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Joan Ramage: Teaching Natural Hazards and Risks: Hurricanes in Introduction to Environmental Science at Lehigh University

About this Course

A large introductory environmental science course for majors and non-majors.

75
students
Two 75-minute lecture
sessions
No required lab

Private university

Syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 81kB Mar4 14)
This course in introductory environmental science focuses on an integrated system-level approach to understanding our natural environment at all space scales, and on human time scales.

Course Goals:

  • Build a greater understanding of environmental systems
  • Increase systems-level thinking
  • Identify interactions between natural and human systems and their components
  • Understand space scales as they related to the system components

Course Content

Concepts to be covered span natural and human-induced drivers of environmental change, consequences within ecosystems, physical systems, and social systems, and options for mitigation of and adaptation to environmental change. Example topics include change within systems, biogeochemical cycles, population pressure, ecosystems and diversity, productivity and food security, energy, water resources, climate change, pollution, ozone, urban issues, and sustainability. The course will stress interactions and interrelationships between components, with an emphasis on critical thinking about environmental issues.

A Success Story in Building Student Engagement

The Hurricane Hazards module was used a two-week portion of a large introductory Earth and Environmental Sciences class (Introduction to Environmental Science), part of the Earth and Environmental Sciences Department at Lehigh University. Classes met twice per week and there was no required lab. The course was primarily taught by one of my colleagues, so I was a guest for the purposes of module testing. The module introduced more hands-on and interactive activities than was typical in this lecture format course. By the end of the module, students were increasingly interactive with each other and able to discuss the overall scenario.

I tried to link the material in the module with their personal experiences with recent storms, and I think that helped students to have more engagement and ownership of the topic.

My Experience Teaching with InTeGrate Materials

I wanted to give the students some interactive experiences even though it was a large lecture format course, so I selected activities in which they would be doing something and have to respond back. I added some material (which is now incorporated into the module) to walk the students through some of the exercises, such as the hurricane tracker, and the Excel spreadsheet on ACE. We also incorporated more examples from Superstorm Sandy because it had recently occurred and directly affected many within our student population. Incorporating the different circumstances and responses to Hurricanes Irene (2011) and Sandy (2012) was a really interesting component of the module.

Relationship of InTeGrate Materials to my Course

The two weeks of this module were taught during the part of the course for hurricanes and right after a unit on climate and climate change. I used selected parts of the module because it was only two weeks (four class periods) and included no lab.

Before Implementing Module Materials: Brief intro to this segment of the course at the end of previous class

I did a few minutes on hurricanes today to set the stage for next two weeks of class. We did the pre-assessment questions as part of a quiz (3 assessments + 7 quiz questions on the day's class).

  • 10 question "quiz" with pre-assessments (5 min or less)
  • Provided overview of some college-wide lectures coming up the next week and strongly encouraged students to go.
  • Circulated a signup sheet for focus groups.
  • Asked them about bringing laptops to class, and found that pretty much everyone can (and in fact did already). Let them know that we will use them for a later activity (Hurricane Tracker in Unit 3] since we are too large a class (~80) to use the computer lab (~24).
  • Assigned the Jared Diamond article about risk and the Unit 1b "calculate your risk" from a hurricane as homework.

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

Materials needed in preparation:

  • Copy of Jared Diamond article with notes about questions I plan to ask
  • Copy of homework assignment with my example
  • Slides about risk to go over homework (optional, I will need to gauge need)
  • Blank paper for sketching exercise at the end (ended up forgetting this, so they used notebook paper or scrap or previous assignment)
  • Markers

Class overview & announcements:

  • Students will need to bring iPad/laptop to next class
  • Student focus group after class; passed around signup sheet for meetings

Unit 1:

Discussion of Jared Diamond article on risk (~5 min). It was hard to get students to talk, but they gradually warmed up and contributed some ideas. I asked them how many took a shower this morning, to try to get more engagement, and got some pretty good responses and laughter. (Note: it is relevant to the Diamond article). I asked: What is the main message of the article?

Wrote some things on the board.


What is difference between hazard and risk? [This was ~15 min. Slightly easier to get participation.]

  • I posed some questions about hazard and risk using cartoon, "What are the hazards and what are the risks?" (see Unit 1)
  • How could the woman in the cartoon minimize her risks?
  • Had them discuss with neighbor and then report back to class, then I wrote the pooled ideas on the board.

Unit 2:

Hurricane Formation. Link with personal experiences/Hurricane Sandy

  • Motivate study of hurricane hazards and risks by connecting to stories in the news.
  • Asked them about their own experiences with Irene and Sandy. What were their impacts? How were they different?
  • Introduced the risk calculation (risk = likelihood x cost). I asked them if they would be more comfortable going over ideas, not just homework, and quite a few said yes, so went through overview slides. They were reasonably active at answering questions posed on the PowerPoint slides (better than if I just asked them things).
  • Discussion of homework. Hard to get more than one answer (New Jersey), but eventually I did get a few others.
  • Went through slides on what is a hurricane, hurricane formation and characteristics. [We now have a video as part of the module]
  • Ended with having them sketch links between ocean–atmosphere–human systems (collected pictures). Some excellent. Some a joke—not thinking/engaging/caring. Frustrating.
  • Showed video supplement on hurricane formation. I should have done this earlier. I thought it would be good as a wrap-up because it leads into the hurricane impacts which will be our discussion for next time, but in retrospect, it seemed like it also would have been good as a lead-in to the sketching exercise.

Unit 3 (taught during the second class period)

Unit 3:

Overview (5 min)

We will talk about hurricane paths (tracks), making landfall, followed by terrestrial impacts of hurricanes after they make landfall. For homework they will do the recurrence interval assignment. Next time we will talk about costs, infrastructure, and introduction to decision-making. For the final piece they will do a panel discussion to decide whether to evacuate and when.

Intro to hurricane tracker. (5 min) I used a PowerPoint that I made for this :
Hurricane Tracker intro and questions (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 1.5MB Sep9 15). I improved it by making sure the link they need is on the PowerPoint list of questions because a lot of them went to the wrong one using CourseSite; they did not pay attention and then got confused. For me to go back and show it to them required me to take the questions away. We also updated it to be based on a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) tracker because it is more stable than the original weather.com one.

  • Worked on the hurricane tracker exercise (10 min, I circulated). Students worked individually or in pairs on hurricane tracker and answered questions on a worksheet: recurrence interval worksheet for PA (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 57kB May6 13)

One student asked if he could use an iPad, which I had not thought of. It worked really well.

Use the historical hurricane tracker to look into local area (10 min)

  • PowerPoint on impacts of hurricanes, general, focus on Irene (20 min, includes video)impacts slides used (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 11MB May6 13) [Note that updated version is in module]
  • Asked them for input on how Sandy was different and their own experiences.
  • Got into the actual data about rivers. (I skipped the coastal exercise given the large size of the class and the fact that I would have had to print out a lot of paper.) This slideshow was nice, but I did not make it nearly as hands-on as would have been nice, at least in an ideal world. (20 min)
  • Overall I went into this class worrying about the timing, but then in the course itself I felt a bit rushed. The students were not as engaged in the tracker exercise as I expected, but then the second part felt a bit rushed.

I assigned them a homework assignment on hurricane size: "Is this hurricane above average?" Assigned them to look over the ACE calculations and come to class with answers to the last three questions. I gave them the data in Excel, and I also plotted it for them. I decided that it was more important to discuss the data than for me to spend time showing them how to import data into Excel. If I were teaching the whole class, I would probably include the Excel background for this student level at some point.

Other thoughts: It would be nice to have a handout or PowerPoint to introduce the hurricane tracker—tracker.pptx (also incorporated into the PowerPoint that I actually used). See module for this.

Preview of Thursday 4/11: impacts - long term changes, coastal changes, ACE data with plots used in homework assignment ( )

Unit 4 (taught during the third class period)

Unit 4:

Prior to class (on 4/9)

Assigned them to look over the ACE calculations and come to class with answers to the last three questions

  • I gave them the data in Excel, and I also plotted it for them. I decided that it was more important to discuss the data than for me to spend time showing them how to import data into Excel. If I were teaching the whole class, I would probably include this at some point.
  • Slides comparing hurricanes —there is some in-progress Sandy material in there which I fixed
  • Discussion of ACE and the results that they got for their homework
  • Looked at decadal data and had a discussion about whether the hazard has changed and a discussion about whether the risk has changed
  • Students were asked to do a comparison of the images of Far Rockaway. (Note, I did not update the data, but I did update the handout to make it all fit on one two-sided sheet.)
  • What are the costs of preparing for a hurricane?
  • Brainstorm—think news, personal experience, disruptions. Write stuff on board. Questions?
  • Looked at some of the Unit 4.3 slides (comparing Hurricanes Irene and Sandy)

For next time, we want to pose the question of how people respond in an emergency and how previous experience with hurricanes might impact their behavior.

Prediction—think about ACE, getting it right, human nature

Assign the Isaac article. Need to have them read the Isaac article prior to next class: Hurricane Isaac Makes Landfall Along Gulf Coast, from the New York Times.

Talked about what a stakeholder was, that we are going to discuss the pros and cons of whether to evacuate from a particular scenario next time, and they will be asked to take on the perspective of one of the stakeholders. Must remember to assign them to come to class next time with a list of five stakeholders.

Unit 5 & Unit 6 (taught during the fourth class period)

Unit 5:

Unit 6:

Want to pose the question of "how people respond in an emergency and how previous experience with hurricanes might impact their behavior."

  • We talked about what a stakeholder was and I assigned them to come to class next time with a list of five stakeholders. We are going to discuss the pros and cons of whether to evacuate from a particular scenario next time, and they will be asked to take on the perspective of one of the stakeholders.
  • It took us at least 5 minutes just to get started and get people talking. I reminded them about what a stakeholder is and how to think about this. It was a bit frustrating and probably stemmed at least partly from the fact that this was the most integrative part of the unit, but they were not used to participating in the rest of the class format. We came up with a great list, selected a subset to emphasize, and then had the students role-play the recommendations.
  • Discuss with like stakeholders (15 min, summarize position, arguments). It was challenging to get volunteers/choices, but they did a fairly good job representing their positions, with the exception that they hedged a lot about taking a stand; they had good reasons for both stay and go, and did not want to decide. Most groups leaned toward evacuate, even if reluctant. It might be worth thinking about best ways to phrase the question or rubric.
  • We followed up with an interview of a Williams-Mystic staff member regarding her decision not to evacuate her home during Superstorm Sandy 2012, based in part on her previous experiences when she evacuated from Hurricane Irene in 2011. In retrospect I should have shown this video earlier to help with their thinking in the discussion.

As the authorship team, we discussed best ways to do this with a big class. Here is one approach that requires some advance planning:

Assign each role to 12 students; they will later participate in a larger jigsaw (learn more about Jigsaws). For homework, each student prepares a one-page statement (decision-makers generate a list of questions to ask panelists). Then, in the first 15 minutes of class, all the "mass transit officials" gather in one part of the room to discuss their position statements (compare notes, as it were). If it were me, I suppose I would spend my time in the first part with the decision-maker group, reviewing with them how to conduct a panel.

Next, for 20–25 minutes, the groups reorganize with one stakeholder each (some may be missing a person but that would be OK) and have a debate with six stakeholders and one decision maker each. You could have a beeper go off every 2 minutes during the debate portion, so that the students know when to move on to the next stakeholder in their groups. The instructor visits each of the 12 groups for 1–2 minutes each and listens.

Finally, the last part, each decision-maker (or a few of them?) could report back to the whole class with their decision and the strongest/most swaying evidence given by panelists for and against that decision. Instructor makes a list on the board and makes concluding remarks about the difficulty of the process. Each student could do a 3-minute self/peer evaluation of (a) each stakeholder's delivery, (b) each stakeholder's logic/reasoning, and (c) how on-task and insightful the the moderator's questions were, using a 1–5 scale for each.

Assessments

Students were assessed through quiz questions, concept diagrams, descriptions of land use changes, and a collaborative effort to choose roles and role-play what to do in an evacuation emergency in a local setting. Overall learning in the course was assessed with quizzes and tests. Module learning was assessed with a pre/post assessment, an attitudes assessment, homework, in-class assignments such as response diagrams related to the material, a panel discussion, and sketches of observations.

Outcomes

I hoped that students would recognize the important connections between ocean, the atmosphere, the land surface, and human systems. They are asked to explore past data sets and make their own observations in the process of learning about hurricanes. Throughout the module I observed students discussing how to make decisions about science and society based on data and their recent past experiences. It was great to see the students learning to grapple with data sets and how to make choices with limited information. Many students rose to the occasion in thinking about how hurricanes impact both communities and individuals.

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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 »