Natural Hazards and Risk Communication

Kathleen Phillips, Earth Systems, Stanford University


This course will provide an introduction to the science behind natural hazards, the risks associated with these hazards, and effective methods of communicating those risks to a variety of audiences. Recent research has shown that relaying scientific knowledge alone to potentially vulnerable populations does not have a significant impact on increasing their resilience to those hazards. Therefore, it is increasingly important for scientists to become translators of complex technical information for a variety of audiences.

Course Size:

Course Format:
Lecture only

Institution Type:
University with graduate programs, including doctoral programs

Course Context:

This is a new course, that will be taught for the first time next year. It will fulfill Stanford's Writing in the Major (WIM) requirement, the third in a series of university writing requirements for undergraduates generally taken in the junior or senior year. There is significant interest among our students for coursework in hazards and science communication and students have expressed great interest in the course.

Course Content:

Each week the course will focus on a different natural hazard and the science behind that hazard, and on a different audience to whom to communicate about that hazard. Hazards to be studied include earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunami, extreme weather events, etc. There will be 7 short writing assignments (1-2 pages each) that require the students to write about natural hazards topics for a different audience – i.e. the public, policymakers, impacted populations, etc. There will be a final project where students may select a hazard and an audience on which to focus. To provide scaffolding throughout the course, the final project will be accompanied by a project proposal (due during week 6) and a final project report draft, (due in week 9).

Course Goals:

After completing this course, students will be able to:
- Describe the science behind major natural disasters.
- Understand the relationships between hazards, risk, vulnerability, and resilience.
- Effectively target communications about risk to a variety of audiences, i.e. the public, policy-makers, vulnerable populations, and funding agencies.

Course Features:

Each student must complete a final project in which they select a hazard of his/her choice and a case study locality for that hazard on which to focus some research. Each student will then select an audience for which to target a report explaining the scientific background of his/her selected hazard, a brief history of the impact on the surrounding areas, the probability of future impacts, and a plan or series of recommendations for increasing resiliency in the potentially impacted community.

Course Philosophy:

Because Earth Systems is an interdisciplinary major, there are many ways in which students might gain appropriate mastery in writing, but writing for multiple audiences is an essential interdisciplinary skill. Students will have completed the bulk of their introductory science courses (biology, physics, math, and geology) by the time they take this course, so they will then be ready to delve deeper into the science of natural hazards, and to use that science as a vehicle for thinking deeply about the communication of science to multiple audiences. The topic of natural hazards was chosen because it is my scientific expertise and there are currently few undergraduate course offerings on hazards despite student interest in these topics.


Students will be assessed on the basis of their weekly writing assignments (60%), class participation (10%), and final projects (30%).


Natural Hazards and Risk Communication Syllabus (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 142kB Jun18 12)

References and Notes:

We will rely heavily on examples of excellent writing TBD, and will spend significant time in class discussing how to recognize good writing in others. It is my hope that, through this class, a database of excellent student writing, and tips on writing to different audiences will be developed. Ultimately, this database will be an excellent resource for future students in this course.