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Bringing current science into the classroom
Activities for middle and high school on groundwater, water quality, and environmental stewardship have students exploring current environmental research without leaving the classroom.
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The novel and movie A Civil Action provide a look at the legal and ethical issues associated with Superfund. The concepts of groundwater, contamination and plume are reinforced in some of the movie frames, which can be used in short clips for class discussions.


It is challenging, if not nearly impossible, to involve students in authentic studies regarding the contamination of our drinking water by hazardous chemicals. However, there are several historical examples of water contamination that can be used as classroom case studies. By studying these examples, students have the opportunity to apply their critical thinking skills and develop action plans for water testing, water cleanup and pollution prevention.

Love Canal in Niagara Falls, N.Y., is perhaps our county’s most notorious hazardous waste site. It wasn’t the first or the worst — but in 1979, the heavy contamination at Love Canal, and subsequent environmental health risks in the community, caused President Jimmy Carter to issue a state of emergency for the town. Over 300 families were then moved from their homes. Love Canal spurred scientists, industry leaders, government officials, and grassroots activists to take a stand and act on behalf of our environment. In 1980, immediately following the Love Canal disaster, Congress asked the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to create the Superfund program to help address the containment and cleanup of toxic wastes that had been buried long ago.

Since Love Canal, hundreds of toxic sites have been discovered around the nation. Environmental groups, communities, and the media have continued to bring the problem of hazardous waste contamination to our attention. More recently, books and popular movies have tried to address these real-life issues.

One such story is called A Civil Action. Author Jonathan Harr gave us a compelling nonfiction account of a hazardous waste site that affected the children in the community of Woburn, Massachusetts. While the book may be advanced for students in grades 6–8, the Hollywood movie, starring John Travolta, can provide students with a simplified visual/auditory account of the Woburn disaster and an introduction to the issues surrounding environmental justice.

Teacher preparation

Time required for lesson

One or two 40–50 minute class periods, depending on how you utilize the resource.


  • Copy of the movie A Civil Action
  • TV and DVD player
  • Questions for discussion (either in worksheet/overhead format)
  • Internet access (optional)


A civil action worksheet
Document courtesy of UNC Superfund Research Program
Open as PDF (14 KB, 2 pages)

In-class preparation

  1. Explain to the students that they are environmental scientists who are being presented with information on a new case of potential water contamination by hazardous waste.
  2. The students are going to watch a portion of the film to collect some background information on the situation. This information will be used to make some decisions about how we as scientists might begin to help this community. As they watch the film, the students may want to record the information they think might be important for discussion in their science notebooks.
  3. Cue the film to the very beginning, where the lawyer in the case, Jan Schlichtmann, is on the air at a radio station in Boston, taking phone calls from the public. He speaks with a woman named Anne Anderson, who later becomes one of the plaintiffs in the case.
  4. Play the movie through Jan’s meeting with the families and Jan’s walk-through of the river site after the meeting. Stop the movie just after he sees the Beatrice truck in the factory yard and smiles (approximately 14:30 minutes into the movie).
  5. Next, present your students with the following questions for discussion. Students could answer these questions in a class discussion, within small groups, or individually. A worksheet containing these questions in PDF form is available under “handouts” above.
    • What is the problem?
    • Who is affected by the problem?
    • Who is now involved?
    • What are some things that you already know about the case? Be careful not to confuse things that we know with things that we assume. You may want to have your students reexamine their list of “knowns” and identify the “assumptions.” This is a great opportunity to discuss the use of evidence in science versus basing conclusions on emotion or previous experiences.
    • As the environmental scientist involved in this case, what is your job? This question helps students focus on the fact that they are trying to determine what is causing the illnesses in the children. It may be the water — but could it be the air?
    • What can you do to help solve the case? List the things that you would like to test. Possible tests include the following:
      • Air
      • Water (this could be river water, ground water, well water, tap water — if they name all of these, then they are demonstrating an overall understanding of the ways that water can interact with a community.)
      • Soil
      • Family history/genetic history
  6. Remind the students that they are environmental scientists considering whether or not to take this case and inform them that you have just received word from the lab that the water tests came back and the well water contains a hazardous chemical called trichloroethylene (TCE). TCE is often used as a solvent in industrial processes and belongs to a family of chemicals we commonly call VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds). They are highly toxic and found to be carcinogenic, or cancer causing. Ask the students to reflect on the following questions:
    • How should we test the water to determine where the TCE came from? Where should we start? What variables should we take into consideration? You may want to ask the students to write a short paragraph or outline to express their plan to test the water. They should say that well water would originate from groundwater. They should express their knowledge of chemicals moving through groundwater in a plume by stating that they need to test in a wide area. Some test variables to consider:
      • Type of earth materials that groundwater will move through — porosity and permeability
      • Slope or geology of the landforms — watershed
      • Types of chemicals and their solubility in water (ppm/ppb)
      • Types of chemicals and their affect on the body — carcinogenic
      • History of the area — were industries in the area that are no longer present? Current industries?
    • How could you be sure about who caused the contamination? Student responses should focus on the current evidence and present ideas that would be supported by additional evidence. For example, if the Beatrice Company used TCE in their manufacturing process and then disposed of the chemical by burying it in the ground on their site, we may find the highest concentration of pollution on their site and then find a plume of pollution moving outward toward the town wells. Then we may have evidence that Beatrice polluted the water. But if there is no evidence of improper disposal of TCE, or of a plume that reaches the well water, we cannot accuse Beatrice of polluting the environment.
  7. At this time, you may want to give your students more information about the outcome of the actual case (see background information below). Once they understand the source of contamination, you can then ask them about pollution prevention.
    • What could industries that caused the contamination have done to prevent this disaster from happening? You may want to challenge your students to be very creative with their ideas, especially if they have a new idea for waste containment and disposal. Some of their ideas may parallel current scientific research at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Superfund Research Program. You may want to point out the similarities to affirm your students’ thinking.
  8. Optional: Pose to students the following optional question:
    • What would you do if you were the lawyer in the case — take the case or not? Why or why not? What factors would you use to help you make your decision?

Variations on assessment

This activity can be used as an assessment piece to determine your students’ understanding of the many variables influencing water quality studies, especially when health risks are involved.

In addition to site information available from the EPA, there is plenty of information available on the internet from the many citizens, reporters, industries, and government offices involved in A Civil Action. Maps of the site with the actual well and industry locations may be helpful in guiding your students through this case study. A comprehensive curriculum related to the Woburn, MA site, including 13 learning modules and resources for use in high school or college are available from Science in the Courtroom: The Woburn Toxic Trial. Learning modules pertaining to contaminant hydrology, environmental science, geology, hydrogeology and human health are available.

Below are some ideas for extending this activity:

  • Students research the defendants in the case and present their sides of the story.
  • Assign certain websites to student pairs and have them research and report on the outcome of the contamination. Students may want to take certain sides of the lawsuit argument.
  • Build on this activity and have students find information about N.C. Superfund sites (through the EPA). Students can research and report on the sites statewide or just in the a single area. Identify the problem, the stakeholders, and the steps being taken to remediate the problem.
  • Students watch the rest of the film and compare their ideas with the methods used by lawyer Jan Schlichtmann. You may want to stop the movie and discuss the scene where Jan and the environmental scientist talk about plans to find the source of contamination.

Supplemental information

Background information on the site of “A Civil Action”: Woburn, Mass.

Woburn is ten miles north of Boston and was originally settled by the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1640. In 1790, Woburn had a population of 1,727. In 1889 its population exceeded 13,000. Today Woburn has approximately 36,000 residents and an economic base founded on its long history of chemical manufacturing and leather tanning.

The discovery of the contamination led to a number of studies and to efforts to clean up Woburn’s polluted environment. The Massachusetts Department of Public Health concluded that the city’s rate of childhood leukemia (defined as leukemia diagnosed in people up to the age of 19) was four times higher than would be statistically expected in a community of its size. In the early 1980s, the Harvard School of Public Health correlated leukemia cases with the distribution pattern of water from wells G and H to show that leukemia was most highly concentrated in neighborhoods that had received most of their water from the wells. That study has been criticized, though, because the Harvard researchers — Marvin Zelen and Stephen Lagakos — used community volunteers to interview residents in order to save money. A number of scientists have charged that the volunteers could have introduced bias into the study, although these critics have never been able to show that Zelen’s and Lagakos’s conclusions were wrong.

In 1982, a legal complaint was filed by eight families in east Woburn, Massachusetts, against three local industries for the improper handling and disposal of toxic chemicals. The complaint alleges that the toxic chemicals entered the groundwater flow system and were pumped by municipal wells G and H into the water supply of a local neighborhood, and that the consumption of the contaminated water caused leukemia, liver disease, central nervous system disorders, and other unknown illness and disease.

In December of the same year, shortly after the plaintiffs filed the civil suit against W.R. Grace et al., U.S. EPA proposed that the 330-acre area around municipal wells G and H be added to the National Priorities List (NPL). This action was based on studies of the groundwater, sediment beneath the Aberjona River, and soils across the site. The NPL is a roster of the hazardous wastes sites eligible for cleanup under the federal Superfund program. The Wells G and H Site in Woburn ranked 39th worst on the list, based on EPA’s evaluation system, which included more than 1,100 sites at the time. Another NPL site, the Industri-Plex Site, is in Woburn less than one mile upstream of municipal wells G and H.

According to a June 2009 press release by the EPA, clean up at wells H and G has resulted in the treatment of more than 481 million gallons of groundwater and the removal of over 4,700 pounds of volatile organic compounds. According to the clean-up narrative for this site, ongoing treatment of groundwater continues. The June 2009 press release marked the beginning of the third, five-year review of the selected clean up measures implemented at the site to ensure that they are effectively protecting public health and the environment.

  • North Carolina Essential Standards
    • Science (2010)
      • Earth and Environmental Science

        • EEn.2.3 Explain the structure and processes within the hydrosphere. EEn.2.3.1 Explain how water is an energy agent (currents and heat transfer). EEn.2.3.2 Explain how ground water and surface water interact.
        • EEn.2.4 Evaluate how humans use water. EEn.2.4.1 Evaluate human influences on freshwater availability. EEn.2.4.2 Evaluate human influences on water quality in North Carolina’s river basins, wetlands and tidal environments.
      • Grade 8

        • 8.E.1 Understand the hydrosphere and the impact of humans on local systems and the effects of the hydrosphere on humans. 8.E.1.1 Explain the structure of the hydrosphere including: Water distribution on earth Local river basins and water availability 8.E.1.2...
        • 8.L.3 Understand how organisms interact with and respond to the biotic and abiotic components of their environment. 8.L.3.1 Explain how factors such as food, water, shelter and space affect populations in an ecosystem. 8.L.3.2 Summarize the relationships among...

North Carolina curriculum alignment

Science (2005)

Grade 8

  • Goal 1: The learner will design and conduct investigations to demonstrate an understanding of scientific inquiry.
    • Objective 1.01: Identify and create questions and hypotheses that can be answered through scientific investigations.
    • Objective 1.05: Analyze evidence to:
      • explain observations.
      • make inferences and predictions.
      • develop the relationship between evidence and explanation.
    • Objective 1.08: Use oral and written language to:
      • Communicate findings.
      • Defend conclusions of scientific investigations.
      • Describe strengths and weaknesses of claims, arguments, and/or data.
    • Objective 1.10: Analyze and evaluate information from a scientifically literate viewpoint by reading, hearing, and/or viewing:
      • Scientific text.
      • Articles.
      • Events in the popular press.
  • Goal 3: The learner will conduct investigations and utilize appropriate technologies and information systems to build an understanding of the hydrosphere.
    • Objective 3.07: Describe how humans affect the quality of water:
      • Point and non-point sources of water pollution in North Carolina.
      • Possible effects of excess nutrients in North Carolina waters.
      • Economic trade-offs.
      • Local water issues.
    • Objective 3.08: Recognize that the good health of environments and organisms requires:
      • Monitoring of the hydrosphere.
      • Water quality standards.
      • Methods of water treatment.
      • Maintaining safe water quality.
      • Stewardship.

Grade 9–12 — Earth/Environmental Science

  • Goal 1: The learner will develop abilities necessary to do and understand scientific inquiry in the earth and environmental sciences.
    • Objective 1.01: Identify questions and problems in the earth and environmental sciences that can be answered through scientific investigations.
    • Objective 1.05: Analyze reports of scientific investigations and environmental issues from an informed scientifically literate viewpoint including considerations of:
      • Appropriate sample.
      • Adequacy of experimental controls.
      • Replication of findings.
      • Alternative interpretations of the data.
    • Objective 1.06: Identify and evaluate a range of possible solutions to earth and environmental issues at the local, national, and global level including considerations of:
      • Interdependent human and natural systems.
      • Diverse perspectives.
      • Short and long range impacts.
      • Economic development, environmental quality and sustainability.
      • Opportunities for and consequences of personal decisions.
      • Risks and benefits of technological advances.
  • Goal 4: The learner will build an understanding of the hydrosphere and its interactions and influences on the lithosphere, the atmosphere, and environmental quality.
    • Objective 4.04: Evaluate water resources:
      • Storage and movement of groundwater.
      • Ecological services provided by the ocean
      • Environmental impacts of a growing human population.
      • Causes of natural and manmade contamination.