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Communicate the Quake: An interactive earthquake role-play used to teach communication skills

Jacqueline Dohaney, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand
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Communicate the Quake is a complex role-play, where students play geologists, seismologists, and emergency managers during a simulated earthquake event situated in Greymouth, New Zealand. The core activity is a 2 to 5-hour face-to-face workshop, where students respond to, manage and mitigate harm from the impacts of a large, regional earthquake, and work together to communicate the scenario to the public and specific stakeholders.

The activity is supported by pre-activities which are designed to prepare students for the scientific, emergency management, and science communication tasks which are played out in the scenario. During the role-play, there are four distinct "parts" which can be used as individual activities: Part 1 (a Townhall Meeting); Part 2 (a Media Release, Radio Bulletin and Press Conference); Part 3 (a Panel Discussion) and Part 4 (a Debrief). A customised set of Google Earth files show students the infrastructure, geology and other important information of the region, allowing them to make decisions based on real-life datasets.

It is best suited to a medium-sized (12-40) upper division undergraduate or postgraduate courses with support from several facilitators (instructors and research staff in seismology, active tectonics, engineering, emergency management, and natural hazards). Assessment for the module is typically done through preparation activities (i.e., critiquing of media releases, presentation of an earthquake hazards map) and on-the-day peer- and self-evaluation of performance (via rubrics) during the role-play. A detailed instructor manual is provided (below) which walks the staff through the entire process of organizing and implementing the role-play.

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Learning Goals

After 'Communicate the Quake', students should be able to...

  1. Summarise and communicate (in plain speak) the characteristics (magnitude, depth, frequency, energy release) of a given earthquake event;
  2. Compose and deliver multiple formats of communications: town-hall/community meetings, media releases and bulletins, web-based communications, headlines for media, press conferences;
  3. Communicate the scientific uncertainties associated with an ongoing earthquake event. (For example, answers to question like: "what happens next?"; "when will the next earthquake occur?"; "how certain are you that this event will not get 'bigger'?");
  4. Describe and communicate impacts to infrastructure and society from a large earthquake near Greymouth NZ.;
  5. Communicate effectively in all scenarios. Criteria for effectiveness includes information which is organised, accurate, relevant, readily understood (including the message and the use of jargon), and delivery which is competent (i.e., appears approachable and comfortable with communicating) and culturally inclusive;
  6. Estimate and illustrate impacts from an earthquake event based on the earthquake characteristics in order to create maps to effectively communicate with impacts public;
  7. Have an awareness of scientists and emergency manager's responsibilities, agendas, and expertise; Team structures, hierarchy and protocols; and
  8. Have an awareness of audience information needs. Prioritise pieces of information to specific situations and audiences. Communicate earthquake event information specific to multiple stakeholders (i.e., homeowners, industry sectors, affected communities, scientific community).

Context for Use

The role-play is best suited to an upper-division (300-level or above) or postgraduate geophysics, active tectonics, emergency management, or engineering geology. It has also been run with 200-level students in an earth systems course, but would require several lectures to help students understand more about earthquakes (generally) and their impacts.

The preferred class size is 12-30 students, but can be run with smaller courses by omitting specific roles or perspectives (i.e., focussing solely on the science and omitting the emergency management component). It has been run as a workshop-style exercise (2-5 hours running time) embedded within lecture courses and field courses.

There are a range of preparation activities included with the role-play which means that it works best as a module which could be run over 2-3 weeks of a typical semester-based course.

Equipment required is an open classroom space, with a minimum of 8-10 computers (either as desktops, or student's laptops) with an internet connection and Google Earth Pro installed.

Several important skills and concepts should be mastered by students prior to the role-play. Students should be able to: 1. Explain how, why, and where earthquakes occur, 2. List and describe the variety of hazards and scale of damage caused by earthquakes, 3. Read and understand geological and topographical maps, 4. Explain what scientists and emergency management professionals do during a crisis, and 5. Use google earth to explore point, line and raster datasets.

The role-play can be run as a whole, in one half-day working having students experience all of communication events (i.e., Townhall Meeting, Press Conference, and Panel Discussion, etc.) or you could run the role-play over a series of weeks, where different aspects are explored one at a time.

Teaching Materials

A detailed instructor manual is attached below. This document describes 1) A detailed curriculum plan including time frames for each step; 2) A description and access to all of the documents and tools needed to run the activity and 3) Teaching tips and special considerations for running the role-play. Instructor Manual (Acrobat (PDF) 851kB Jul3 16)
Google Earth files for Greymouth New Zealand (Zip Archive 16.2MB Jun2 16)

Teaching Notes and Tips

  • If you are running this NZ-based exercise from outside of New Zealand, you can easily familiarize yourself and your students with NZ places, locations, and protocols. This can be a fun way to "travel" somewhere together, that your students haven't been before.
  • The role-play is best used as a "capstone" activity (i.e., allowing students to apply what they've learned in your class). We recommend using this as a social activity and we like to complete the activity with a debrief and a BBQ.
  • The role-play requires internet-connected laptops or desktops computers. The information is delivered to students via a Powerpoint presentation (requiring a projector to show the powerpoint) and Google Earth files. Additionally, we recommend using group file sharing applications (i.e., Google Docs) so that students can write pieces together, in real-time, rather than relying on paper-based information sharing.
  • The quality of the simulation is dependent on how prepared students are, and how much they relate to their role. Remember to schedule in pre-lab and lecture(s) into your curriculum plan. Assigning students to the right roles can be difficult; it is easier if you know the personalities of the students. Tips: Mix genders and abilities.
  • Decide ahead of time on how much the role-play activity will be worth (typically 5-15% of a course grade). You may assign some assessment to the pre-readings and other pre-activities to motivate them to prepare.
  • Run through the role-play yourself and with other staff to get familiar with the scenario and be prepared.


The role-play is assessed using peer- and self-evaluation rubrics of their performance during the activity (typically worth 5-10% of a course grade). Additionally, we like to provide pre-activities which can be assessed such as: media release critiques (to evaluate written communication skills), hazards map presentations (to evaluate decision-making and oral communication skills), and pre-reading summaries (to assess preparedness).

References and Resources

The design of the role-play and it's effectiveness in teaching communication skills was researched and published as a final grant report for Ako Aotearoa New Zealand (in Press). Current project website: https://akoaotearoa.ac.nz/improving-science-communication-skills.