2014 TWTA Winner Yongsong Huang

Instructor: Professor Yongsong Huang
Course: GEOL 1370 Environmental Geochemistry

Description: The course will examine the biogeochemical cycling, fate and transport of chemicals in the atmospheric and aquatic environments. Topics such as chemical weathering, natural water pollution and remediation, acid deposition, global warming and air pollution will be examined through natural ecosystem examples from rivers, lakes, estuaries, and ocean. Field trips and laboratory arranged. Prerequisites: CHEM 0100 or 0330, or instructor permission.

What students said about the course:

Making sense of environmental data can be a major challenge even for experienced researchers. There’s so many layers of complexity to unravel, so many variables to correlate, and so many data points to process. This class took a unique approach to the multivariate, big data world of environmental analysis. At the beginning of the semester we took a kayaking field trip to a nearby bay to collect water samples to analyze throughout the semester. We were given instructions to explore the bay and collect samples from sites we thought were interesting. Even though we were given no instructions where to collect samples, the class ended up sampling all corners of the bay with this crowd-sourcing approach. We got to analyze our samples over the course of the semester with research grade instruments for different nutrients, metals and organic compounds. All of our data was posted online in the form of interactive graphs and maps that allowed us to explore and visualize the huge volume of data we collected and actually see how the concepts we learned in class played out with our own samples. Overall, technology was seamlessly woven into this class, but in a way where we didn’t have to download any special computer programs, or spend any time learning how to use stuff– everything just worked and made sense.

Prof. Huang comments:

Environmental geochemistry is a high level undergraduate course (also for beginning graduate students), encompassing training in fundamental aquatic chemistry as well as practical sample analysis. It requires comprehensive knowledge of practical phenomena (field expedition), experimental analysis and data processing (lab sessions) and theoretical computation (thermodynamic principles and computer models). Our field sampling encompasses certain components (e.g., nutrients in the bay, metal pollutants in rivers and lakes), but there are no sites for acid mine drainage and banded iron formation nearby in Rhode Island for students to see. Therefore, showing short films and videos on these key subjects are extremely important to raise student interests – which, in turn is critical to for students to connect the (relatively boring) theoretical calculations with real environmental phenomena. Development of a web site to further explain the lab experiments is also particularly useful, because lab sessions often proceed relatively fast and, if not careful, students may end up doing things mechanically without understanding the underlying principles. Many students had no prior experience in processing real data from samples they collected – the web site goes into details of various data process techniques and the approaches to assess analytical errors. Posting answer keys on the web site has been very helpful to students to retrospectively learn the material even if they made mistakes in their homework.