to discovering the hidden reality embedded in the simulation, but, regardless of the path chosen, BA requires consistent and persistent effort without the stimulus of continuous due dates or deadlines. It is designed to foster a respect for learning by placing students in a learning environment that insists that they gain ownership of the aptitudes for analysis, the competence in the demanding discipline of an environmental site assessment, the expertise to employ a variety of analytical methods to respond both critically and creatively to the simulation, and the ability to promote and advance the effectiveness of teamwork within the student companies. These pedagogical issues are raised with students directly in an effort to raise their awareness via metacognition and about their eventual transition to the challenges of life beyond the college classroom.

The BA laboratory experience also supports student learning. Lab sessions are designed to be seamless, integrated, and continuously evolving from one lab to the next, and because the BA simulation is network-based, student companies can continue their work during the week anywhere there is internet connectivity. More importantly, laboratory exercises for BA are integrated into the simulation and thus, need to be understood in the context of new information and reevaluated in the context of a final report to the development corporation.

For example, a standard lab exercise involving the sieving of sediment and the determination of particle-size distributions and porosity, in BA, becomes an investigation of sediment from a drill hole at the abandoned factory. The porosity data from this analysis must be combined with permeability data determined in a subsequent laboratory and with an understanding of D’Arcy’s Law to calculate groundwater velocity. This calculation is important for predicting and understanding the nature and extent of the contaminant plume but also for legal, forensic, and planning purposes. Thus, students must not only learn about particle-size distributions, porosity, permeability, and D’Arcy’s Law, but must also own this information in order to use it in the context of their investigation and final report. Finally, BA is unique in that it accurately replicates a real-world experience for students. At the beginning of BA, students are told that their education will be defined by those aspects of the experience that they ‘own’ and are able to use to influence their lives six months after the course is over.

How do you plan to improve and advance Brownfield Action in the future?

BA has been used in a multitude of ways depending on the level of the class, the amount of scaffolding required, and the class-time available (Bower et al, 2013). The BA website also contains a section where users describe the specifics and provide documents to demonstrate how they used the simulation. Currents users may add to this section. In addition, use of BA as a training tool for the environmental consulting industry is being examined.

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Further reading

Bower, P, Rodriguez, S (2023) Brownfield Action: A civic-oriented, web-based, active learning simulation. In: Rivera Maulucci, MS, et al, (eds) Transforming Education for Sustainability. Environmental Discourses in Science Education, Switzerland: Springer, Cham, 7, 247–259.

Bower, P, Kelsey, R, Liddicoat, J, et al, (2014) Brownfield Action: Dissemination of a SENCER model curriculum and the creation of a collaborative STEM education network, Science Education and Civic Engagement, 6(1), 5–22.

Bower, P, Kelsey, R, Moretti, F, (2011) Brownfield Action: An inquiry-based multimedia simulation for teaching and learning environmental science. Science Education and Civic Engagement, 3(1), 5–14.

Dr Peter Bower

Dr Peter Bower taught Environmental Science at Barnard College/Columbia University, USA 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 BS in geology from Yale University, MA in geology from Queens University, and PhD in geochemistry from Columbia University.

Contact Details

e: [email protected]
t: +1 201-906-5294


BA was selected in 2003 as a ‘National Model Curriculum’ by SENCER (Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities), a National Science Foundation STEM education initiative. Funding was also provided by the NSF, Columbia University’s Center for Teaching and Learning, and Barnard College.


The co-authors listed below were also collaborators crucial in the formative stages of Brownfield Action:

  • Joseph Liddicoat
  • Ryan Kelsey
  • Frank Moretti
  • Sedelia Rodriguez

Cite this Article

Bower, P, (2023) Out in the brownfields: An inquiry-based simulation for environmental science education,
Research Features, 150.

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(CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Creative Commons License

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