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Patricia Stapleton: Using Major Storms and Community Resilience in American Public Policy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute

About this Course

An introductory course for all majors; often taken to fulfill general social science requirement.


Two 110 minute lecture sessions
per week for 7 weeks

American Public Policy Syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 74kB Jun21 16)

American Public Policy focuses on the outcomes or products of political institutions and political controversy. The course first addresses the dynamics of policy formations and stalemate, the identification of policy goals, success and failure in implementation, and techniques of policy analysis. Students are then encouraged to apply these concepts in the study of a specific policy area of their choosing, such as foreign, social, urban, energy or environmental policy. This course is an important first step for students wishing to complete IQPs in public policy research. Students are encouraged to complete GOV 1303 prior to enrolling in upper level policy courses such as GOV 2303, GOV 2304 or GOV 2311. There is no specific preparation for this course, but a basic understanding of American political institutions is assumed.
Students' understanding of the course material is evaluated through their completed in-class activities, homework assignments, and a midterm exam. Students are also evaluated for their work in teams as stakeholders for a town hall-style meeting. At the end of the term, students will be able to: hold an informed discussion on American policymaking (our institutions and processes); understand the basic concepts and theories of public policy studies; and identify public policy problems and potential policy solutions. You will apply this knowledge by producing a final report from a stakeholder position and representing those interests in a policymaking session.

A Success Story in Building Student Engagement

Students often take my public policy class to fulfill a basic social science requirement at our science and engineering institution. As a result, I wanted to provide my science and engineering majors with content that would engage them and demonstrate the links between policy and their other studies. The Major Storms and Community Resilience module provided the opportunity to bring geoscience data into my social science classroom, with an interdisciplinary approach.

The students responded positively to the module, especially the town hall debate. Although they were initially reluctant about the debate format - mostly worried about speaking in front of their classmates - the teams did an excellent job of representing their interests and negotiating with other groups to come to shared recommendations.
The final papers demonstrated that students had worked hard to craft thoughtful policy recommendations in a community context.

My Experience Teaching with InTeGrate Materials

The original materials had too many activities for our intended timeline of 3 weeks. Due to time constraints, I did not implement the Coastal Erosion Activity or the Debris Removal Activity.

Relationship of InTeGrate Materials to my Course

My course runs for a 7-week term (~1/2 a traditional semester). The module was implemented in the 2nd Spring term at WPI (March-May 2016). The first half of the course focused on establishing the basic theories and concepts of American public policy. The module was incorporated as an in-depth case study to demonstrate theoretical and conceptual application. The course also focused on the role of scientific experts in public policymaking and the importance of risk assessment, risk management, and resilience in policy processes. Thus, the module gave students the opportunity to explore policymaking approaches in a real-world policy issue area.

As noted in the "My Experience Teaching with InTeGrate Materials" section, I needed to revise the original syllabus in order to complete the key components of the module's materials. Although the student population in my course is science and engineering majors, as a core curriculum requirement, I had students with a range of backgrounds and at different levels (freshmen to seniors). This meant that I could not rely on the whole class having a basic understanding of stats, for example, or the concepts of risk, risk assessment, and risk management. In addition, as an introductory public policy course, I had to first establish the different theoretical approaches of the field and prepare students for using data to support their recommendations. For a 3-week module, this was a bit of a tall order. However, the module did work very well with some tweaks. The outline below shows the work the class accomplished over the three weeks. I removed the optional activities that required a higher-level of geoscience knowledge. The included activities do provide the important, fundamental concepts of geoscientific thinking integrated with social science and emergency management. While some students found the topic of major storms less exciting than other potential public policy issues, they found value in completing the different activities and assignments.


Public Policymaking in Action: Disaster Preparedness
  • Reading: Vocabulary of storms and storm systems; Government Risk Assessment Overview; Fundamentals of Emergency Management by Lindell, Prater, & Perry (Chapter 6: Hazard, Vulnerability and Risk, pages 153-191).
  • Assignments due: none.
  • In-class activity: Pre-unit assessment survey; Concept map; Probability and Comparative Probabilities of Risk Activity.
CLASS 2: Public Policymaking in Action: Emergency Management
  • Reading: Fundamentals of Emergency Management by Lindell, Prater, & Perry (Chapter 7: Hazard Mitigation, pages 192-220); The Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina: Lessons Learned (Chapter 1: Katrina in Perspective).
  • Assignments due: HVA Activity.
  • In-class activity: Complete Probability and Comparative Probabilities of Risk Activity, class discussion of team HVAs, start HMP Activity.


CLASS 3: Public Policymaking in Action: Determining Hazards & Risks
  • Reading: "Hurricane Sandy Retrospective Analysis from 2014 New York City Hazard Mitigation Plan; The Science Behind Superstorm Sandy's Crippling Storm Surge; Blizzard of '93: Why Was It the Storm of the Century?; and Superstorm: Eastern and Central U.S., March 1993.
  • Assignments due: Completed HMP activity.
  • In-class activity: Post-unit assessment survey, Sea-level Rise Activity.

CLASS 4: Public Policymaking in Action: Hazard Mitigation
  • Reading: State of Massachusetts Hazard Mitigation Plan; MA Press Releases.
  • Assignments due: Press Release Activity.
  • In-class activity: Press Release peer review; Concept map revision.


CLASS 5: Public Policymaking in Action: Risk Communication
  • Reading: Chapter 7 of the CDC's Crisis, Emergency, Risk Communication 2014 Edition; The Geological Society of America's Position Statement: Geoscience and Natural Hazards Policy.
  • Assignments due: Press Release Revision Assignment; HMP Comment Form Assignment.
  • In-class activity: Stakeholder brainstorming session.
24 hrs before CLASS 6
  • Assignments due: Debate Talking Points! Must be posted to Blackboard 24 hours before Class 6.
CLASS 6: Town Hall Meeting
  • Reading: All stakeholders talking points.
  • Assignments due: Preparation for in-class Town Hall.
  • In-class activity: Town Hall Meeting on hazard mitigation for major storms.
CLASS 7: Course Debrief
  • Reading: None.
  • Assignments due: Final copies of position papers; post-instruction attitudinal survey.
  • In-class activity: Debrief on town hall meeting; course evaluations.


The town hall debate and final policy paper were an excellent assessment of students' gains over the course of the term. They brought together the three interdisciplinary strands (geoscience, public policy, and emergency management), and showed students how natural hazard risk assessment and management is a collection of many stakeholders and positions. Students enjoyed talking through their ideas in the town hall format. Moving forward, I will use the Talking Points assignment as scaffolding to help students develop their positions for the debate and final paper.


The goal of using this module in my American Public Policy class was to provide a policy issue area that students could explore in-depth. In addition, I wanted something to demonstrate the role of scientific expertise in public policymaking, and the role of politics even in an issue area that seems non-contentious (like weather). The students' final papers went beyond expectations: incorporating data, showing evidence-based support, and considering policymaking from a holistic perspective.

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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 »