an introductory environmental geology course that typically enrolls between
45-65 students. The course does
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
Woburn, Massachusetts, who charged that two industrial companies illegally
dumped trichloroethlene (TCE) and other industrial wastes on their
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
connections between industrial contamination and environmental health
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
to the written instructions issued by the Judge, and presented a final
with damages if appropriate.
the trial, each student authored an individually-written argument supported
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
faired during cross-examination.
The mock trial provided an
format for oral debate and in-depth research of scientific concepts.
It facilitated teaching students how to develop and defend their
to challenge their preconceived ideas as well as the ideas of others, to
understand the limitations of scientific data and its applicability to law
to appreciate the importance of integrating data analysis with communication