No Online course in 2015

Many readers of this blog have been participants in the VCE Environmental Science Online course over the past five years. Students completing their VCE have gone on to tertiary courses including Bachelor of Science, Environmental Engineering, Wildlife and Conservation Biology, amongst others. Unfortunately I am unable to offer the course in 2015 as there is no class at Hawkesdale, due to a large class this year and a very small cohort of students next year.

As such, this blog will not be updated in 2015, although many of the resources here are still very relevant to the course. You are very welcome to access these posts and linked resources to support your learning in VCE Environmental Science. If you would like more specific information, I may be able to assist – please contact me at brittgow(at) Best wishes for your future studies.

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

VCE Env Sci Exam Revision


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With about eight weeks until the final end-of-year examination for VCE Environmental Science on Monday 10th November (11.45am to 2.00pm), you have plenty of time to prepare an effective study timetable that will assist you to achieve your best result. It is important to balance your commitments at this time of year and avoid getting stressed and anxious, because that won’t help your revision process. You may like to consider some of the following ways to support your exam revision:

Much of your success in this subject will depend on your knowledge of scientific terms, definitions and concepts and how to apply these concepts in new situations. Spend some time identifying key knowledge in each Area of Study, perhaps using the Exam Revision Audit I sent around recently. I have sent a link to a collaborative Google Document for you to complete a specific section, so that the whole class will have a set of online study notes. Please add some information about the concept, an example and a link to more information for each term.

Quizlet is an online tool where I have created four sets of terms and definitions for each area of study. You can use these Quiz sets in different modes (Learn, Flashcards, Scatter, Quiz etc) and edit them to add your own terms.

Mindmaps are great to connect different terms and concepts. Create your own using lots of colour to group ideas. Here is an example of a mindmap for Energy. The benefit for learning is in creating your own – the colour and movement stimulate your brain to remember the text. You can also create them online using and other free software.

Slideshare is an enormous resource with many of my teaching resources uploaded. You can find slideshows on almost any topic and there are several specifically for VCE Environmental Science revision.

Past Exams are available on the VCAA website, but be aware that there is only one example (2013) of the current format – (120 minutes) with 30 multiple choice questions (worth 1 mark each) and 90 marks worth of short answer questions. When completing past exams, be aware that you no longer are required to memorize your specific details of your case studies of Biodiversity (threatened species), Pollution and your Environmental Project. You may be asked about your Energy comparison of fossil and non-fossil energy sources, however. You can check the answers and read the examiner’s reports to find out what to avoid and how to achieve top marks. Eco-tourism is another concept that is no longer included in the study design.

An EMS for your own fashion company



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The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire was the deadliest industrial disaster in the history of the city of New York. One hundred and forty six people died and many more were injured, smoke-affected or left without mothers, sisters, daughters and friends. Following this tragedy, worker’s unions and the public protested, resulting in changes to legislation, so that workers were better protected. You can view a ten minute documentary about the disaster here: Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire – Race to the Bottom (YouTube video). Be aware that this video has some graphic footage and may be blocked by Google Safe Sites. Following this, and other threats to families and communities, companies began to consider social issues, rather than just economic issues in their annual reports. However, despite the reforms, scenarios such as this continue to be played out in developing countries, such as Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, China and Malaysia. In Australia, we now have businesses that consider the triple bottom line – economics, social and environmental performance.

The reforms are an example of social justice, but what about environmental justice? Who speaks for the animals threatened by housing developments, the plants destroyed by roads and freeways and the multitude of marine organisms destroyed by pollution at the Great Barrier Reef? There are various regulatory frameworks that proponents of developments and businesses must abide by, such as mandatory planning and building permits and the requirement to submit an Environmental Impact Statement, following an Environmental Impact Assessment. The Environmental Protection Authority is responsible for monitoring the emissions to air, as well as noise, dust and odour. Local Water Authorities are responsible for emissions to waterways and the local, state and federal government may issue approval for projects, depending on the scale of the development.

Your task is to imagine you are an environmental consultant, contracted to a clothing company who produce denim products. In the mail you will receive a folder that outlines the life cycle analysis of a pair of jeans. This folder provides information about the raw materials, water and energy required to plant, grow, harvest and refine the cotton and then spin, dye, weave and sew the cotton into articles of clothing. Other inputs include energy for packaging and transport as well as the energy needed to maintain the farm, factory and retail outlet. All this energy results in greenhouse gas emissions as well as the other wastes from the production, transport and distribution processes. Watch Life Cycle of Jackets and Jeans on YouTube.

You are required to produce an Environmental Management Plan that includes the following details:

  • Hazard Identification (list at least three hazards in the factory and how they might be prevented. For example, fire, gas leaks or chemical spills)
  • Risk Assessment (Decide if these hazards are high or low probability and high or low severity and how they can be treated if they occur)
  • Audit – Life Cycle Analysis (Outline the inputs how these can be provided more sustainably and then outline the outputs, including how wastes can be minimized.)
  • More information about the life cycle of a pair of jeans – Bio Intelligence Service
  • Plan – Devise a plan to reduce inputs and outputs to the system.
  • How will the plan be implemented and monitored?

Ecologically Sustainable Development


ESD is the term used to describe “development that meets the needs of current generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs”. Australia’s National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development (1992) defines ecologically sustainable development as:

‘using, conserving and enhancing the community’s resources so that ecological processes, on which life depends, are maintained, and the total quality of life, now and in the future, can be increased’.

To estimate the impact that YOU have on our environment, you may like to complete an ecological footprint calculator, which will give you a result in terms of the number of earths we would need if everyone on earth lived in the same way that you do.

Please watch the “Story of Stuff” by Annie Leonard and let me know in the comments what you think. Do you think that over-consumption is a problem in Australia? How can you make changes to reduce your consumption?

More about Mercury – Minamata disease


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Read the following article and answer the questions below: Ten things you should know about Minamata disease

  1. What were the first signs of something wrong at Minamata?
  2. How many people were estimated to be affected by these symptoms?
  3. Why should pregnant women be especially careful about their diet and exposure to pollutants?
  4. What is the difference between organic and inorganic mercury?
  5. What was the source of mercury and how did people come into contact with this heavy metal?
  6. How was the mercury transported through the environment?
  7. What was the sink?
  8. How did authorities try to reduce the risk to people in the Minamata area?
  9. Minamata disease cannot be cured – what can be done to avoid future catastrophes such as this?


Mercury and Heavy Metal pollution

SEMCO Mercury Switch 106MS

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Heavy metals include a range of elements with high density and atomic weight, such as arsenic (As), cadmium (Cd), chromium (Cr), mercury (Hg), lead (Pb) and zinc (Zn). Mercury is the main heavy metal that we concentrate on in this course, but they all have similar properties as pollutants, in that they are fat-soluble and tend to bioaccumulate. This article, from the “Soil and Environment” blog has a good summary of the properties and health effects of the common heavy metals found in soil. Using the following websites, make sure you understand the following about mercury:

  • Characteristics and properties of mercury
  • Natural and anthropogenic sources
  • Transport mechanisms (mobility?)
  • Sinks (persistence?)
  • Human health effects (at what dosage?)
  • How mercury is taken in (ingested, absorbed or inhaled?)
  • Environmental health effects
  • Management strategies to prevent emissions and/or exposure

Mercury –

Extension work – choose one or more of the following:

Arsenic – NPI Fact sheet

Cadmium – NPI web page

Chromium – NPI web page

Lead – NPI Fact sheet

Zinc – NPI web page

ABC Catalyst – “Toxic Sediments” video (Zinc and other heavy metals)

ABC Catalyst – “Ibis Eggs” video (Persistent Organic Pollutants)


Air Pollution and SO2


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After completing the work on the Great Smog of London (see previous post) you may think that pollution from coal burning is a problem from history that we have largely been able to manage. However, earlier this year, as bush fires raged around Gippsland, the Hazelwood coal mine caught alight and burned for over a month. Firefighters were warned that too much water would interrupt the state’s electricity supply and smoke from the fire inundated Morwell and Taralgon. Read the following articles and do some research to answer the following questions:

  1. What organisation is responsible for monitoring air quality in the state?
  2. What are at least five pollutants mentioned that have effects on human health?
  3. Look up these pollutants on the National Pollutant Inventory and draw a table showing the characteristics of the pollutant and the human health impacts.
  4. What are the health effects of exposure to these pollutants?
  5. What groups of people are particularly vulnerable to these pollutants?

This term we will be doing an experiment to observe the effects of sulfur dioxide on various materials (YouTube video). Please organise a time with your supervising teacher to complete this practical work. You will be required to write up and submit the experimental report.



Grampians Study Camp

Nine students from the VCE Environmental Science class of 2014 have just returned from three days at Halls Gap in the Grampians. We arrived at the YHA EcoLodge and then set off for the Brambuk Cultural Centre, where we watched the indigenous creation story and a documentary about the geology, flora and fauna of the region. We then had a presentation from Ben Holmes, a National Parks Ranger, who spoke about the fox baiting program in the Grampians, including data about the number of 1080 baits taken and the positive effect on native marsupial species, including the smoky mouse, dusky mouse, bettongs and Antechinus.

On Tuesday morning we were up early for a fully guided tour of the 25 hectare Halls Gap Zoo, where they have a valuable captive breeding program for the brush-tailed rock wallaby, Tasmanian devils and Bush Stone-curlews. Naline, the Zoo keeper from New Zealand, via the Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo, spoke about the importance of genetic diversity, international co-operation and animal enrichment in their captive breeding programs. After spending the past four years looking after cheetahs, she is passionate about these beautiful big cats. We learned about the limited genetic diversity of cheetahs across the globe, with scientists believing that all the current cheetah are descendants of a small group of about ten, possibly with only one female. Following our tour through the Zoo, spending time with only a few of the 160 native and exotic species, we climbed to the top of Mt William, the highest point in the Grampians National Park. Well, the students climbed to the top – I didn’t quite make it – I might need to work on the fitness levels for next time!

The following morning we drove to Bunjil’s Cave, near Stawell, for a view across the plateau. This is a sacred indigenous site, widely regarded as one of the most significant cultural sites in south eastern Australia.

Bunjil’s Shelter sits within the Gariwerd, a cultural landscape that supports our people both physically and spiritually. Bunjil’s created our land, our people, the plants and animals, our religion and the laws by which we live. He is the leading figure in our spiritual life, essential in teaching our young people the importance of our laws and beliefs ~ Levi Lovett, local custodian, Parks Victoria.

Traditionally the lakes, swamps and fertile plains of Gariwerd provided groups of up to 50 people with emu, fish, eels, reptiles, yabbies, water birds, eggs, vegetables and fruit. The relatively easy collection of food left plenty of time for spiritual ceremonies and education. People would return to the shelter seasonally to repaint the images of Bunjil and his helpers, two dingoes, with red and white ochres.

Bioaccumulation and Biomagnification


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Heavy metals (mercury, lead, cadmium), pesticides and herbicides (such as DDT) and endocrine-disrupting chemicals (PCB’s and BPA’s) do not readily biodegrade. These are fat-soluble substances that are stored in organisms and are not quickly broken down by bacteria or other decomposers. Bioaccumulation is the process by which persistent pollutants accumulate in the fatty tissues of organisms. These pollutants are absorbed at a greater rate than they are released and therefore build up within the individual organism. Biomagnification is the process by which persistent pollutants increase in concentration up a food chain. So secondary and tertiary consumers have higher concentrations than producers and primary consumers.

This phenomena has been observed with DDT, causing the thinning of eggshells in raptors, such as the threatened Peregrine Falcon. Rachel Carson, a marine biologist and conservationist,  made the American public aware of the environmental problems caused by synthetic pesticides, such as DDT, in her famous book, “Silent Spring”. DDT is now prohibited in most developed countries.

Mercury has been shown to bioaccumulate in marine food webs, affecting higher order consumers, such as dolphins, sharks and swordfish. As such, Food Standards of Australia and New Zealand recommend that the intake of certain types of fish is limited.

Bioaccumulation and Biomagnification video on YouTube