Natural Disasters

Robert Clayton,
Brigham Young University-Idaho


Natural Disasters at BYU-Idaho is an interdisciplinary, case studies-based course about the risks, causes, effects, and mitigation of natural hazards. Via case studies, students examine issues in geology, hydrology, engineering, government, zoning, history, art, and social science. The course includes a field trip to the Teton Dam and site of the 1959 Hebgen Lake earthquake and avalanche.

Course Size:
greater than 150

Course Format:
Lecture only

Institution Type:
Private four-year institution, primarily undergraduate

Course Context:

This is a general education elective taken after a first-semester basic science required course. Our student body is from all 50 states and over 50 countries, and about one third are multilingual. This semester, 603 students are enrolled in 12 sections -- they fill up as many as we create. Another 12 sections are online.

Course Content:

We cover risk and mitigation in depth, and the economic and social impacts of natural disasters. The rest of the topics include earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, landslides, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, and coastal hazards, with several case studies in each. Related topics include seismic engineering, historical impacts, economic impacts, community and governmental decision-making, and influence of disasters on art and literature.

Course Goals:

A major goal of this course is to equip students with the power to make sound decisions regarding natural hazards. A subtitle for this course is "Where Not To Build a House." They learn to identify floodplains, ancient landslides, buildings in need of seismic retrofit, volcanic hazards, storm surge and tsunami-prone areas, and erosion hazards. The goal is that these future government leaders, zoning board members, and property buyers will be equipped to make sound decisions regarding natural hazards.

Course Features:

This course is designed around a series of case studies that vividly illustrate the risks, causes, effects, and impacts of natural disasters. Our capstone is a field trip to the Teton dam, which failed in 1976, and the site of the 1959 Hebgen Lake earthquake just west of Yellowstone. The resiliency of the Rexburg area communities that were destroyed by the dam flood (as it's known locally) are legendary.

Course Philosophy:

BYU-Idaho's motto is "innovation in education." Our general education program, of which Natural Disasters is a part, is called "Foundations," and is designed to be interdisciplinary in every course. There are no "101" courses, but instead "issues" courses in sciences, humanities, social sciences, and so forth, all of which tie together the related threads. That's why students in Natural Disasters study things like seismic engineering, history, and even art during the semester. The Foundations philosophy also emphasizes case studies and group (team) work.


Assessments take the form of online quizzes, exams, research papers on case studies, and in-class presentations/discussions of the case studies. Quizzes cover the reading material to be completed before class, which results in better preparation for in-class discussions. Students work in groups on case study presentations/discussions, in which they teach the class.


Natural Disasters Syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 20kB Mar20 14)

References and Notes:

We developed our own text using mostly government resources, photographs and videos made by our faculty, and other public domain materials.