Superfund in science class
Four Web-based activities let students identify Superfund sites, define hazardous waste, see how aquifers work, and explore cleanup solutions.
Information on Superfund and the Superfund Research Program is easily integrated into middle and high school environmental/earth science, biology and chemistry curricula. For background, the EPA’s Superfund website includes information on Superfund sites, common contaminants at these sites, and current cleanup methods.
Activity 1: Identifying Superfund sites in your backyard
The National Priorities List (NPL) is EPA’s list of Superfund sites throughout the United States that contain hazardous substances, pollutants, or contaminants. North Carolina has more than thirty NPL sites scattered across the state. Using the National Priority List, your students can learn about each of the state’s Superfund sites. Information about each site’s history, the cleanup methodology being used, and the site’s current status is available. Students have successfully used this site to:
- identify Superfund sites within or near their community
- determine the cause of contamination at a particular Superfund site
- research the identified contaminants and describe their environmental health risks
- identfy the methods being utilized to remove the contamination
- debate the pros and cons of certain clean up methods
Download the attached worksheet, “Investigating an NC Superfund Site of Interest,” to guide your students in investigating a local Superfund site.
- Investigating an NC Superfund Site of Interest
- Document courtesy of UNC Superfund Research Program
- Open as PDF (12 KB, 1 page)
Activity 2: Defining hazardous waste
This EPA activity introduces Superfund to students by having them determine what is meant by hazardous waste and compare proper and improper disposal methods.
Activity 3: What is an aquifer?
This hands-on activity, developed by the EPA, helps students understand “groundwater” and where it is found. There is an opportunity for students to “pollute” an “aquifer” and discuss the consequences. Students may also brainstorm ideas about how to clean up the contamination.
Activity 4: Examining a Hazardous Waste Site
This activity illustrates and explains how contamination of aquifers can occur using a model aquifer. Students explore the pump and treat method, an expensive and invasive method of cleanup used at Superfund sites. This activity provides a nice introduction to one of the research projects being conducted at the UNC-Chapel Hill Superfund Research Program.
Dr. Casey Miller is a researcher with the UNC-Chapel Hill SRP. He is studying how to remove contaminants from groundwater while leaving the groundwater in the aquifer. If scientists could remove chemicals without disturbing the groundwater, it would save a great deal of time and money. Dr. Miller is researching the properties of chemical contaminants known as DNAPLs, or dense-nonaqueous phase liquids, which have a greater density than water. Examples of DNAPLs include common contaminants such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and Trichloroethylene (TCE).
As an inquiry activity, pour a tablespoon of maple syrup into a plastic cup half-filled with tap water and give one cup to each pair of students. Explain to your students that the maple syrup represents a DNAPL in groundwater. Ask your students to design an experiment that would allow them to clean up the maple syrup without removing a majority of the water. Students at Orange High School in Hillsborough were presented with this problem and came up with the same idea that Dr. Miller is testing in his laboratory and at Superfund sites! He is testing the use of a non-toxic, high-density brine, which is injected into an aquifer and consequently displaces the DNAPL contaminant toward the groundwater’s surface. (This activity also provides students with a great review of density concepts).
As an extension, provide your students with a variety of safe household chemicals (table salt, vegetable oil, water etc), which they can then use to test their "brine hypotheses" on the maple syrup DNAPL.
A related activity, “Water Muddle Up, Water Clean Up,” (PDF) adapted by SRP educators from the Healthy Water, Healthy People, Water Quality Educators Guide, There Is No Point To This Pollution! can be used by teachers to model the ways in which different types of hazardous chemicals infiltrate ground and surface water and illustrate the cumulative effect of various land uses on water quality.
North Carolina curriculum alignment
North Carolina Professional Teaching Standards (2009)
- Goal 3: Teachers know the content they teach.
- Objective 3.04: Teachers make instruction relevant to students.