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Robbins' new CD will help
manage underground leaks
(April 26, 1999)

ou work for an environmental testing company and a prospective client has called you in to help solve a mystery. The client has a small store and lately both customers and employees have complained about a noticeable petroleum odor. The client thinks there may be an underground oil leak and wants you to check it out.

Your superficial assessment certainly suggests a leak is plausible. The store is situated on a small piece of property at a highway intersection, surrounded by potential sources of pollution. There are two gasoline service stations and a separate oil facility - plenty of places for leaking petro-products to originate.

Trouble is, if there is a leak, you don't know which tank is leaking, and you have no authority to do exploratory drilling off your client's land. In addition, his budget is limited. Basically, you've got 10 shots at finding the source of the leak (if, in fact, there is a leak). And the situation is further complicated by underground utility lines that must be avoided when you drill.

So, where do you start?

Hands-on learning
A smart place to start is with Gary Robbins. Robbins, a professor of geology and geophysics, is currently putting the finishing touches on a software tool that could make life easier for anyone facing this situation. In fact, when Expedited Site Assessment: The CD becomes available this summer it can reasonably be expected to revolutionize the way students and professionals alike learn how to manage leaking underground storage tanks.

Doesn't sound like a CD you'd want to add to your collection? Well, if you enjoy playing computer games, you might feel differently after trying this product out. Expedited Site Assessment is hands-on, intuitively interactive and, above all, fun.

Robbins' CD is the extension of work he has been doing for the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) since 1987, the year after he came to UConn. With a grant from the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) he helped the DEP develop its mobile assessment team - the group that, equipped with a mobile laboratory, visits sites all over the state to evaluate leaking underground tanks and recommend solutions. That team, says Robbins, "is probably the most sophisticated group of its type in the country."

To assist the team, Robbins has produced two printed manuals and a website for the DEP during the past decade. They spell out, in detail, the hows and whys of managing leaking underground tanks, an insidious environmental problem that has cropped up with increasing regularity in the last few years, as a generation of old tanks corrode. They also describe how ground water moves and detail items like methods for drilling, chemical analysis, and hydrologic testing.

For the past decade, Robbins' manuals have been state of the art, but they have few illustrations and no interactivity, and therefore limited educational utility.

A year and a half ago Robbins determined to change that. "This is an extremely important environmental issue," says Robbins, "but up to now there has been no single, concise teaching tool."

The CD he developed in response to that need is unlike anything else on the market. It encompasses all of the regulatory information contained in Robbins' manuals, but presents that information in a wide range of formats, including illustrations, photographs, action footage, and sound effects, that take full advantage of the CD technology.

To demonstrate a selection of probing and drilling tools, for instance, the CD presents an animated segment showing the mobile lab backing up at a site. You see the truck and hear it backing up. You also see something you wouldn't see if you were actually on site - what's underground: striated layers of soil and rock.

The CD lets you look at the tools in your kit and it gives you information about the utility of each. With a click of the mouse, you can actually instruct it to use one of these tools. You can see the device go into the earth, and you can see (and read about) the result. If you choose the right tool, you get valuable data that can be analyzed. If you use the wrong device, you can learn from mistakes that could be expensive if they occurred on the job.

Intuitively interactive
Education is not the CD's only purpose, however. It also contains data collection and analysis components. Field workers using the software on a portable computer can input data collected on site and the program will automatically compute findings and apply data to both spreadsheets and graphs.

When Expedited Site Assessment is published, it will be available via the Internet as well as at the DEP's bookstore in Hartford. Since both novices and professionals are expected to use it, the CD offers enough flexibility to meet the variable needs of a large audience. "It's designed to be intuitively interactive," says Robbins. "You learn what you want to learn, at your pace. Often you learn by playing games."

And those games have been created with input from UConn students. Robbins' graduate student assistants, Ed Gilbert and Brent Henebry, have been actively involved in its development. Other students, including undergraduates, have served as test audiences while various modules were being developed.

"It's a great program," says Henebry. "I wish I'd had something like this when I was an undergraduate."

Starting in the fall, the current generation of UConn undergraduates will have an advantage Henebry did not. And Robbins is already planning his course curricula around it.

Students in his Introduction to Groundwater Hydrology class will work with the CD throughout the fall semester, using it as a text and reference guide and solving the CD's built-in learning problems. Students in Chemical Hydrology and Robbins' graduate field methods class will get their crack at Expedited Site Assessment next spring.

Already, however, it's getting rave reviews from the professionals. At last year's annual U.S. EPA All States Underground Storage Tank Conference, it won honors as Best State Presentation.

Jim Smith