GETSI Teaching Materials >Monitoring Volcanoes and Communicating Risks > Unit 1: Monitoring Volcanic Activity at Mount St. Helens
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Unit 1: Monitoring Volcanic Activity at Mount St. Helens

Rachel Teasdale (California State University-Chico) and Kaatje van der Hoeven Kraft (Whatcom Community College)


How can data from an impending volcanic dome-building event be used to forecast the hazard to a surrounding community? In this activity, students will examine geodetic data (GPS and lidar) and seismic data in a modified gallery walk format (for either small and large enrollment courses) to assess volcanic activity and determine the USGS alert level for the volcano. In addition, students will use a hazard map for the Mount St. Helens area to determine which towns are at risk if a large eruption occurs. An optional post-class activity asks students to develop a way to communicate possible risks to local communities.

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Learning Goals

Unit 1 Learning Outcomes

Students will

  • Interpret seismic, GPS and lidar data preceding an eruptive event at Mount St. Helens to develop a forecast for the eruptive conditions, using the USGS Alert Level ratings
  • Use geodetic and seismic data to assess the hazard and risk to local areas
  • Reflect on their confidence in assigning alert levels and communicate which data sets were valuable and why

Context for Use

This unit is designed for an introductory level non-majors geoscience course, but can be adapted to introductory-intermediate Volcanology, Geologic Hazards, and other courses.

Timing: There are several options for use of this activity depending on the amount of time instructors choose to spend

  • 50 Minute Class Periods: The first activity of the unit (gallery walk and report out; Part A-C below) can be completed in a 50-minute class period. The second half of the activity (comparison with 1980 eruption and hazards map activity; Stages D-F below) can be completed in a second 50 minute class period.
  • Longer Class Periods (75 min+)
    • The entire activity (Part A-F) can be completed in one class session
    • Pre-class work may be done in class (as noted in Teaching Materials)

It is not necessary, but may be helpful, for students to be familiar with different volcano types, tectonic environments, and magma sources. The eruptive history of Mount St. Helens is introduced in the instructor presentation for this unit.

Description and Teaching Materials

The activity is organized here with pre-class work and then steps within the classroom and approximate times for each activity, but implementation works well in several combinations as described in Context for Use above.

Introductory/Pre-Class Work:

Students will learn about dome type eruptions with Mount St. Helens 1980 events to get a sense of dome type eruption (possible video, data, etc.) including the hazards and the hazard maps that were created based on these events from video and with a short pre-class reading. Students will need to generate a list of precursors they would look for prior to an eruption and be prepared to share these out in class.

Activity Description

In 1980, Mount St. Helens erupted violently, marking the most powerful eruption to affect large portions of the continental US in recent times. Mount St. Helens is an active stratovolcano, and in 2004, it started to indicate signs of an impending eruption. Based on its history and the type of volcano, scientists rushed to monitor the situation. During this activity, students will have the opportunity to look at the same data that these volcanologists were using to make their assessments. In addition, they will be able to see what the outcomes of this eruption were, and why monitoring volcanoes can be critical for minimizing impact to surrounding regions and populations.

Part A. Hook (5-10 minutes, Note: Instructors can use the Unit 1 Introduction to Mt St Helens analysis instructor presentation (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 4.1MB Feb1 23) to guide students through each segment of Parts A-D)

The students have already completed the pre-reading about the 1980 eruption prior to coming to class. At the beginning of class, the instructor will review a brief history of Mount St. Helens and indicate that newer activity at Mount St. Helens began again in 2004. Understandably, scientists were concerned. Ask students to share the indicators they generated from the pre-work, that they would expect to occur at Mount St. Helen's. List these ideas on the board in two columns (but do not label the columns yet)

  • Indicators that are used for forecasting by monitoring the volcano e.g., geodetic (e.g., GPS, gravity, tilt) and non-geodetic but involve other scientific instrumentation (e.g., gas sampling, seismic)
  • Indicators that may not be as helpful in forecasting an eruption (e.g., lava flowing out of the volcano or plate movement), but are still important for understanding the larger systems of volcanoes.

Once multiple ideas have been generated, discuss with students how to label the columns and indicate that they will be focusing on some of the indicators critical for monitoring in an effort to forecast magmatic activity and movement.

Part B Gallery Walk (15-25 minutes): Students should get into three groups of 3-4 students (or multiples of three groups for larger class sizes, see additional information on Gallery Walks and options for large enrollment courses in Teaching Tips below) and go to their designated poster number. Each poster has a different data type that students will start with and then groups will rotate to a new data types to review and complete additional tasks (see time slot descriptions below). At each stage, they will do something different, until ultimately, they return to their original data type.

Student data posters are for GPS, lidar, and seismic data (EQ epicenters and RSAM presented together) Gallery Walk student data posters (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 1.7MB Feb1 23). Note: Posters can be resized to be printed with a plotter on a 2'x3' poster (or on a single 11x17 page or in "poster" mode onto two 11x17 pages) and hung around the room or put out on large tables/ready to pass from group of students to group of students.

Each stage of the gallery walk and instructions for students are embedded in the Instructor's PowerPoint (link in Part A above) and listed below. During Stage 1, each group will read a short description of one data type and summarize it on their first posters. For each stage, a group rotates to the next poster. As groups rotate to other posters, they will review the data summaries to ultimately learn about all three data types.

  • Stage 1: Read the summary of your assigned data type (GPS, lidar, or seismic) and, as a group, explain to your classmates in your own words what the data presented here represents in terms of magma moving inside the volcano (small blurb at each poster) (7-10 minutes). In class reading: Data types for monitoring 2004 MSH activity (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 2.3MB Jan29 23).
  • Stage 2: Describe the scale of data for each graph (e.g. axes) and describe the size and time frame of the data represented (3-5 minutes)
  • Stage 3: Interpret the data overall to determine the activity during this time frame, and describe when (if at all) you think the activity will reach its peak or when activity will culminate (possibly in an eruption) and cite evidence for your interpretation. (3-5 minutes)
  • Stage 4: (should be back at original poster) Revise other student work as needed, and assign an alert level to the volcanic activity using the alert level rankings from the USGS, also available as a printable page (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 144kB Jun26 19). (3-5 minutes)

Part C. Class report out (10-15 minutes): Each group shares their alert ranking of the data and the evidence to determine the ranking (for larger classes with multiple sets of posters, one group can share and others can add to or modify the interpretation). Report outs can include a confidence ranking of their alert level with a justification as something to hand in for the activity at the end of class. Instructors may also want students to consider the kinds of hazards they expect based on the data and their alert level.

[Short (50 min) class periods that are not going to continue the Mount St. Helens activity for a second day can move to Part E "Instructor Reveal" to show students what ultimately occurred, which would be the end of a 50 minute class. Short class periods continuing with the activity for a second day should not do Part E until the second day as outlined below.]

Part D. Identifying volcanic hazards and societal risks (30-35 minutes):

  • (10 minutes) Stage 5 1980 & 2004 comparison: In groups of 3-5, students will examine seismic data from the 1980 eruption using Unit 1 Stage 5 student seismic data (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 909kB Jan29 23), also available as a PDF of seismic data (Acrobat (PDF) 902kB Jan29 23), (earthquake time-depth and number of earthquakes per day) to gain perspective on the magnitude of the 2004 activity relative to Mount St. Helen's eruption history. After examining the data with the context of the 1980 eruption, students will record their USGS alert level based on this larger context.
    • Note: Some instructors may want students to only use/consider data up to the end of 2004 (to match the timing of the previous parts of this activity). Graphs in the file with seismic data can be cropped to end at 2004 or students can be instructed to only consider data through 2004 for their updated alert rating.
  • (10-15 minutes) Stage 6 Hazard and risk assessment: Instructor introduces the Mount St. Helens Hazards Map (using the instructor's ppt in Part A) and Mt St Helens hazards maps 1995 and 2014 (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 17.3MB Mar25 19)). Instructors can decide to only provide the 1995 Hazards Map (so info available before 2004 activity) or both the 1995 and 2014 maps. Students are instructed to use the results of their discussion of seismic data from Stage 5, their knowledge of hazards at Mount St Helens (from pre-work) and the hazards map to assess the risk to the area. As noted in the instructor's ppt (link in Part A), groups will be assigned a specific location in the Mt St Helens area (a-e below) and asked:
    Given the scale of the seismicity prior to the Mount St. Helens 1980 eruption and that of the fall of 2004, use the 1995 Hazard Map to forecast potential hazards for the following locations:
    • a) Johnston Ridge Observatory (and Visitor's Center)
    • b) Toutle, WA
    • c) Cougar, WA
    • d) Kelso, WA
    • e) Merwin Dam (on Lewis River)

A complete answer will include the name(s) of hazard(s), what human society elements the likelihood of that hazard occurring with the 2004 activity, and reasons why you expect those hazards could occur at this location. Students should write their prediction, to be handed in individually (or as a group, depending on instructor's preference).

  • (10 minutes) Stage 7 Reflective Discussion: Point out to students (if they have not already determined this) that during a volcanic crisis, data available may not be complete (e.g., in 1980, we didn't have LiDAR or RSAM, in 2004, we only had one GPS station, etc.).
    Ask students to answer the following: (Questions also in the instructor's ppt, linked in Part A)
    1. Rank your confidence level with your alert level ratings, how did they change with more information/data?
    2. What type(s) of data were most useful in determining your alert level rating? Explain why. What type(s) of data were less useful in determining your alert level rating? Explain why.
    3. What other data would you want to increase your confidence (remind them of the list of information compiled at the beginning of class discussion)?
    4. What questions do you still have about assigning alert levels and identifying the most valuable data sets? What information would you need or strategies would you use to resolve your uncertainties?
      • As noted in the instructor slides, instructors can ask students to discuss their remaining questions about volcano monitoring in the form of a Think-Pair-Share. Students who believe they have no remaining questions can instead discuss:
        • What parts of this activity were most helpful in making you confident in assigning alert levels? How can you use those learning strategies in future activities?
      • Students should discuss their answers with their groups and to the whole class through an instructor-led report out. Discussion can also include the idea that volcanologists may have similar uncertainty as they monitor volcanoes where activity is evolving.

Part E. Instructor "Reveal" (10 minutes): The instructor's ppt (link in Part A) includes a video that reveals volcanic activity from 2004-2008, with this video

Part F. Post-Reveal Reflection (5 minutes): Ask students to add to their reflection from task 5 above by answering:

Stage 8: How does your eruption alert level compare with what actually happened? What aspects are similar or different from what you expected?

Teaching Notes and Tips

This section gives additional insight into how to use the unit 1 effectively.

Mechanics of the Activity

  • Stages 1-4 of this activity are a gallery walk. To aid in the process, the activity has been developed to use pre-developed "posters" that can be printed out on 11x17 paper or a 3-ft plotter and hung around the room or put out on large tables/ready to pass from group of students to group of students.
  • Instructors can ask students to discuss questions in the form of a Think-Pair-Share.
  • Unit 1 Stage 1: Once the groups are determined, hand out the in-class reading with info about each data type prepared to each group. Students do not need the data from the poster, only the in-class reading during Stage 1. Instructors may want to assign group roles to assure that students do not fall into stereotypical roles (e.g., female = scribe, male = leader).

Pedagogical considerations

  • This activity is designed to facilitate student-student interactions which foster student learning by requiring them to negotiate the content among themselves. This active learning approach is based on what research indicates is most effective for student learning, however some students can be resistant to this approach for a number of reasons including:
    • A perception that they're not learning from experts. It may help to address this by indicating to students the reason for your approach and some of the research in how this ultimately results in greater success by the students and supports skill development sought by employers (see an overview and and resources about engaged pedagogies).
    • They lack confidence in their own capabilities. This unit has opportunities for students to build on each other's work and learn by correcting any mistakes, so that students can risk failure and still benefit and learn. In addition, the lesson is designed to help them build their confidence or self-efficacy as they learn more.
    • They are introverted and do not like to interact with others. This is a tricky one, as students may always default to the silent role. Assigning roles may help with asking students to take on different assigned roles, and there are also aspects of this lesson that can help introverts "recenter" by having more silent reflection time.
  • When calling on individuals for responses to whole-class discussions, it can help to ask only when there are more than one correct answer and/or provide students time to talk to their neighbors through Think-Pair-Share before sharing out. These can help to alleviate the concerns of being "wrong." In addition, using clickers in large classes, raising hands, or thumbs up/thumbs down options can easily gauge where students are for alert levels and then lead to sharing in smaller groups.

Notes for Very Small- and Large- Enrollment Courses:

Group Activities are often most effective with groups of 3-5 students.

  • Courses with very small enrollment (e.g. fewer than 15 students) can divide topics among a smaller number of groups (e.g. two groups that look at two data types each), which will use more class time. Alternatively, instructors of small enrollment courses can provide results/input for 1-2 of the data types so small groups only have to complete 1 data type each.
  • Courses with more than 15-20 students can use multiple sets of Gallery Walk posters in Stage 2 so there might be a set of posters A (with posters 1-3) and a set of posters B (with posters 1-3). During report-outs, all groups who are at poster 1 can contribute to the report out.
  • Very large enrollment courses in challenging room settings (e.g. lecture theaters) may not have space or time to move large numbers of students. In this case, it works well to print multiple sets of posters on 11x17 pages that move among groups (instead of moving student among posters). For example, four groups of students will pass 1 set of posters among them and another set of posters can be passed among another set of four groups.
  • The all-class report- outs can be modified to have students report using clickers or even a free online program such as Poll Everywhere in which students can use their cell phones to respond.
  • Distributing handouts can be time-consuming in very large enrollment courses, but can be facilitated by preparing sets of handouts that can be retrieved by a single group member. It may save time to have stacks of handouts around the room. In some cases geology majors or geology/science club members can be recruited to help distribute handouts in class.


Formative Assessment

Instructors can learn what their students are thinking/learning at the following stages within unit 1:

  • Part A & B (The Hook/Think-Write-Brainstorm): Student responses to the opening question will inform the instructor of their ideas at the start of the class period. Example responses are in the Instructor's PPTX notes.
  • Part C (Gallery Walk Report Out): Allows for full-class discussion of concepts, from which the instructor will be able to identify misconceptions or areas in need of further clarification.
  • Stage 7 (Reflective Discussion): Allows students to reflect on what they have learned and the report out will help the instructor learn what areas still require clarification. Example responses are provided in the notes of Unit 1 Introduction to Mt St Helens analysis instructor presentation (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 4.1MB Feb1 23).

Summative Assessment

Instructors can grade student work from the following stages within Unit 1:

  • Stage 6 (Hazards Maps): Instructors can collect individual students' work describing the hazards and risks facing specific locations near Mount St. Helens
    • Instructors can grade hazard assessments using the key and scoring guide provided:
    • [Unit Outcome 2 addressed: Use geodetic data to assess the risk to local areas as a function of hazard maps and larger population regions]
  • Stages 7 & 8 (Student Reflections): Instructors can collect student reflections
    • Instructors can use example responses provided in the Instructor's PPT (final slide) to grade, an example rubric is provided Stage 7-8 student reflection rubric (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 203kB Jan29 23)
    • [Unit Outcome 1 addressed: Interpret seismic, GPS, and LiDAR data preceding an eruptive event at MSH to develop a forecast for the eruptive conditions, using the USGS Alert Level Ratings]

OPTIONAL Additional Summative Assessment

NOTE: this assignment is of the same style as the Optional Summative Assessment for Unit 2 so instructors using both units may choose to not include this assignment (to avoid repetition) or may decide to use this assignment (to give students more practice reading primary literature and additional opportunities for writing).

  • Each student will write a report as if they were a volcanologist at the observatory summarizing their interpretations of the activity at Mount St. Helens for the Scientist-in-Charge (i.e., the instructor). The text of the report should include a summary and interpretations of each data type, figures supporting those interpretations, an overall hypothesis about volcanic activity at Mount St. Helens for the time period explored. The EOS article by Dzurisin et al., 2005 (cited below) is a helpful resource that describes what events actually happened during the activity at Mount St. Helens in 2004. Note that Figure 1 of this article is especially useful.
  • Instructors can use the Unit 1 optional assessment rubric (Microsoft Word 36kB Jan29 23) to assess student learning.

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This module is part of a growing collection of classroom-tested materials developed by GETSI. The materials engage students in understanding the earth system as it intertwines with key societal issues. The collection is freely available and ready to be adapted by undergraduate educators across a range of courses including: general education or majors courses in Earth-focused disciplines such as geoscience or environmental science, social science, engineering, and other sciences, as well as courses for interdisciplinary programs.
Explore the Collection »