Using a Mock Trial to Develop Scientific Literacy and Communication Skills in an Introductory Environmental Geology Course:  An Examination of the Evidence for Groundwater Contamination and Leukemia in Woburn, Massachusetts.


Amy Larson Rhodes

Department of Geology

Smith College

Northampton, MA  01063


Geology 109 is an introductory environmental geology course that typically enrolls between 45-65 students.  The course does not contain a laboratory, and is considered one of the Geology Department’s “service” courses for non-science majors at Smith College.  In 1999 and 2000, students in Geology 109 conducted a mock trial that examined evidence related to an actual legal case presented in the story A Civil Action, reported by Northampton author Jonathan Harr.  This book recounts the lawsuit brought by eight families, from eastern Woburn, Massachusetts, who charged that two industrial companies illegally dumped trichloroethlene (TCE) and other industrial wastes on their properties, which subsequently entered the groundwater, contaminated two municipal water supply wells, and caused their children to contract leukemia and die.  The story, A Civil Action, provided a framework for teaching basic geologic principles that relate to groundwater movement, human water supply, and possible connections between industrial contamination and environmental health problems. 


For the entire semester students worked in “expert teams” of 3-5 people, who were hired by one of the opposing sides of the law case, Anne Anderson et al. vs. W.R. Grace & Co. and Beatrice Foods, Inc., and who were subpoenaed to testify as expert witnesses.  The group members worked together to collect scientific data and hypotheses from the literature, technical reports, newspaper stories and the internet in the subjects of groundwater geology, contaminant chemistry, medicine and statistics.  Collaboratively, each group developed an argument, which they testified and defended orally in front of a Judge (a retired lawyer) and a jury of their peers (eight undergraduate students from a different environmental science course) during a three-hour trial.  Opening and closing arguments, examinations, and cross-examinations were conducted by groups of attorneys (3-4 students from the class).  Each attorney worked with an expert team hired by her client to develop questions for testimonies and cross-examinations.  The Judge worked with the attorneys, ruled on admissible evidence for the trial and kept the legal proceedings authentic, although he allowed some legal modifications for learning purposes.  For example, time did not permit for witness depositions.  Instead each law team distributed its list of witnesses that included a brief summary of the intended testimony and copies of reference materials, which were kept on reserve at the library.  This allowed the opposing sides to prepare for their cross-examinations. 

The trial was open to the Smith community and even generated interest with the press and protestors!  The Jury deliberated on the evidence presented by the experts according to the written instructions issued by the Judge, and presented a final verdict, with damages if appropriate.  Following the trial, each student authored an individually-written argument supported by her group’s research, and provided a written analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the argument, based on observations of how her group’s testimony faired during cross-examination. 

The mock trial provided an excellent format for oral debate and in-depth research of scientific concepts.  It facilitated teaching students how to develop and defend their ideas, to challenge their preconceived ideas as well as the ideas of others, to understand the limitations of scientific data and its applicability to law and to appreciate the importance of integrating data analysis with communication skills.