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Josh Galster: Teaching Natural Hazards and Risks: Hurricanes in Earth and the Environment at Montclair State University

About this Course

An introductory course for majors and non-majors.

Two 75-minute lecture
One 2-hour lab
Public state
Syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 129kB Jan8 14)

Earth and the Environment was an introduction to the basic processes of Earth and how human activity has affected the planet. It covered the basic systems that make up the planet (biosphere, lithosphere, atmosphere, and hydrosphere) and how humans interact with those systems.

Course Goals:

  • Understand the Earth processes that cause natural hazards.
  • Know where Earth materials and energy come from and how they are used.
  • Be able to give examples on how humans have affected natural systems and how natural systems have affected humans.
  • Discuss how past and future climate change have and might affect human societies.

Course Content

This module was used in Earth and the Environment, an introductory (100 level), 4-credit (two 75-minute lectures and one 100-minute lab per week) course that satisfies the natural/physical science lab general education laboratory requirement for undergraduates. Because it fulfills this general education requirement, more than 90% of the students are non-science majors, and for most of them this is both 1) the first science course they have had since high school, and 2) the last science course they will take in college. Earth and the Environment is an introduction to the basic processes of Earth and how human activity has affected the planet. I introduce the basic systems that make up the planet (biosphere, lithosphere, atmosphere, and hydrosphere) and how humans interact with those systems. This theme of humans affecting and being affected by Earth systems is an ongoing theme throughout the course.

I divide the course into three sections, loosely organized into 1) geologic basics and introduction to Earth systems, where geologic time, plate tectonics, earthquakes, and volcanoes are covered; 2) hydrosphere and surficial processes, including coastal processes, soil erosion, mass wasting, flooding, and water resources; and 3) energy and climate change, where different energy resources, waste disposal, and past, present, and future climate change are discussed.

Course material is updated to include the latest natural event (hurricane, earthquake, etc.) in discussion, as this class can be driven by current events. Discussions based on students' personal experiences with these events, whether they are Hurricanes Irene and/or Sandy, earthquakes felt by the students, or homes impacted by coastal erosion, help drive the course and make the material more relatable.

A Success Story in Building Student Engagement

The Natural Hazards and Risks: Hurricanes module was taught to 20 introductory students over one week during two lectures and one laboratory session. Dividing the module between lecture and laboratory sessions allowed for different activities to be approached in a variety of ways—for example, having more discussion (e.g., Unit 1) during lecture and more data analysis (Activity 3) in the laboratory. The module was used about 2/3 into the semester, and students reacted positively to it by being more engaged and more interested in the activities than in some other parts of the class. The culminating exercise, Unit 6, was especially effective in fostering discussion and participation on whether to evacuate in the face of an approaching hurricane.

One of the things I really like about this case study is the flexibility. The individual parts work well as a comprehensive story when all the units are used, but the units also work as stand-alone lessons. I have used this entirety of this unit in two classes and parts in two other classes, and in all circumstances students were able to complete the lessons.

My Experience Teaching with InTeGrate Materials

The classes I used this material in fulfilled general education requirements, so I often had to make sure students of different abilities were able to understand the material. This usually was accomplished by walking the students through some of the first problems/questions on a few of the units, or by giving examples of similar problems. The module often generated discussion and questions from the students, increasing their participation.

Relationship of InTeGrate Materials to my Course

I taught almost the entire module during three lectures and one laboratory session. This included about 3.5 hours of lectures and 2 hours of laboratory session. The module was taught during weeks 8 and 9 of a 15-week semester. The overall plan included:

  • Unit 1 was taught in lecture #1.
  • Units 2 and 4 were taught in lecture #2.
  • Units 3 and 5 were taught in laboratory session #1.
  • Units 4 and 6 were taught in lecture #3.
  • Student learning was assessed both during and at the end of each session.

Unit 1

Unit 1 was covered in one lecture period with ~22 students, and it took 70 minutes to complete activities 1.1 and 1.3. I chose a local example for return period for the end of Activity 1.3, and also chose a home value that would produce a round number ($30,000) for the annual risk. Activity 1.1 was useful for generating discussion, especially from those students who do not normally participate as much.

  • Activity 1.1 was shown conducted in class instead of pre-class. The image at the center of the activity was projected on the screen, and students were given the opportunity to write down their thoughts for a few minutes. Students were prompted to list the hazards visible in the image, as well as how the parachutist could reduce her risk from those hazards. Student answers were written and compiled on the board.

  • Activity 1.2 was not completed.

  • Activity 1.3 was done in class, and the Unit 1 presentation was shown. The differences between hazards and risks were clarified, and students generated examples of the two. One example we used was the hazard of driving and how its associated risks could be reduced. The idea of "return period" was discussed in terms of an event being frequent or rare, and then students examined the return periods of hurricanes on different areas of the eastern United States. Finally, how risk can be calculated using the equation "risk = likelihood x cost" was introduced, and how the risk from hurricanes to a coastal home would change based on geographic location (frequency of hurricanes) and cost (value of home). I choose New Jersey as an additional example to calculate the risk, using a return period of 19 years and a hypothetical home value of $570,000 to generate an annual risk of $30,000.

Unit 2

Unit 2 was covered in approximately 30 minutes in the first half of the lecture class. Students were unfamiliar using the uncertainty cone in the student activity sheet to decide whether to set sail, but enjoyed envisioning themselves as captains.

  • The video at the beginning was not shown, although I would do so in the future. The unit began with the instructor using the PowerPoint slides provided to give the students a background in hurricane formation. Most of my students have very little oceanographic knowledge, so they were not familiar with hurricane formation.

  • The student activity sheet was used to discuss the situation of being the captain of a ship and deciding whether it makes sense to sail, using the available information. Students used information about the past course of a hurricane and its projected course and travel time to make that decision.

Unit 3

Unit 3 was covered in 30 minutes during a laboratory session, as the hands-on nature of the activity lent itself nicely to this format. Activity 3.1 was completed as part of Unit 3.

  • Students completed Activity 3.1 by plotting the position of Hurricane Irene's path. They used two positions per day (I chose 0:00 and 12:00) to track its motion. This gave the students experience using latitude and longitude coordinate systems. Each student had the map from the activity so they could plot it individually, although they worked in small groups. Students identified where and when the hurricane made landfall in the United States.

Unit 4

Unit 4 was split between two different meeting times with students. Activities 4.1 and 4.3 were completed during a classroom meeting while Activity 4.2 was done during a laboratory meeting. Both formats worked well, and I only split them to better fit them into the time of the different meetings.

  • Activity 4.1 covers the broad coastal and fluvial impacts of hurricanes, with special emphasis on Hurricane Irene. Many of my students had just experienced this hurricane firsthand, so while they could relate their individual perspectives, they learned more about the regional impacts.

  • Activity 4.2 included digital elevation models (DEMs) of pre- and post-Hurricane Irene, highlighting areas that changed in elevation. These changes represent either deposition (increased elevation) or erosion (decreased elevation). I showed students one example first of pre-Irene, post-Irene, and then a DEM showing the difference (which subtracts the two, post minus pre). I then showed the students the Rodanthe pre- and post-DEMs, and had them sketch the differences. At first students were a bit intimidated, both by trying to get all the details correct as well as by their artistic skills (or lack thereof), but with coaching and encouragement they did well.

  • Activity 4.3 was combined at the end of 4.1 in a lecture period. Discussion was generated on the unique situation of a river tributary (the Pompton River) having a higher peak discharge than the main stem (the Passaic River). This seemingly violates the general concept of tributaries having less discharge than the rivers they flow into, but when explained that the Passaic River had a much larger volume of discharge from the storm (visible on the hydrograph), it makes sense.

Unit 5

Unit 5 was taught during the second half of a laboratory session, along with Unit 3 (see above). Both activities were used, and students had handouts in order to complete their assignments.

  • Activity 5.1 involves plotting the changing hurricane frequencies, deaths, and damage during the 20th century. I had the students plot these by hand in class, but having them plot it using Excel or another program would also work well.

  • Activity 5.2 uses historic aerial photography and topographic maps and compares them to modern satellite photographs to determine the changes in coastal development, and consequently the changes in coastal risks. A review of the differences between hazards and risk is included and was used, which was helpful for the students to revisit those differences.

Unit 6

This unit has the students take many of the things they have learned and apply it to whether to evacuate in the face of an oncoming storm.

I had the students read the New York Times article (I passed out paper copies to each student) written as Hurricane Isaac was approaching and people were debating whether to evacuate. I then listed the stakeholders on the board and allowed students to form themselves into small (~2-3 students) groups representing each of the stakeholders. The stakeholders I used were 1) FEMA officials, 2) homeowners, 3) hardware store owner, 4) transit officials, and 5) first responders. Each group then formulated its input to me; I played a spineless mayor who was wavering over whether to evacuate. Each group shared its opinion, and there was some back-and-forth on whether evacuating was the prudent decision. All the groups except the hardware store owners decided to evacuate in the end. This activity was excellent at generating discussion and (civil) debate.


There are effective assessments with each part so that there is better understanding by the students and the instructor about what is being learned.

Unit 1

  • The discussion generated about the hazards and risks presented in the cartoon at the beginning generated good points from the students. They came up with several examples, and the students also built upon concepts presented by students previously. Their written lists of examples could have been collected and graded for a more formal assessment, although I did not do this.
  • I had the students individually complete the assessment on calculating their personal risk using the formula presented (risk = cost x frequency) in Activity 1.3. This provided a gradable, formal assessment for this unit.

Unit 2

  • Students completed the assessment of the activity on whether to sail by writing their response (yes or no) as well as their reasons why in a paragraph or two of text. By having them write their responses instead of just discussing them with the class, I could individually assess their learning. If a less-structured assessment is desired, then a discussion of their responses could be conducted.
Unit 3
  • The assessment for this unit was grading the plotted path of Hurricane Irene on the map and having students describe where and when the hurricane made landfall in the United States. A different geographic location for landfall could be chosen alternatively.
Unit 4
  • A sketch of the differences between the pre- and post-Irene DEM was collected from each student. They were assessed more for the overall representation of the differences rather than achieving a 100% accurate portrayal of the differences. The Rodanthe DEM was useful for this as there are separate, large sections of both erosion and deposition.
Unit 5
  • Assessment was done for both Activities 5.1 and 5.2 by collecting and grading the written assignments for each activity. For 5.1 it was the graphs of hurricane trends during the 20th century, and for 5.2 it was the written comparisons of changes in coastal development. Converting 5.2 into a class discussion of coastal development patterns and drivers would also work well.
Unit 6
  • Assessment was conducted of the discussion on evacuations and uncertainty, using an informal rubric of how much each student participated and the quality of their input. One could also collect a written summary of each stakeholder's position, if a graded assessment is needed or wanted.


I had a few outcomes I was hoping for the students from this module:

  • I wanted the material to engage them, and by engage I wanted them to think about, discuss, and write on the items presented here. The students increased their participation, and the quality of the thinking in their writing improved during this module, which I was happy to see. The debate during Unit 6 was a great example of this, with the students participating more than they had previously and really taking on the roles.
  • I wanted to expose the students to more examples of real data sets that develop the students' quantitative skills. Using the Hurricane Irene paths, river hydrographs, DEMs, and other examples gave the students experience with those kinds of data. Working from those data sets, I wanted to introduce the students to how scientists often deal with uncertainty, and while I accomplished this to some degree I want to expand on this in the future.

Overall, I liked how this module used a variety of ways to engage students, including maps, tables of data, online tools, aerial photographs, DEMS, cartoons, and role-playing. The flexibility is great as it allows the material to either be used as a complete unit or as individual components.

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These materials are part of a collection of classroom-tested modules and courses developed by InTeGrate. 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 »