Drawing Disaster Impacts

Sara Stone, Harvard University
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In this activity, students work together in small groups to explore different natural hazards that are affected by anthropogenic influence, including storms, droughts, floods, fires and heatwaves. The group work is complemented by a homework assignment where students must think creatively to design an innovation to mitigate the impact of a given disaster.

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Learning Goals

Content/concepts goals

  • To identify and explain the anthropogenic drivers of increasingly severe natural disasters.
  • To relate the potential direct and indirect impacts of different disasters, assessing the different settings and scales in which they occur.
  • To examine local, regional and global actions that perpetuate or exacerbate disasters and understand the facilitating policy framework.
  • To recognize cross-disciplinary areas for research and innovation in disaster resilience, spanning across the traditionally environmental or medically-focused efforts.

Higher order thinking skills goals

  • Information synthesis
  • Evaluation of actors and priorities
  • Formulation of innovation hypothesis

Other skills goals

  • Small group work
  • Oral presentation
  • Written communication
  • Creative thinking

Context for Use

Type and level of course
This assignment is ideal for undergraduate level students who already have a basic understanding of climate systems and anthropogenic change, however it could very easily be adapted to an introductory survey course for environmental sciences.

Skills and concepts students should have mastered
An understanding of types of anthropogenic change, and climate systems is very helpful, and the multidisciplinary combination of having an understanding of international policy, health sciences, and economics helps to boost the quality of group discussion and innovation development.

How the activity is situated in the course
This activity serves as a stand-alone exercise that, when coupled with brief case examples of different hazard scenarios, can cement an understanding of systems thinking and the value of transdisciplinary work.

Description and Teaching Materials

Divide your students into smaller groups (at least 5 groups). Provide each group with a different picture of a natural hazard or write the hazard on a piece of paper for that group. Ask groups to list how their assigned natural disaster could affect their lives in the short term, medium term and long term, considering both direct and indirect impacts. As groups begin, listen in on discussions and ask students why? to encourage thinking through the systems that result in a given impact. After 15-20 minutes of group time, elect one representative from each group to present to the class. Facilitate a classroom discussion to explore similarities in impact across disaster types, bring out underlying reasons for why natural hazards might impact some communities more than others, and identify policies that increase the risk of or exacerbate the impacts of disasters.

As a homework activity, ask students to explore a specific natural disaster (e.g. 2005 Hurricane Katrina in USA, ongoing East African severe drought) and design an innovation to mitigate the impact of a disaster of a similar scale and in a similar region.
Teaching Activity (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 138kB May5 17)

Teaching Notes and Tips


The activity can contribute to a participation grade while the homework assignment could be built out into a mid-term essay assignment.

References and Resources

The Planetary Health Alliance Education Platform is a beta site for teaching planetary health sciences at the undergraduate level and hosts this activity under the Natural Disasters subsection of Ecosystem Transformations.