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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.

12
students
Two 75-minute lecture
sessions
One 3.5-hour lab
weekly
3 weeks
at sea on a research/training vessel and on coastal field seminars
Small, four-year liberal arts
college
Syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 178kB Jul15 14)

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.

Assessments

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.

Outcomes

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 »