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Laurel Goodell: Teaching Living on the Edge

Laurel Goodell taught and tested the Living on the Edge module in two settings; at Princeton University in an undergraduate Natural Hazards course, and at a week-long QUEST professional development workshop for schoolteachers.

Teaching Living on the Edge in Natural Hazards at Princeton University

About this course

This is an introductory course primarily taken by non-science majors.

Three 50-minute lecture
One 3-hour lab
Moderate size university

Syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 78kB Aug11 14)

Intended primarily for non=-cience majors, GEO103 is an introductory-level course on natural (and some society-induced) hazards and the importance of public understanding of the issues related to them.

Course Goals:

The goal of the course is to give students:

  • A basic idea of how natural hazards work.
  • Some practical tips on how to avoid becoming a statistic during a natural disaster.
  • An understanding of how disasters impact people even if they are not "victims" (e.g. through the pocketbook).
  • An understanding of how human activity and policy decisions can increase or decrease the risk of disasters.
  • The skills to be educated consumers of scientific information.
  • The skills to think critically about the role of science, and scientists, in influencing public policy.

Course Content

Emphasis is on the geological processes that underlie natural hazards, with discussion of relevant policy issues tied to reading recent newspaper and popular science articles. Topics include earthquakes, volcanoes, landslides, tsunami, hurricanes, floods, meteorite impacts, and global warming.

A Success Story in Building Student Engagement

Living on the Edge materials were used for three of the eleven laboratory sessions, in the middle part of the course. Having the 3-hour lab period plus the ability to assign prework and post-work (assessments) was a great luxury. Among other things I was able to get through the materials more completely than Rachel or Peter were, because I had that extra time—we clearly underestimated how long some of our components would take! For example, I had time to respond to what was giving problems by stopping the class for explanations when it seemed necessary. And since there were five lab sections each week, we essentially had five piloting opportunities for each part of the module! This enabled us to refine things as the week went on, and strengthened our development team's ability to revise the module components.

My Experience Teaching with InTeGrate Materials

Students are well set up for the module materials. Before they get to Living on the Edge, students have had lectures on the concept of risk and plate tectonics, have made extensive use of Google Earth to explore plate tectonic data sets, and have done a seismology lab in which they interpret seismograms. They are used to working in small groups, and theLiving on the Edge labs are timed to coordinate with lectures on the same topics. Units 1 and 2 were combined to be Lab 4 on transform plate boundaries, Units 3 and 4 combined to be Lab 5 on divergent plate boundaries, and Unit 5 and 6 combined to be Lab 6 on convergent plate boundaries. I taught (at least) the first lab section each week, and was present during most of the other lab sessions taught by graduate student TAs, observing and lending help as needed.

Unit 1 and 2, combined to comprise a 3-hour lab on Hazards and Risk at Transform Plate Boundaries

  • Preworks for Units 1 and 2 were combined into one pre-lab assignment that students brought to their lab session. It is important to introduce and discuss the California Earthquake Probability map as part of the prework. This sets the stage and gives an impetus for doing the probability calculations in the classroom activity.
  • Unit 1 and Unit 2 classroom activities were combined into a single lab handout.
  • Students were particularly engaged in the school site evaluation activity and took quite an interest in "their" sites.

Units 3 and 4, combined to comprise a 3-hour lab on Hazards and Risk at Divergent Plate Boundaries

  • This lab went particularly well. Students were intrigued by the idea of underwater volcanism, and really seemed to enjoy the Unit 4 Eyjafjallajokull activity—and the idea that volcanoes give out warning signs, unlike earthquakes.
  • The Unit 3 prework was used for a pre-lab assignment for this lab, with the addition of the Eyjafjallajokull pronunciation question from the Unit 4 prework. The rest of the Unit 4 prework was done as a group after the Unit 3 activity and before the Unit 4 activity.
  • I added a "Jelloea" activity to Unit 4 in order to further illustrate volcano inflation prior to eruption, and demonstrate that intrusion and/or volcanism often involves permanent changes to a volcano's shape. This activity is an extension of a NASA activity that I have used over the years, in which syringes of red-colored water are injected into the base of a gelatin "volcano," making dikes and lava flows. We modified the activity further by adding push pins to the gelatin volcano to represent GPS stations (or tiltmeters), and imagining the distance between GPS stations (or the tilt of tiltmeters) changing as intrusion/volcanism progresses. This is perhaps redundant to the "thought experiment" in the Unit 4 activity, but it is illustrative (and fun) nonetheless.

Units 5 and 6, combined to comprise a 3-hour lab on Hazards and Risk at Convergent Plate Boundaries

  • The Unit 5 prework was used for the pre-lab assigment for this lab.
  • During the lab session, we did the Unit 5 activity, the Unit 6 prework and the Unit 6 activities in succession.
  • At first, students in the "seismology" expert group had trouble reviewing their data sets, and I realized they did not know how to read a drum-type seismic record. That is, they did not realize it was time series arranged in a "spiral" pattern, had a beginning and an end, and timing marks etc., and did not really understand how the record was generated. Luckily, I happen to have a stack of old drum recordings left over from when we used to have such an instrument in the building—many with remote earthquake signals. So I pulled them out and demonstrated how a drum recorder worked, which immediately clarified things.
  • Likewise, students in the Unit 3 tiltmeter group had trouble with interpreting their data—understanding the radial versus tangential components and that you had to know where the station was to interpret the data. In our revisions, we included additional material to the data sets to clarify this for students.
  • Students were particularly engaged in seeing what happened to "their sites" when Mount Rainier erupted.


Assessments were imbedded in group discussions at the end of activities, and also incorporated into post-lab reports designed for students to process and articulate what they had learned in each unit. A probability calculation was given as a question on the mid-term exam, and students did rather poorly on it. We revisited the issue during the post-exam review, and students performed much better on a similar final exam question related to recurrence intervals of flood events. I believe that the way the unit was revised as a result of the piloting experience addresses the issue; participants in the teachers workshop (my second piloting experience), working with the revised version, had much less trouble with the calculations. The summative assessment was included in the final exam and students performed well on that question.


The Living on the Edge materials are a perfect fit for the Natural Hazards course. We not only want students to understand the processes behind natural hazards, but also to understand the concept of risk. In most cases of natural hazards, we cannot mitigate risk by reducing the hazard itself—we cannot control earthquakes and volcanoes, for example. And people and property will always be present in risky areas and thus subject to natural hazards. But much can be done to reduce the vulnerability of people and property, and it is there that strategies for risk mitigation are most effective. These strategies, however, are not always straightforward, without controversy, or easy to achieve. Living on the Edge has students wrestle with these complexities. A final strength of the Living on the Edge module is that it exposes students to authentic data and ways in which scientists, engineers, policy makers and communities actually deal with natural hazards—and helps students develop into better-informed citizens of the world.

Teaching Living on the Edge in a QUEST professional development workshop

About this course

A professional development workshop for 3rd-12th grade teachers.

5 days, 8:30-3:30

no lab


Syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 61kB Sep27 14)

QUEST is a week-long, inquiry-based summer institute, administered by Princeton's Program in Teacher Preparation, and taught by faculty and content specialists from Princeton and neighboring institutions. It is offered to local teachers in both public and private schools, and participants work in small, informal groups in close partnership with their instructors. Each year workshops are offered on several topics, and content is taught at an adult (undergraduate introductory) level. In the spring following the summer institute, teachers attend a symposium at which they share classroom applications of QUEST with their colleagues. I have taught QUEST workshops on a variety of topics for more than a decade.

Course Goals:

QUEST aims to enhance teachers' knowledge of science and mathematics, develop their skills for teaching inquiry-based science and math, and acquaint them with specific ideas and activities to use in their classrooms. The Living on the Edge module was a perfect fit for the QUEST program, and my 2014 workshop was designed specifically with the Living on the Edge content in mind.

Course Content

The subject matter was also timely as New Jersey educators work to develop and implement New Jersey Core Curriculum Content Standards and Next Generation Science Standards. Elements of both are inherent in Living on the Edge module content, not only in terms of content (e.g. "Earth Systems," "Human Impacts" and "Engineering Design") but also practices (e.g. "Analyzing and Interpreting Data" and "Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions").

A Success Story in Building Student Engagement

As has been the case with all of my QUEST workshops, working with teachers is a wonderful experience. The Living on the Edge module and related activities were accomplished Monday-Friday for a week in July, from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.—with breaks for lunch and snacks, of course!

Notable aspects were:

  • I had the teachers' more-or-less undivided attention for the week, and they did not have the extra curricular activities and, indeed, other courses, that distract undergraduates from our courses!
  • I was teaching the whole curriculum in sequence every day, and had the luxury of time, especially for tangents and brief mini-lectures, as circumstances warranted.
  • The teachers were committed, involved, motivated, enthusiastic and good-natured. Game for just about anything! They did not have the pressure of grades, but took the curriculum very seriously.
  • They were especially committed to the InTeGrate piloting aspect. They were thrilled to be part of developing this innovative project (I included InTeGrate and SERC explanatory materials in their binders) and, especially, understood the importance of developing effective assessment instruments. Teachers, of course, have their own assessment issues to deal with in their own working lives!
  • Critical to the success of the workshop was my "lead teacher," an experienced teacher selected from previous QUEST participants, who led "Teacher Talk" sessions throughout the week on classroom applications of Living on the Edge content, and on aligning science instruction with the Common Core & Next Generation Science Standards. This allowed me to concentrate on teaching Living on the Edge content, while giving teachers opportunities to discuss pedagogical issues of direct interest to them.

My Experience Teaching with InTeGrate Materials

There was no work required outside of the workshop, thus all unit activities, including prework assignments and assessments, were adapted and fit into the workshop daily schedule. Unit materials were covered on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of the week. Monday was devoted to preliminaries and exploring the basics of plate tectonics, and on Friday teachers worked on and presented small-group plate boundary projects that they have been working on throughout the week.

Before the workshop

A week before the workshop, we emailed teachers asking them, if possible, to bring a laptop with Google Earth installed. Instructions for doing so were provided: Getting Started with Google Earth (Acrobat (PDF) 70kB Sep27 14). If teachers did not have a computer available to them, we lent them one from the university for the week.

Pre-Unit work (Monday)

Since this was not a standard undergraduate institutional setting, we needed to give teachers the background necessary to getting the most out of the Living on the Edge module. Thus the first day of the workshop was spent on pre-unit activites including:

  • DIscussing the general concept of risk. Participants were asked to name risky situations (non-geologic as well as geologic examples), then describe why they were risky, and finally propose strategies that would increase the risk as well as strategies that would reduce the risk. Proposing these strategies generally requires an understanding the processes/principles underlying the risk.
  • Putting the concept of risk in the context of "Sustainability: Living on the Edge." Participants understood the need to understand the underlying geologic processes at work at active plate boundaries.
  • Most of the rest of the day was spent learning/reviewing the principles behind plate tectonics, using Google Earth exercises developed by the author and modified from Using Google Earth to Explore Plate Tectonics.
  • Reviewing the general characteristics of transform, divergent and convergent plate boundaries.

Units 1 and 2 on Transform Plate Boundaries (Tuesday)

  • In succession, we went through the Unit 1 prework, Unit 1 activities, Unit 2 prework and Unit 2 activities.
  • Things went much more smoothly than my first piloting with the undergraduate course (see above) because we used materials that had been revised as a result of that experience.
  • As a result of the Monday activities, teachers were mostly comfortable using Google Earth, but some preferred working on paper versions of the activities that had a GE version. Things were flexible enough that everyone could work in the format with which they were most comfortable.
  • The luxury of time cannot be overemphasized. This especially was apparent with the Unit 2 discussion of deciding which schools to retrofit, after evaluating the San Francisco school sites for seismic vulnerability. It took on the atmosphere of a public discussion at a town hall meeting, and participants realized the difficulty of making such decisions about using limited resources, and based on incomplete information. (e.g. "Should we retro fit the most vulnerable schools? Or instead focus resources on the least vulnerable sites and move school populations?")
  • Final project work: A final project was introduced, to be presented on the last day of the workshop. A laminated copy of the This Dynamic Planet map was posted in the classroom, on which 15 stickers were placed on various communities on active plate boundaries (e.g. Izmit, Turkey; Easter Island; Concepcion, Chile). Teachers placed their initials on one of the stickers to mark their particular project for the week.

Unit 3 and 4 on Divergent Plate Boundaries (Wednesday)

  • In succession, we went through the Unit 3 prework, Unit 3 activities, Unit 4 prework and Unit 4 activities.
  • We had time to do an extended version of the supplemental "Jelloea" activity (see description above) in small groups, which was a great success. This greatly facilitated understanding of the Unit 4 GPS data from Eyjafjallajokull.
  • There was a range in comfort in various quantitative aspects, ranging from a teacher who had an undergraduate degree in geology and was quantitatively adept, to a few who had a lot of trouble interpreting quantitative data. This was usually overcome by individual tutorials by myself or the lead teacher, or by grouping the participants in various ways so they could help each other.
  • Final project work: At the end of the day, time was given for teachers to research their project site. This included defining the plate boundary setting and researching past events, particular vulnerabilities and/or value, mitigation strategies, etc.

Units 5 and 6 on Convergent Plate Boundaries (Thursday)

  • In succession, we went through the Unit 5 prework, Unit 5 activities, Unit 6 prework and Unit 6 activities.
  • Unit 5 and 6 materials are particularly effective in that participants really do become "experts" in their analysis and interpretation of data, because of the way the exercise is scaffolded. Having to teach their area of expertise to members of the other expert groups is a particularly good way to reinforce this.
  • Participants become interestingly frustrated at not having all the information that they would like—just like scientists in real life.
  • Final project work: participants were given time to self-organize into groups of 2-4 with similar project settings and then tasked with putting together a presentation to give on Friday, the last day of the workshop. We ended up having four groups: one focusing on earthquake risk at transform boundaries, one on volcanism at divergent boundaries, one on volcanism at convergent boundaries, and one on tsunami risk at convergent boundaries.

Post-Unit work (Friday)

  • Final project work and final presentations: Participants finished work on the presentations and gave them to the group as well as to a few other Geosciences Department members and representatives of the teacher preparation program.


We covered most of the formative assessment aspects in the course of post-activity discussions. Although I know time issues are always present, especially in typical undergraduate course settings, instructors should try to give students time for those all-important, end-of-unit discussion questions. During these discussions, I could "see" the QUEST participants really process and understand relevant issues—some of which I did not realize they had been struggling with. I did assign a few as an informal written "midterm" exam at the end of Wednesday (after Unit 4), and on the final day (Friday), teachers completed the written summative assessment (as well as the other InTeGrate piloting pre- and post- instruments). But by far the most interesting and, perhaps, effective assessment was the final project presentation. Teachers had an opportunity to concentrate on a particular site, but then had to find common ground with those with similar sites and prepare a group presentation that related those sites. The vocabulary, organization and analysis used in the presentations demonstrated participants' mastery of Living on the Edge content and ability to apply it to different situations. I will consider how to incorporate a project like this into the undergraduate course in the future.


For the goals and outcomes of the QUEST workshop, I would start by repeating those for the undergraduate Natural Hazards course described above. But the impact of the workshop has the potential to be much broader as teachers return to their schools, instruct their own students, and interact with colleagues and administrators. Comments on the teachers' evaluations of the program were indeed enthusiastic; they expressed confidence in new content knowledge for themselves personally, and in being able to implement strategies for effective science teaching. Additionally, many teachers are apprehensive and insecure about dealing with the Common Core Curriculum and Next Generation Science Standards, and they appreciated seeing how these can be explicitly addressed and embedded in a set of instructional activities. I look forward to a particularly important set of outcomes this spring, when participants return to Princeton for a spring symposium and give presentations illustrating how QUEST has affected what they do in their own classrooms.

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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 »