Teaching about Hazards

Concepts on this page were derived from faculty discussions at the workshop, Teaching about Risk and Resilience workshop, held in May 2014.
Hazards provide an exciting and powerful opportunity to engage students in learning about science, sustainability, risk, resilience, and environmental justice. Whether students experience hazards first-hand or not, they are likely to know someone who is affected by a hazard or to learn about hazards through the media or social media. The resources below provide guidance for teaching the different facets of sustainability, risk, and resilience by utilizing hazards - past, present, and future. Learn more about teaching about risk and resilience and about teaching about environmental justice across the curriculum.

Where does teaching about hazards fit into the curriculum?

Hazards can be taught in a variety of contexts and, as such, are powerful vehicles for inter- and cross-disciplinary teaching. In order to teach students about risk, resilience, and sustainability or environmental justice in the face of hazards, they need to understand the basic scientific of the hazard itself, the societal, economic, and environmental impacts, as well as the stakeholders for these impacts.

Examples of these cross- and interdisciplinary topics include:

  • Risk assessment and management. This includes topics such as planning where and how buildings are constructed and emergency management plans in the wake of a hazard. The Federal Subcommittee on Disaster Reduction website may provide helpful resources for this.
  • Economics of natural hazards and risks.
  • Social justice in the face of a disaster.
  • Hazards and social science:
    • explore challenges faced in different societal contexts around the country and around the world. This illuminates problems and opportunities, while building national and international understanding and respect.
    • explore factors that contribute to why people live where they live and behave as they do in high hazard zones (e.g. building in flood plains or on unstable slopes that are prone to mudslides).
  • Hazards and public policy: show how natural hazards relate to public policy (at local, state, and national level)

Effective strategies for teaching about hazards

The dramatic nature of hazards make them particularly engaging in both scientific and social aspects of an event. Movies and media play a large role in contributing to the interest that goes along with natural disasters, and just-in-time teaching type approaches can be used when real hazard events occur. Below are some strategies for teaching about hazards in the classroom. For specific examples, see these collections of activities and courses with a focus on teaching about hazards. For further information, learn more about pedagolgical considerations for teaching about hazards.

  • Use stories, images, numbers, and details to make risks more tangible. This is an important aspect of engaging students and empowering them to address solutions. However, also exercise caution since these can produce strong emotional responses in students.
  • Frame a class activity over specific debates: What is resiliency? Who pays for a disaster? Should we rebuild?
  • Look at how 3 different communities respond to hazards. For example, compare the communities' level of preparedness for sea-level rise or extreme weather events.
  • Role play an activity where students act as stake holders in order to address risk scenarios and mitigation strategies. Developing a Risk Communication Strategy, an activity by Bruno Takahashi, takes this idea a step further to have students practice communicating about risk.
  • Evaluate the risk of not doing anything about sea level rise and climate change.
  • Explore local hazards and risks. For example, the activity Usefulness of Google Earth/Wikimapia as risk predictor and damage/ resilience assessment tools by Charlene Sharpe, Rutgers University, uses data and tools to explore local hazards.
  • Build students' quantitative skills. Using absolute numbers instead of stats can help convey quantitative data to students in a more relatable form.

Opportunities to strengthen teaching about hazards

Understanding and responding to hazards lends itself to instruction in many different disciplines: science courses can incorporate information on the conditions and factors that increase or reduce the probability of hazards occurring; social science courses can delve into environmental justice and societal impacts of hazards and response to hazards; engineering courses can explore ways to prepare for and mitigate damage from hazards; public policy and economics courses can engage students in discussion about regulations, response, and allocation of resources to respond to hazards. Below are some specific ways to bring teaching about hazards in the classroom:

  • Explore the life cycle of a hazard through to disaster level (what can students do to prepare). Do families and communities have a preparedness plan? Have students assess the hazard and then formulate a plan to help them prepare.
  • Talk about long term hazards in terms of planning for meeting basic needs (food/shelter)
  • Utilize technologies such as GIS and Google Maps to look at weather paths, evacuation plans, etc.
  • Engage students in service learning projects or local community groups and have them practice their communication skills by giving community presentations to disseminate their results.
  • Examine how to use social media to better understand specific hazards: mine Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for pictures, stories, etc. to have student recreate narratives of real experiences and stories and to connect to the material.
  • Create a community group (e.g., researcher, emergency manager, community leader) and pool information and resources to assist in public awareness and preparedness. This could be funded by community research funding opportunities, such as resilience training in communities.
Learn more about Teaching about Hazards in the Geosciences from On the Cutting Edge. This module includes specific: