A Problem-Based Learning Exercise for Environmental Geology

Article excerpt


A site investigation in which students act as remedial project managers for the state, the polluter and the local community has been designed as a problem-based learning exercise in an upper-level environmental geology course. The 3 week long (6 class meetings) exercise serves as a capstone experience for the class and capitalizes on a series of lectures and laboratories that introduce students to environmental regulations, aspects of site investigation and contaminant remediation, the physical and chemical properties of inorganic and organic contaminants, well log interpretation, plume delineation, and risk assessment. The design of the exercise requires students to develop a functional collaboration in order to meet assignment deadlines and complete the investigation. While each group develops a different dynamic, the introduction of problem-based learning into the environmental geology curriculum has given students the opportunity to develop the problem solving skills necessary to manage a complex environmental investigation.


In recent years it has become important to expose undergraduates to the applied side of geology. The continued shortage of entry-level geologists at environmental consulting firms and the need for basic research in innovative areas such as bioremediation demands that undergraduate geology and environmental science students have more man just a cursory understanding of the complexities and challenges in these areas of geology. An environmental geology course that provides an overview of natural hazards and global climate change with only a brief overview of pollution in surface and groundwater systems is not in tune with the primary role of geologists in the workplace.

Graduates with a B.S. in geology are often times expected to understand the how the position and depth of a individual well fits into larger project objectives and appreciate the effort and expense that goes into locating, mobilizing, installing, and sampling an individual well. In many cases, a neophyte geologist does not grasp the importance of their everyday activity. Without problem solving skills and project management experience it is difficult at best to understand the amount of effort and planning that went into locating the wells they are assigned to install and that these wells are long term monitoring locations that will be used along with other wells to make plume delineations, remediation decisions, and eventually site closure decisions. With that knowledge, the well installation is no longer just a menial field task; it is a critical part of a remedial investigation. But, how can a person with a B.S. in geology and no experience gain an appreciation for the complexity of even the smallest site investigation? The answer requires undergraduate geology departments to revise environmental geology curriculum so that the students going through our programs get the appropriate problem solving skills they need to succeed (AuIt, 1994; Dunkhase and Penick, 1991; Sanders, 1994; Smith et al., 1995).

In this case a series of lectures, laboratories, and a 3-week long field and classroom-based exercise was added to a 300-level environmental geology course. The lecture/laboratory topics include environmental laws and regulations, aspects of site investigations and remediation, well log interpretation, plume delineation, behavior of inorganic and organic contaminants, risk assessment, and site conceptual models. Following an introduction to these topics students are presented with a fictitious site history for the Towson Chemical Company facility and given a budget to complete a preliminary remedial investigation. The desired outcomes are: 1) a list of the affected media (i.e. soil, surface water, groundwater, soil gas), the contaminants of concern (COCs) and associated maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) for residential and industrial use, 2) the nature and extent of the contamination including a plume map, 3) a site conceptual model and data needs for a human health and ecological risk assessment, and 4) a work plan to complete the site investigation and risk assessment. …