October 4, 2000

Demonstration of Brownfield Action 2.0

Seminar in New Media Teaching and Learning
Inaugural Session: October 24, 2000 Minutes

Recorded by Linda Catalano, Rapporteur

Frank Moretti, co-chair of the seminar, introduced the Seminar and welcomed attendees to its inaugural session. He explained that the Seminar has an electronic bulletin board, set up to enable extended asynchronous discussion in between sessions. The bulletin board can be accessed via the Seminar's Website. Special thanks were given to Gardner Dunnan for the generous financial support of the Virtual Reading Room for the Brownfield Action Project.

Peter Sommer, co-chair of the Seminar and Director of Project Development at the Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning, reflected upon the meaningful, authentic, information-rich character of the simulation model, which, he noted, provides a concrete means for students to develop questions, reasonable proposals, and the ability to persuade one another of the significance of their findings. Sommer continued that one of the issues the developers of the project have been trying to assess is the applicability of its model to other contexts. He suggested that this might be something participants may wish to discuss following the presentation.

Peter Bower, faculty co-developer of the simulation, outlined the general picture and history of the project, as well as the nuts and bolts of how it functions in the classroom. The course for which the simulation was developed, Introduction to Environmental Sciences, has a typical enrollment of 125 students, and meets for 2.5 hours of lecture and 3 hours of lab instruction per week.

Professor Bower explained that aspects of the current project originated 10 years ago in a 6-week paper-based simulation. Students worked in teams of two to assess the sub-surface of a brownfield -- a contaminated industrial site that has been abandoned. The experience was conceived to be both collaborative and competitive: each team signed a contract with a development corporation to do a site investigation for a proposed shopping mall. They were given a budget and a variety of tools with which to investigate the site, and had to correctly decipher conditions, write a report, and use the least amount of money budgeted to the project.

Bower recounted that he arrived at the Center hoping to convert his paper-based simulation into a seamless, integrated virtual world. He commented that, with the Center's help he was able to produce something quite successful. He further commented that the lab experience is now much more complete for students, much more organic and dynamic. He added that students demonstrate a greater understanding of what the simulation sets out to teach.

In the digital version of the simulation, students begin their investigations by touring a hypothetical town created by project developers. Included here are local government offices and business establishments that students my visit. Bower remarked that these features make the digital version of the simulation much more contextualized than the paper version. As well, it is more multidisciplinary, offering students not only a science lesson, but also a civics lesson in how local government works, an economic exercise, and a sociological study.

As in the paper version, students are provided a selection of tools with which to collect their data. In the digital simulation these tools are augmented by more data presented in a 3-D format. Part of the experience is for them to weigh which of these is the most appropriate to use and when. Additionally, students must obtain certification before being able to access individual tools. This is achieved through online reading and exams. The exercise also includes several non-digital components, such as hand-drawn maps and a written report.

Bower next addressed some technical aspects of how the simulation was developed. Its composition features 39 layers of data and two million individual data points. Bower explained that these were arrived at by creating a 3-dimensional underground plume (a series of slices like a deck of cards fanned out) and resulting contour lines, each with its own set of data. This results in a unique data point every ten feet within the hypothetical area zoned in the Brownfield simulation.

Ryan Kelsey, the Project Manager for BFA demonstrated the simulation and spoke about the technical aspects of the project and how the technology lent itself to the pedagogical uses of the project.

The panel, Luyen Chou, CEO of Learn Technologies Interactive; Don Melnick, Professor of Anthropology and Biological Sciences and Director, CERC (Center for Environmental Research and Conservation); and Eli Noam, Business Professor and Director, CITI (Columbia Institute for Tele-Information) then provided comments and posed questions for discussion.

Melnick began that the simulation impressive both pedagogically and technically. Comparing Brownfield to an archaeology simulation with which he was familiar, he indicated that he especially liked the built-in mastery test, a feature the archeology simulation does not have. He continued that, like the archaeology simulation, Brownfield emerged from something that had been done off-line first, and that this had enabled developers to account for issues like student evaluation before the fact.

Noam encouraged developers to explore the nature of the impact of what they are doing in re-creating an experience not typically available in a classroom setting. He also made the point that within the university, leveraging new media projects and tools is not always financially viable and that economic constraints limit the scaleability of any given project, in this case, precluding its mass-marketing and becoming a broad-based tool. Technologically, there is no telling where something like this could lead.

Chou indicated that within the IT industry content contacts are not always available for the production of new media. He noted that an area open for exploration and probably not being discussed enough is what the right dose of simulated experiences like Brownfield is versus other kinds of experiences not simulated.

An aspect of the simulation that was particularly well received was its interactivity. One respondent noted that teaching students in a dynamic environment such as the kind offered by such interactivity is much more effective than what old simulations could provide. Bower agreed, noting that regular lab exercises are discrete, cookbook, while this one moves.

The questions respondents raised touched on pedagogical, technical, and economic aspects of the model. Taking their cue from Peter Sommer's opening remarks, several respondents addressed the applicability of the simulation beyond the particular course for which it was developed.

One respondent approached this question from an economic cost-benefit perspective. Noting that educational tools such as these are expensive to produce but inexpensive to reproduce, he asked whether extending the simulation's applicability to other disciplines would result in greater benefit relative to cost. Other questions included whether it is possible to utilize the simulation for only part of a course, and whether the same model could be used to develop another simulation: tracking the spread of disease, for example. Relatedly, the question arose as to whether there is a way to know when a particular application will be valuable to a discipline and when it will not.

Other scalability questions included whether the plume and/or other data points of the model could be changed year to year so that students who shared information with each other would not get the same result. A similar question was whether it is possible for students to use information external to the model to account for less controlled environmental factors.

Another line of questioning addressed pedagogical issues, such as how the the simulation adds depth to the course. One question that was returned to several times was what proportion of digital and non-digital course content is needed to create a rich experience for students. A similar yet perhaps more practical question was why the digital version of the simulation was easier to integrate into the course than the paper version. Finally, several respondents considered the role of digital technologies as complements to human activity in teaching, with questions centering on where each should come into the process.

Often related to these questions were criticisms of the model and/or its ready adoption by university educators. One respondent criticized the model's reliance on a fixed set of outcomes, noting that such models provide a good way for students to learn theories and techniques, but not the relationship between the two. Other concerns focused on the more far-reaching impact digital technologies on university education generally. One respondent noted that new technologies fundamentally change the way universities do things. By creating dynamic peer groups beyond their physical confines and widening the mentoring relationship, digital technologies challenge the closed/protected nature of the university experience. He concluded that the more successful new technological tools are the greater the risks and opportunities for the university system.