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Brownfield Action course prepares students for environmental science careers

For the past decade, Barnard’s environmental science department has offered a course that allows students to experience firsthand the complex task of cleaning up a hazardous waste site, or brownfield, and returning the land and buildings to productive use. Created by Senior Lecturer Peter Bower, Brownfield Action (BA) is a web-based interactive simulation where, over the course of a semester, students use maps, documents, videos, and scientific data to conduct environmental site assessment investigations and solve problems in environmental forensics. For many Barnard students, a semester with BA sets a tone for their academic careers. And for some alumnae, the course has shaped their professional paths. Read about their experiences below.

Ten other colleges, universities, and high schools around the country also use the Brownfield Action curriculum and software. In May, educators from those schools gathered at Barnard for a seminar on new developments with the simulation, which has evolved into a collaborative network.

“The group includes environmental scientists, an environmental engineer, a sociologist, a geologist, an architect, and high school teachers,” said Prof. Bower, noting that each team member has taken on the responsibility of developing BA course content specific to their field of expertise. “We all share the goal of teaching science from the perspective of building a sustainable society.”

The seminar focused on expanding the BA network, developing the software for use in online education, and incorporating advances in mapping, media, gaming, and multimedia. See below for list of seminar participants.

Kayla Farrell ’16 enrolled in the BA course without much knowledge of environmental science.  “The concept of a brownfield was certainly new to me—I’d never heard the term before,” said Farrell. “The simulation introduced an example of one fictional town with a brownfield, but when Prof. Bower showed us pictures of other places—places you’d walk right by in your own community—it made me realize, this is not just a simulation. It really opened my eyes to what’s around me.” Following her experience in the introductory course, Farrell spent this summer working in the environmental science department, studying levels of the bacteria enterococcus in the Hudson River.

Esther Brot ’14 took the course as a first-year student and, three years later, still considers it among her most hands-on experiences at Barnard. “It gave us a taste of what real-life environmentalists do in their work,” said Brot. “We were drawing maps, considering different methods of clean-up, tracking down a leaking septic tank, compiling reports.” While pursuing her major in European history, she’s continued taking environmental-science courses, including an environmental-law course that reinforced the significance of these issues in everyday life. “When the BP oil spill happened, for example, I felt that I had a better understanding of what was happening and the players involved,” said Brot. “I would definitely consider a career along the lines of environmental law, or related to community involvement around these issues.”

Emily Spokowski’s ’11 majored in environmental science after taking the BA course as a first-year. “The class did a nice job of showing the scientific, social, legal, and economic issues involved with environmental brownfields and remediation,” she said. And for Spokowski, that was a jumping-off point for her career. As a junior, she interned with the Mayor's Office of Environmental Remediation (OER), where she learned about environmental public policy from a government perspective, including the processes of dealing with different agencies and groups. After graduation, she worked as a mold investigator at ALC Environmental, a consulting firm, and even started a blog, the Adventures of the Mold Girl, which chronicles her environmental undertakings in New York City. Recently, she became a senior scientist at EM Teque, and now deals with mold, asbestos, lead, and health- and safety- monitoring issues—employing many of the thought processes and strategies she first encountered while taking BA.

After taking BA as an undergraduate and majoring in environmental science, Briane Miccio ’05 worked as a teaching assistant in Prof. Bower’s course while a graduate student in climate and society at Columbia. This provided the opportunity to experience the BA curriculum from a teacher’s perspective—which came in handy a few years later, when she was teaching environmental science at the Professional Children's School. With the help of Prof. Bower, Miccio adapted BA for her high school class and tailored the rest of the year’s curriculum to give the students the information they needed to get the most out of the simulation. “They absolutely love it. They get so into it. It prepares them for what to expect in a college-level course,” said Miccio, who’s now been teaching BA for five years. “And I’ve had at least 10 students who have gone on to major in environmental science in college.”

Bess Greenbaum ’00 encountered BA years after Barnard when, as a biology teacher at Columbia Prep high school, she was asked to teach an environmental science course. With guidance from Miccio and Prof. Bower, Greenbaum designed a course for 11th and 12th graders that explored sustainability and environmental clean-up. “The science electives draw students who aren’t necessarily interested in the sciences. But the materials we work with allow them to see where all the superfund and brownfield sites are in their own city,” said Greenbaum. “It helps them see that it’s just as important for them to feel comfortable with science on some level, in whatever work they do.”

Participants in the 9th Brownfield Action Seminar at Barnard College. First Row, Left to Right: Bess Greenbaum (Columbia Preparatory School), Diane Dittrick (Barnard College), Peter Bower (Barnard College), Saugata Datta (Kansas State University), Bret Bennington (Hofstra University); Second Row, Left to Right: Gianluca Sperone (Wayne State University), Briane Miccio (Children’s Professional School), David McMullen (CCNY), Jon Rowe (North Carolina State University), Art Kney (Lafayette College), Angelo Lampousis (CCNY) and not shown: Joe Liddicoat (NYU), Terryanne Maenza-Gmelch (Barnard College), Larry Lemke (Wayne State Univ.), Khoi Truong (Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning), Tamara Graham (Haywood Community College),  Doug Thompson (Connecticut College)