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news & tips

A collection of helpful articles on teachers and teaching

Disaster Science

The catastrophe in Haiti is going to be in the news for months. Your students and mine will be paying attention and interested in what is going on. Many schools have organized fundraising activities. For those reasons and hundreds of others it is a teachable moment.

Whether you focus on earthquakes and faults or the science behind building earthquake resistant structures, rescue or survival there is a lot of science behind those heroic efforts in Haiti. Giving students a chance to see how science connects to these big events may create a spark that helps guide one of those kids to a career in science. We all know we are going to need more scientists working on these large scale disasters in preparation, prediction and response.

For earthquakes and predictions there are a ton of great sites. The best activities I have found are at the RAFT site

Click on “view idea sheets” and then search “earthquake”. Their activity titled “Shake Table” gives your students a chance to build toothpick structures and test them in a simulated earthquake. This will give them a chance to understand and appreciate the building codes we have in place in the United States that help make our buildings a bit safer.

The USGS has an entire curriculum with lots of great information sheets available at their web site.

There is a series of short articles for students. These will work in science or social studies or language arts for 6-12th grade students. The “teaching box” link takes you to an entire series of lessons. Again this is grades 6-12. The teaching box is a great resource for elementary teachers to become familiar with the science behind earthquakes.

The survival aspect of this disaster produces a more widespread set of questions from students. How long can someone live without water? How do the disaster dogs find people? How do the rescue folks get into buildings that are not safe? Why can’t we just fly planes over and drop food and water by parachute? These are all common questions and many can be answered by watching CNN. Most web sites on teaching about disasters do not include Haiti. They soon will.

The Science Museum of London has an exhibit on the science of survival for elementary students.

The BBC has a wonderful site that takes you through how they find survivors. This site is a must see.

One that covers a range of disasters comes from an ESU in the United States.

The best resource for a disaster that is so recent and ongoing is to have the students search for relevant articles and share them with the class. I would suggest a bulletin board to store the materials and have the students add to it daily. The labs you were planning could take on a survival theme. I am doing quite a bit with the water molecule right now in my class. I am shifting to make sure I include how water is necessary for life (it does have to do with structure) and some easy to explore purification methods that may be used in Haiti.

I remember when the Challenger disaster occurred. The students seemed to quickly tire of the relentless focus on that one news event. It is possible to focus too much on this story. However, the disaster in Haiti will frame science studies for a decade. It is an important event. Students will be interested and teaching the compassionate side of science and the application of our knowledge is often neglected for the analytical science.

I will tell my students tomorrow that I am deeply concerned for the people who will suffer through and those who will not survive this disaster. I will focus on the heroism of the people who are surviving and helping others survive. I am hopeful that science will learn a great deal from this tragic event so that the next disaster will be met with greater knowledge, tools and that science will be able to ease the suffering of folks who are impacted by natural disasters.

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Disaster Science

In the wake of the devastating earthquake I thought it would be appropriate to give my kids some science related to disasters. We always have a current events folder and bulletin board and it seemed to be full of disaster related news.

To kick this off I asked the students to post their disaster related questions in one zone of a wiki (you could use a bulletin board too), applications they found where science was used to help in a disaster and good informational links that are disaster related. I have done this before and wait patiently for the information to come trickling in. This time was different. The question section was full in 2 days, the  related science part filled in 3 days and the informational links now number 156 after one week.

The reason for such phenomenal involvement is that disasters are current and involve human stories. The news on TV has been saturated by them and the kids report that their parents even helped with the material.  This parental involvement is an exceptional way to encourage kids to learn outside of the school day.

The more interesting part of this activity is the science link portion of the wiki. What the students consider a link is interesting. Some links are very strong (topographic maps to Tsunamis) and some are weaker. I have had the student determine strong and weak links and the discussions that have come from that labeling are a great formative assessment about the science the kids used in the links. The links where the students really understand the science are stronger.

So, to get started you can do as I did or limit the posting to specific disasters. The Hindenberg came up on the wiki and since we are launching into element, compounds and mixtures it is a perfect time to explore the properties of Hydrogen and Helium. I could not make a full unit from the single disaster but the exploration did lead to a great unit on materials used for fire suppression and the chemical reaction we know as combustion. I would suggest a broader base of disasters to begin the understanding.

For example, if you decided to take earthquakes and tsunami s you could study the forces of the moving water and the power of the different types of earthquake waves in a unit on forces and motion. There is a great activity where you make your own seismograph at:
There are some great descriptions of how scientists respond to and help in disasters:

To expand our view of what a major disaster might be you can check out the 10 worst natural disasters at

My students think that the NOVA web site on the “Wave that Shook the World” is perhaps the best resource, found at

So, if class needs a little more interest you may want to give your students a little taste of disaster preparation and inject some STEM science. Feel free to post your own activities or links. I am certain that many of you out there are using these current events to make science more current and interesting.

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