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Lisa Gilbert: Teaching Natural Hazards and Risks: Hurricanes in Oceanographic Processes at Williams-Mystic

About this Course

An interdisciplinary course for intermediate-level undergraduate majors and non-majors.

Two 75-minute lecture
One 3.5-hour lab
3 weeks
at sea on a research/training vessel and on coastal field seminars
Small, four-year liberal arts
Syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 178kB Jul15 14)

Oceanographic Processes examines coastal and open ocean environmental science issues. Topics such as sea level rise, global warming, coastal erosion and hazards, pollution and nutrient cycling, and fisheries productivity shed light on the critical importance of understanding the human relationship with the sea. The focus of the course is on controlling processes with regional comparisons. Blue water oceanography is conducted in the Atlantic, and comparative coastal oceanography includes field studies on the West and Gulf coasts of the United States as part of the Williams-Mystic program. Oceanographic Processes also explores the diversity of ocean ecosystems and communities through numerous field studies in New England marine habitats that lead to independent research projects.

We meet twice a week for our regular class, plus labs. There are also other integrated classes, guest lectures, and special events that incorporate marine science with one or more other disciplines at Williams-Mystic.

Course Goals:

Learning opportunities abound throughout the semester. During 11 days at sea, students gain experience with oceanographic sampling and laboratory equipment. Students present data descriptions and interpretations orally and in written reports, and learn to work collaboratively in the field. Following the offshore portion of the semester, we explore New England, Pacific Northwest, and Gulf of Mexico coastal environments for, among other things, a firsthand comparative study of coastal oceanography and human impacts on our shores. Students learn to pose answerable research questions, then write a proposal, collect and analyze data, and complete an independent field or laboratory project.

Goals include:

  • Design and complete a piece of original scientific research and all that entails (e.g., hypothesis testing and science as an iterative process, planning field work, data collection and analysis, writing reports).
  • Develop communication skills (your good idea is worthless if you cannot share it!), through oral presentations, poster sessions, figure-making, and in writing.
  • Collaboration with peers. Collaborating can be challenging, but also helps each individual participate in creating something larger than anyone could have accomplished alone.
  • Learning to make sense of complex, confusing, and sometimes contradictory data that rarely resemble the neat graphs shown in textbooks. An important challenge (and part of the fun!) of science is working with unexpected results.
  • Using records of the past to try to understand and predict the future, particularly as those predictions relate to ocean and coastal policy (e.g., natural hazards, fisheries management, pollution, climate change).
  • Communicating the interconnectedness and complexity of connections between the ocean, atmosphere, land, and humans.

In part because this is a small class, students can expect help from me. I expect each student individually to broaden and deepen their scientific skills and knowledge, in accordance with their own background and interests. A major portion of that individualized learning comes in the form of the independent field or laboratory research project. Thus, specific course goals may vary somewhat by student.

Course Content

In this course, we examine how the ocean interacts with other systems on Earth. Ocean and land systems interact at the coasts: the coasts are built and destroyed by geological processes such as volcanoes, earthquakes, glaciers, and erosion; shorelines are modified gradually by sea level rise, and catastrophically by tsunami and hurricanes. Ocean-atmosphere interactions include everything from making weather predictions while we are at sea, to wind-driven currents (which further drive productivity of the oceans) and waves, hurricanes, El Niño, and climate. Humans also take many resources from the sea, including fish, whales, minerals, and energy, and many ocean environmental problems are caused or exacerbated by humans, such as oil pollution, eutrophication, harmful algal blooms, climate change, and coastal erosion.

Our focus in this course is on underlying processes, rather than equations or facts. Our approaches are regional and global, theoretical and practical, and hands-on and discovery-based.

A Success Story in Building Student Engagement

As part of an interdisciplinary marine semester at Williams-Mystic, I taught most of the Hurricanes Hazards and Risks module during the 9th and 10th weeks of a 17-week semester (Spring 2013). I used three 75-minute Oceanographic Processes class periods. I also gave several short (10-15 minute) homework assignments. This module's focus on hurricanes from both scientific and societal perspectives is aligned with several of the Williams-Mystic overarching goals: working with data, making cross-disciplinary connections, and grappling with how to make decisions in the face of complex/uncertain information and conflicting interests.

At Williams-Mystic, most students are third year undergraduates. Students apply to Williams-Mystic for "study away" from any undergraduate college or university. Thus, they are a self-selected, motivated group, interested in interdisciplinary learning and the oceans and coasts.

Since my students concurrently study marine policy (and maritime history and literature of the sea), questions they brought to class nicely connected the role of scientists, policy-makers, and citizens. In addition, having recently experienced two New England hurricanes (Irene in 2011 and Sandy in 2012), students were able to share many personal perspectives.

My Experience Teaching with InTeGrate Materials

The module content addresses the very real societal challenges of hurricane risks. Module materials progress from background information to working with complex data and allow students with different majors to bring in varied expertise. Students use the methods of geoscientists and grapple with uncertain data to make predictions about hurricane tracks and risks. In the final activity, students present a position statement regarding the timing of an evacuation from a perspective outside their own. My students particularly enjoyed this activity. Listening to the perspectives of multiple stakeholders is a common experience of policy-makers today, and the ability to see a societal problem like hurricane hazards from different sides is crucial for my students to have a role in Earth's sustainable future.

Relationship of InTeGrate Materials to my Course

Although my course focuses on oceanographic processes, the ocean and atmosphere are inextricably linked. As such, I teach basic meteorology at the beginning of my course, before we go sailing offshore for 11 days. At sea, students practice reading National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) observations and making forecasts, with real implications for our cruise track. These experiences helped students practice chart-reading, understand units of pressure, and gain an intuition for wind speed. Although these particular experiences are not typically possible in a normal college semester, making some weather and wind observations prior to the module would provide background that may enhance the impact of the module.

I taught module materials in the 9th and 10th weeks of our 17-week semester, during three lecture periods of 75 minutes each. Units 1 and 2 were taught in the first class period, Units 3 and 5 in the second, and Units 4 and 6 in the third class period.

Unit 1 & Unit 2 (taught in the first class period)

Unit 1:

0930-0932: Outline of today's class and reviewed last time, briefly.

0932-0945: Discussed their homework Assessment 1 (Microsoft Word 811kB Aug26 14), a risk calculation. Assessment 1: Student Responses (Acrobat (PDF) 4.8MB Mar26 13). Assessment 1: Grading Rubric (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 32kB Mar25 13).

  • Most students used Mystic as their location, but a few used other places. As a group, we compared the risk among Connecticut, New York, Boston, southern Maine, and southern Florida.
  • Everyone seemed to plug & chug the formula just fine, but students were confused about "frequency" and "return period." We reviewed the caption, then one student volunteered to explain the difference clearly to the class.
  • Note: this handout could be reworded in terms of insurance policy to make more sense—there was some confusion in class about units.

0945-0955: Activity 1.2I asked students what the take-home messages were from the Jared Diamond (2013) article.

  • We digressed into a discussion of life expectancy for two minutes because of Diamond's statement about how his life expectancy is 90 now that he has made it to 78, which is what it would have been at birth. I asked how long they thought they would live; eight said into their 80s, and four said 90s. I asked what that was based on and they replied "grandparent longevity" and "improving health care" and "optimism." One student brought up something they had heard in Maritime History about how life expectancy is shorter for their generation than their parents' because of obesity and drug/alcohol use. Another student offered something she had read about how rural life expectancy is shorter than urban because of health care and availability of healthy food in some locations.

0955-1005: Hazard & Risk Activity 1.1—think, pair share. Photo of their responses on the board:

1005-1015: Sharing thoughts on Sandy last fall. One student (who was here last semester) described all that was done at Mystic Seaport and in the student houses to mitigate risk, including evacuating up to the very classroom where we sit. I briefly compared my own decision process to evacuate in Hurricane Irene but not for Sandy, as a preview to Activity 6.

Unit 2:

  • First: list the key characteristics of a hurricane in your notes.
  • Five students shared one characteristic. Their responses: high winds (one student volunteered 74 mph), rotating winds, low pressure, eye in center, lots of rain.
  • We discussed that they nailed it! And then I gave them a formal definition (low P system with winds > 74 mph). I also pointed to the Saffir-Simpson scale in their handout (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 5.7MB Mar21 13) and told them the categories were simplified a few years ago to just winds (used to be pressure, surge, and winds).
  • Next: students asked questions as I moved through the images in the slides.

1025-1031: Can a hurricane cross the equator?

  • Think, pair, share, while looking at hurricane tracks 1851-2012.
    • First: I asked for thumbs up/down, and all 12 of them gave me thumbs down.
    • Then, they talked with a neighbor about "why not?" for 3 minutes.
    • In sharing, one student said, "The equator acts like a wall of low pressure," and another student said, "Coriolis is in the other direction, so a hurricane would have to start and stop, and then is it the same hurricane?"
    • Another student asked, "What was the one hurricane in the South Atlantic?" I told the story of Catarina surprising Brazilians in 2004. This brought us back to our discussion of risk from the beginning of class (why would Brazilians do anything to prepare if hurricanes are so rare?).
  • Students asked about names. We discussed the different names for hurricanes in different ocean basins (they are reading Conrad's Typhoon for Literature of the Sea class next week), and how names rotate and get retired.

1031-1043: Hurricane formation continued.

  • These felt a little rushed, because I knew I only had 15 minutes left.
  • Students asked about the two surges and if you could tell which was which in a hurricane (we talked about wind shift and recalled our time out at sea and tracking the movement of lows and highs).

1043 – 1050: Draw! (Additional Embedded Assessment A (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 27kB Mar28 13) and Embedded Assessment A: Student Responses (Acrobat (PDF) 2.4MB Mar21 13)).

Students kept working 5 minutes past the end of class. As they finished . . .

  • I wrote a summary on the board
  • I handed some of Activity 1.3 as a homework assignment Assessment 1 homework (Microsoft Word 811kB Aug26 14) and reminded students to bring their laptops to class next time.

Unit 3 & Unit 5 (taught during the second class period)

Unit 3:

Teaching Tip: With a small class, it was easy to help students with the Hurricane Tracker (Activity 3.2) on their laptops. I had them work in pairs, to help each other, too, and this strategy could help manage a slightly larger class. However, each instructor will have their own limit for how many laptop pairs they consider manageable. For large classes, the computer-rich activities might be better in a lab session or as homework.

0930-0932: Reviewed schedule highlighting other storms-related coursework they are doing.

0932-1000: Discussed homework question: Are we in a high-activity or low-activity hurricane era?

  • Used slides from Activity 3.3
  • This took too long; next time I might eliminate the assignment and this part altogether or allow more time.

1000-1038: Activity 3.2 Hurricane tracker. We skipped Activity 3.1 because we had done many chart exercises and practical navigation/piloting in the first few weeks of the course.

A) With a partner, explore Sandy's track.

  • First, I suggested they just play around a bit with the functions.
  • Then, I listed questions to guide their work:
  1. Positions are ___ hours apart
    • The answer ended up being more nuanced than I expected from my own exploration of the hurricane tracker (positions were not plotted at consistent intervals, which led into an interesting discussion).
  2. Maximum size (Category) on the Saffir-Simpson scale? When and where?
  3. When and where was landfall in the lower 48? Wind speed then?
    • Note: I had several of them ask me what the term "lower 48" meant.
  4. Where and when was the hurricane moving the fastest?
  5. Other interesting observations?
B) With a partner, examine historic hurricane tracks.
  1. How many hurricanes made landfall in Connecticut 1851-2010?
  2. Recurrence interval (average time between hurricanes) in Connecticut?
    • = total years / # hurricanes
    • (e.g., 150 years / 10 hurr = 15 years/hurricane)
  3. Recurrence interval of major hurricanes in Connecticut?
  4. Make a list of hurricanes that may have caused the sand layer we found 4 cm below the surface at Barn Island Marsh. First consider your assumptions:
    • Date range?
    • Possible landfall states?
    • Hurricane categories?

The hurricane tracker exploration worked very well; students were engaged and asked good questions. Students figured out the hurricane layer we saw in a marsh core we took was probably from Hurricanes Bob or Gloria. Embedded assessment: Embedded Assessment B: Student Responses. (Acrobat (PDF) 743kB Mar28 13)

Unit 5:

1038-1042: Hazards and risks over time (handout (Class 2) (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 1.2MB Mar28 13)) from Unit 5.

I instructed the students to examine the data table from Activity 5.1 and discuss with their partner.

  • Change in hazard? ("No")
  • Change in risk? ("Yes, more $, fewer deaths")

We discussed coastal development, briefly, examining the images from Activity 5.2.

  • Note: I would have liked more time with this, having students make observations/comparisons.
  • Note: Assessment 2 (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 52kB Mar28 13) relates to this, and will be given as an exam question.

1042-1048: I outlined the costs of preparing for a hurricane.

  • Students asked good questions, and about half the class participated in the discussion. (Examples: Whose money is this? Is this in federal/local budgets? What if that is not enough?)

1049: Summary

1050: Assigned reading for Thursday (New York Times article on Hurricane Isaac from Unit 6), and asked students to "bring a list of stakeholders in a hurricane evacuation."

Unit 4 & Unit 6 (taught during the third class period)

Unit 4:

0930-0932: Outline, summary of what we have done with hurricanes so far, goals for end of class today, think ahead to next week in our Field Seminar to Louisiana.

0932-0950: Based on Unit 4), we compared impacts from Irene (2011) and Sandy (2012). Students had a handout (Class 3) (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 401kB Mar28 13) of key images in front of them, which they asked me questions about, I asked them questions about, etc.

0950-1000: How did people's experiences in the Northeast in Irene (2011) influence their decisions leading up to Sandy (2012)?

  • We watched a video (MP4 Video 22.2MB Nov2 12) of a Mystic Seaport Staff member discussing Irene and Sandy evacuations.
  • Class discussion after the video.

1000-1010: Stakeholders in an evacuation (students volunteered a list that I wrote on board, which was based on their assigned reading of the New York Times August 28, 2012, article on Hurricane Isaac).

And what goes into an evacuation decision? (They volunteered: science/NHC predictions of when/where/magnitude, local hazard assessments (e.g., flood zones), risk to population, etc.) We also discussed that the president of the United States does not decide, nor does the governor—both are involved in issuing a state of emergency, but local evacuation is done by town/county/parish officials.

Unit 6:

Teaching tip: Since I teach in an interdisciplinary program, students requested that next time we are doing more policy-heavy topics (particularly Unit 6), our policy professor be invited to contribute. While not necessary, bringing in a guest instructor or moderator for the debate might help students internalize the importance of the interdisciplinary perspective for natural hazards policy.

1010-1039: Evacuation exercise Evacuation scenario student handout (Acrobat (PDF) 410kB Jul17 14) from Unit 6. Students worked in pairs for 10 minutes: I assigned each group one of our local stakeholders. Then, they presented their recommendation for evacuation (all said yes, varying time of evacuation based on interests) to the group. There was student-student discussion and I wrote on the board. Stakeholders we used: (1) fire department, (2) department of transportation, (3) scientists from the Connecticut DEP, (4) owners of the Drawbridge Ice Cream Shop, (5) the local Red Cross chapter, and (6) the director of Williams-Mystic (functions like president of a college in decisions like this).

1039-1044: Assessment Assessment 3 (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 42kB Mar28 13): Students wrote an in-class essay for 5 minutes on the complexity of making a decision to evacuation and their own thoughts on evacuation. Assessment 3: Student Responses (Acrobat (PDF) 1017kB Mar28 13).

1044-1045: Summary and what to look for, and questions to ask people, on the Louisiana field seminar next week.

I was also able to teach an abbreviated case study in Fall 2012, during Hurricane Sandy.

In advance of the storm, I gave the following assignment to the students Friday: Documenting Hurricane Sandy (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 125kB Nov1 12). On Tuesday and Thursday, I taught two classes. Conditions were somewhat unusual, as documented below.

October 30, 2012

Lisa Gilbert (, written October 31, 2012

Our town is mostly still without power from Superstorm Sandy—no cell service, running water, etc. However, our lab has a generator and is the evacuation center for Mystic Seaport. Students have been sleeping here the last couple of nights (as our Fall 2011 students did [different students] for Irene in August 2011).

We decided to have class Tuesday morning to talk about the storm. I was scheduled to trial parts of our module in development anyway. Our classroom session was 65 minutes (18 Williams-Mystic students, 4 staff, 3 interested evacuated-others present):

  • I led Activity 1.1 (Hazard and Risk) and already have modified it slightly based on student responses. Then, we did Unit 2 (Hurricane Formation) and Activity 3.3 (How Big is the Storm?), and I modified Activity 3.2 for Sandy to discuss how we tracked the storm, what we expected from predictions, how predictions were made, and why all the hype around this storm. I showed the latest tide data and some photos I had taken on my way into work. The discussion quickly moved to how human development is at odds with natural phenomena such as hurricanes. We also shared limited reports of fires in New York, one student's parents in New Jersey experienced very strong winds and flooding, and students shared their own perceptions of the storm from our evacuation center at the lab.
  • We also discussed the preparations we made. Some of the students helped with moving to higher ground the museum's collections and heavy benches that become battering rams in floods. Two of our staff members live on a road that had mandatory evacuation, but decided to stay. They shared the 25–30 times police on loudspeakers ordered them out of their house because there would be no way out. I interviewed one of them: Staff interview (MP4 Video 22.2MB Nov2 12).

November 1, 2012

Lisa Gilbert (, written November 1, 2012

Half of our students are still spending nights in the classroom where I teach and eating from the adjacent kitchenette. The other half have been cleared to return to their homes down the street.

In an 80-minute class today (10 Williams-Mystic students, 5 laptops, Internet access):

  • I used the following handout to lead Activity 3.2 (35 min): Student Handout (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 1.2MB Nov1 12) and used the coastal development images from Activity 5.2.
    • The hurricane tracker part worked well, and students had fun playing with all the options. We were interested to find out that Mystic has a higher recurrence interval for hurricanes than any of their hometowns (North Carolina to Vermont). It was also interesting that the Hurricane of '38, a major force altering our region, did not appear until we selected a 100 nm radius.
    • I found this was too much "worksheet" for my normal class format, but we broke up each two-page piece with discussion (after they turned in answers).
  • Students came up to the board, and each wrote two preparations they made before Superstorm Sandy. They also shared their own documentation of storm preparations, as instructed by this assignment (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 125kB Nov1 12) (15 min).
  • We discussed evacuating before a hurricane, when to do it, why to do it or now, and who decides (30 min). During the discussion, students generated lists of stakeholders and decision-makers in an evacuation. They also shared the variety of perspectives from each stakeholder and decision-maker on hearing/making the call to evacuate (the essence of Unit 6, but without a debate).
    • List of stakeholders:
      • insurance company
      • business owner
      • landlord
      • homeowner
      • scientist
      • town utility worker
      • utilities company
      • emergency responder
    • List of decision-makers
      • federal government
      • state government
      • local (town/city/county/parish) government
    • List of relevant questions in evacuating:
      • When to issue evacuation order?
        • too soon and worry of "cry wolf," plus drain on resources
        • too late and increase risk that people are stranded and need dangerous/costly rescue, stuck in traffic
      • Who pays?
        • Connecticut governor asked federal government for a declared "State of Emergency" in advance of the hurricane to allow access to funds
      • Where to go?
        • towns must have centers ready/stocked in advance (also costly)
        • special facilities for the elderly/infirm?
      • How is word spread?
        • Here, police officers with megaphones drove up and down mandatory evacuation areas 25 to 30 times in several hours, saying, "This road has a mandatory evacuation. You must leave your home by 7 p.m. tonight. An evacuation center has been set up at Fitch High School. Pets are welcome. This road has a mandatory evacuation. You must leave your home by 7 p.m. tonight."
        • radio
        • web
        • word of mouth—people on the street


I limited my homework assignments to 15 minutes each for various reasons specific to the Williams-Mystic interdisciplinary curriculum, but by increasing assignments to 45–60 minutes of homework before each class, the activities I omitted could be included to be taught within a 1.5–2 week module.

The assessment I found most engaging was Activity 3.2 (Embedded Assessment B) because as students were working on it, they asked many interesting questions. Several students told me that the Hurricane Tracker was the best part of class that day, and helped them relate the hurricane science to what they were learning in other courses (e.g., reading Conrad's novel Typhoon) and to the other topics we have discussed in class (e.g., marsh accretion, geostrophic currents). I think Activity 3.2 was the most engaging part of the module for this group of students.

The final assessment, Assessment 3 (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 42kB Mar28 13), was helpful for evaluating the students' depth of complexity and personal connections to making a decision to evacuate. Assessment 3: Student Responses (Acrobat (PDF) 1017kB Mar28 13). Later in the semester, they returned to these reflections when examining relevant case law in their Marine Policy course.


The three most important things I had hoped students would get out of the module were:

  • Improve their abilities to use data of present conditions and past storms to use forecast cones to make recommendations
  • Synthesize/draw the interconnectedness between atmosphere, ocean, land, and society
  • Empathize with the many stakeholders in an evacuation and reflect on the difficulty of evacuation decisions from both the personal and societal perspectives

I observed that the students did all these things and much more. Students showed pride in being able to make solid recommendations from the forecast data, and to be able to sleuth out the identity of a past hurricane we cored in the marsh. The week after I taught the module, we engaged in a weeklong interdisciplinary field seminar in southeast Louisiana, during which students asked many insightful and sensitive questions of the people we met. Students remarked that the module helped prepare them to maximize that experience. Students also gave excellent feedback about how much they appreciated having a marine policy expert to go to with many of the legal questions that arose during our classes.

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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 »