Initial Publication Date: May 29, 2015

Course profile: Quantitative Natural Hazards

Arlo Weil, Bryn Mawr

200-level general science course, 16-30 students.

Information for this profile was provided by Arlo Weil in 2007.

Jump down to Overview and Context * Course Content * Connecting to the Future of Science * Goals and Assessment * References and Resources * Additional Materials

Overview and Context

This is an introductory-level general science elective course with one semester of college science as a prerequisite. The course is quantitative intensive and fulfills the college's Q-requirement (quantitative requirement). The students have a variety of backgrounds, but most take the class as a creative way top fulfill their Q-requirement. We tend to get a few majors from this class whenever it is offered.

Course Content

Discussion of Earth processes that occur on human time scales and their impact on humanity both past and present. We quantitatively consider the past, current and future hazards presented by geologic processes, including earthquakes, volcanoes, landslides, floods and hurricanes. The course includes discussion of the social, economic and policy contexts in which geologic processes become geologic hazards. Case studies are drawn from contemporary and ancient societies. Lecture three hours a week, with one day-long field trip. There are weekly problem sets that usually require several hours of work to complete.

Connecting to the Future of Science

The course is obviously on a subject matter that all of the students can relate—and recently natural hazards have become a consistent and important international news topic. This class is taught in a non-conventional manner in terms of typical shake-and-bake hazard classes. The focus is on the quantitative treatment of natural disasters, their physical processes, how to analyze, judge, and critique data, and how to think about the impact that humans have and their role on natural disasters.

Goals and Assessment


  • Build student confidence in using math
  • Build student confidence in assessing numbers, their significance, and their meaning
  • Build confidence and understanding of the scientific method—particularly the differences between hypothesis and theory, uncertainty, error, precision, and fact
Specifically, at the end of the course, students will be able to
  • Demonstrate a basic understanding of the physical processes responsible for Earthquakes, volcanoes, and potential climate hazards
  • Use real data to derive quantitative relationships between different geologic variables
  • Analyze and interpret data using basic statistics and graphs
  • Describe the impact of humans as influencers, mitigators, and at time instigators in natural disasters


  • Weekly quantitative problem sets—each one has an hour review section for those students who are having trouble with the quantitative aspects of the assignment.
  • Two one-hour midterms and a final exam are required. The exams are a mix of theoretical concepts from the homework as well qualitative understanding of the topics discussed in lecture. The format of the exams is a combination of problem solving and short answer questions.
  • A Natural Hazards journal in which students report on five disasters that have occurred over the duration of the class. Each entry is to be about a recent natural hazard, and must contain the following parts:
    1. Date of the event
    2. Sources for information concerning the event - the sources could be from the newspaper, magazines or the web
    3. A two-paragraph summary of the event, including a description of the affects the event had on humans and society
    4. A short discussion, displaying critical thinking, of the importance, implications or consequences of this event and what could have been done to mitigate the damages

References and Resources

Books Used:
  • Natural Hazards and Disasters, by Hyndman and Hyndman
  • Natural Disasters, by Abbott
  • Environmental Hazards - Assessing Risk and Reducing Disasters, by Smith

Additional Materials

Download the 2005 course syllabus (Microsoft Word 71kB Mar23 07)