Brownfield Action

Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning

About Brownfield simulation

Brownfield Action (BA) is a web-based environmental science simulation developed by the Center for New Media Teaching and Learning at Columbia University and Dr. Peter Bower of Barnard College. In the simulation, students investigate the possibility of groundwater contamination in a virtual, fictional township by exploring the town’s infrastructure, meeting pertinent parties, and performing hydrological surveys and tests to gain an understanding of the groundwater system of the municipality.

Over twenty-five locations can be visited and forty-five characters can be interviewed including town residents, business owners, and local government officials. Students are presented with maps, documents, videos, and an extensive network of scientific data, mined with a suite of geological and hydrological testing tools to aid their investigation in determining the nature of any found contamination in the virtual town.

The field of play consists of a three dimensional world whose playing surface is 2200 x 3200 feet. This surface extends to a depth of 600 feet and consists of over 2 million data points that contain information on surface elevation, depth to water table or bedrock, and soil or sediment type. Students can utilize a host of tools including seismic reflection and refraction, ground penetrating radar, magnetometry and metal detection, soil gas, as well as groundwater and sediment sampling using drilling and push techniques. The playing field also includes a town complete with infrastructure (buildings, roads, wells, water towers, homes, businesses and residents) as well as a history and storyline. There is a municipal government complex complete with workers and officials and relevant historical documents and permits.


Watch screencast demonstration


Since 1999 the BA simulation has been used in the laboratory component of the Introduction to Environmental Science course taught by Senior Lecturer Peter Bower at Barnard College and is an integral part of the semester long BA curriculum. At Barnard, students work collaboratively in teams of two, sign a contract with a real-estate development corporation to conduct a Phase One Environmental Site Assessment (ESA), receive a budget, and then compete with other teams to discover the hidden realities in the simulation and fulfill the contract while maximizing profit. Because any action taken by the consulting team costs money, a budget and accounting page tracks the use of any of these tools, the collection of documents, or interviews with individuals found at the various simulation sites. To reach a valid conclusion in the form of a professional-level ESA and 3-D maps of the physical site, student teams must reconstruct a detailed narrative from diverse forms of evidence, including socio-historical information (interviews, permits and other documents) and a scientific data-set obtained from judicious use of the available tools and tests.

The reality embedded and to be discovered in the BA simulation is one of septic fields, underground storage tanks, and groundwater contamination complete with underground contaminant plumes. Every investigative team takes a different approach to finding this reality. BA forces students to work as a team, make decisions, and act on their perceptions in the interlocking realms of theory and practical experience, and provides practice at tackling the complexity and ambiguity of a large-scale interdisciplinary science problem. The organic, evolving, semester-long nature of this inquiry-based process provides students with a better understanding of the interdisciplinary nature of science and its complicated relationship with economic, social, and political structures. As such, Brownfield Action is fundamentally civic-minded.