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Columbia Spectator Staff

While video games are often dismissed as entertaining pastimes, Barnard senior lecturer Peter Bower credits them with inspiring the cutting-edge virtual technology tool he developed for his Introduction to Environmental Science course. break "I had always thought, 'Gee, can't we create a three-dimensional world?'" Bower said. "I see my kids playing these games. Can't we do that and make it serious?" He presented his idea to the Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning in 1999, and by the end of that summer, his efforts had come to fruition. "We actually had ...a three-dimensional world with surface topography, buildings, people with history, and then, of course, all the sub-surface stuff—bedrock and soil and water tables and contaminant plumes and all these sorts of things and all accessible by using various tools." Through the Brownfield Action virtual simulation, students work in pairs to negotiate contracts, receive certifications, and engage in drilling and litigation—all within the constraints of their assigned budgets. To gather information on potentially contaminated industrial sites, or "brownfields," for their environmental site assessments, they may also watch videotaped press conferences, read the local newspaper, and interview fictional residents of the virtual town. In 2003, the program was recognized as a national model curriculum by the Association of American Colleges and Universities. With a three-year, $450,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, the software has been rewritten and is now provided to approximately a dozen universities nationwide free of charge. Plans for further dissemination of the Brownfield Action curriculum are underway. "It uses digital technology, and it's an inquiry-based approach to teaching, which isn't exactly new," Bower said. "But what is new is that no one has really made a digital world like we've made it and then made it into an inquiry-based, problem-solving type of project." Ryan Kelsey of the Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning recognizes that new uses of technology in education require new approaches to teaching. "It's not about standing up in front of the class and lecturing," Kelsey said. "It really puts the choices in the hands of students to drive their own learning, and that takes a different kind of skill as an instructor." Brownfield Action is one of over 200 projects on which faculty and the Center for New Media Learning and Technology have collaborated since the center's inception in 1999. After several incarnations, the site is now network-based and can serve a high volume of users. "With any high-speed connection now you can work from any place on the planet," Bower said. The model has been successfully replicated in other disciplines, including the Millennium Village Project, a collaboration between the Earth Institute and the School of International and Public Affairs that provides a Web-based simulation of a sub-Saharan African village. Projects currently under development include the Virtual Forest Initiative, which will allow students to access searchable, downloadable maps, publications, photographs, and data sets about the Hudson Valley's Black Rock Forest. "I think we are on the cutting edge when it comes to building innovative learning environments for teaching and learning," Kelsey said. "We have a staff of I think 42 or 43 people that are singularly devoted to this, and that's pretty unique for this kind of project work."

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