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.
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.
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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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:
- 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).
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.
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:
- 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).
- Note: I had several of them ask me what the term "lower 48" meant.
- How many hurricanes made landfall in Connecticut 1851-2010?
- Recurrence interval (average time between hurricanes) in Connecticut?
- = total years / # hurricanes
- (e.g., 150 years / 10 hurr = 15 years/hurricane)
- 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)
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?)
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."
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.
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).
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. Lisa Gilbert (firstname.lastname@example.org), written October 31, 2012 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): Lisa Gilbert (email@example.com), 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):
October 30, 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).
November 1, 2012
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.
Lisa Gilbert (firstname.lastname@example.org), written October 31, 2012
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):
Lisa Gilbert (email@example.com), 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 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.