Mitigating Volcanic Hazards

Lynne Elkins, Bryn Mawr College
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This activity spans two in-class sessions of 1-1.5 hours each, and includes both a small group activity focused on a set of volcanic case studies and a full-class role-playing activity where the class must decide, as a fictional town, how to respond to a nearby volcano exhibiting increased activity.

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Undergraduate course in volcanology, volcanic hazards, general natural hazards, and/or volcanoes and society. Most appropriate for a class with 10-20 students, but roles could be modified for smaller or larger classes.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Must have a good basic understanding of volcanic hazards and how they affect different populations and resources. Appropriate for late in the semester in an undergraduate course.

How the activity is situated in the course

This is situated late in the semester for a volcanology, volcanoes and society, or natural hazards class. It makes an excellent culminating in-class activity.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Review of volcanic hazards, how they work, and how they vary from volcano to volcano. Concepts about how those hazards impact different populations.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Synthesis of conceptual knowledge and ideas; application of concepts to solving social problems.

Other skills goals for this activity

Working in groups, arguing a position, on-the-spot synthesis of information.

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 Materials:

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).


As an in-class activity, the assessment for this exercise is mainly in the form of observation of discussions and evaluation of evidence for student understanding as they discuss their plans. Direct conversation with students in groups is most helpful for determining how well students are developing new understanding through the activity. For a more structured assessment, a short reflection paper would work well after this activity.

References and Resources

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