Mitigating Volcanic Hazards
Skills and concepts that students must have mastered
How the activity is situated in the course
Content/concepts goals for this activity
Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity
Other skills goals for this activity
Description and Teaching Materials
This exercise is a mostly in-class activity that works best over two class sessions of standard (1-1.5 hour) length. It would also work as a longer single class activity.
Students are randomly (or pseudo-randomly, if the instructor feels student personalities will work best in certain ways) assigned roles as various incarnations of town citizens, town businesspeople, scientists, and government officials. The role assignment is accompanied by a one-page role description that is handed out at the start of the exercise. Each student also receives a copy of the general page describing their goals and tasks during the exercise.
For the first part of the activity, students are instructed to find the other students with roles like themselves (i.e., all the town citizens form a group, all the scientists form a group, etc.). Each group is handed a folder with case study information about a particular volcano. The case studies contain short summaries about the history and hazards associated with the volcanoes. Any number of volcanoes make good case studies; I compiled various information about Soufrière Hills, Rabaul, Parícutin, and St. Kitts, but many other volcanoes are equally good choices. The packets provided are good examples of the scope and depth of background that works well for a case study within this activity. Each group is instructed to study and read the case studies together, and then swap with the other groups, until each group has studied all four cases. The groups have been assigned the task of developing a preparedness and response plan that serves their own interests, with guiding questions to focus on. They are to write this plan down and bring it with them to the following class.
When the class meets again, they are reminded that they have roles to play and instructed to be in character. A role play town meeting then begins, where the goal is to develop a single preparedness plan for the community that works for everyone (with compromises as necessary). To keep it interesting, there are a number of suggested events that the instructor can choose to introduce–these can be handed to various characters, such as a reporter or the head scientist. The stage has been set by the role descriptions so that some tensions are built into the group (an upcoming contested election, conflicting interests between individuals and groups, etc.). There are several potential conflicts, so that if a few students are extremely agreeable and compromise very readily (in unrealistic ways, like if the mayor volunteers to just stop taxing the whole town or if the town decides to forego elections indefinitely), reaching a consensus will still be realistically complex. The instructor is well-advised to encourage staying in character and discourage extremely outlandish and unrealistic town decisions!
Teaching Notes and Tips
The success of a role play activity depends in part on participant buy-in and enthusiasm. There are a number of ways in which this activity is constructed to keep the activity interesting and engage the students. That said, I recommend being prepared to scrap parts or introduce new twists as needed to make the activity work best with a given group of student personalities. It helps to be flexible as an instructor for this exercise.
Note that I take the final town plan (however they write or draw it during the meeting) and scan/upload it to our class website at the end of the activity.
As a culminating hazards activity, this lesson tends to generate memorable experiences and learning outcomes that students reflect on positively, based on end-course evaluation feedback
Possible variations: additional roles can include a whole media group (tv channel boss, rival reporters, an unemployed freelancer desperate for work, etc.), additional conflicting businesspeople or citizens, etc. If the financial aspect of disaster preparedness is of particular relevance or interest to a class, an actual basic town budget can be drawn up and provided, and monetary limits set by the government officials and for the scientific team. Likewise there is room to expand this exercise on the subject of insurance: add an insurance agent or company representative, add a pro-mandatory-insurance government official, provide some hazards insurance information (coverage, cost, premiums), etc. Finally, a fake hazards map based on a real volcano can be provided to the scientists (e.g., a Rainier-like hazard distribution would be an interesting choice).