The Joy of Natural Disasters

Simulate a natural disaster to inspire problem-solving, collaboration, creativity, and teamwork.

By Bruce Howard

Cracked land and lightning

I love natural disasters. Well, that is, I love to teach natural disasters. Kids are so engaged and interested in them. Perhaps it is the equivalent of rubber-necking while at the scene of a highway accident, or maybe such disasters evoke an instinctive, emotional response. Whatever the reason, preparing for a class reenactment of a natural disaster keeps learners uniquely focused and engaged. 

I like to use different kinds of crisis events as motivational "hooks" to catch the attention of my class for several weeks at a time. As we study such events, each child makes use of inquiry and problem-solving skills, while also learning teamwork and collaboration. In very real and authentic ways, 21st century learning skills are brought into play and reinforced.

Create A Natural Disaster

Prior to the day of the event, the kids create resumes outlining their skills as earth scientists, volcanologists, and meteorologists. They form teams and work in those teams to study other crisis events and practice tracking and charting skills. On the day of the event, pupils wear name tags with team names and placards with team logos are placed on their tables. We use a SMART board for a storm-tracking map. Throughout the simulation, the experts write their recommendations on post-it notes and run them from team to team every five minutes.

Connect to Real-Life Disasters

In one such activity, pupils are posed with a real-life event that occurred in 1995. A volcano begins to erupt at the same time as a hurricane is bearing down on an island. The kids act as emergency-response experts and form teams: a hurricane team, a volcano team, and an evacuation team. Armed with maps of the island and latitude/longitude coordinates of the approaching hurricane, students receive seismic readings and hurricane data every five minutes. They analyze, chart, and plot the data, making predictions about what will happen. The evacuation team moves people around the island to the safest places, while thinking through such things as how many busses are available, how many people they can carry, and where the shelters are located. Staging this whole event takes about two hours.

The scenario is intrinsically captivating. Learners can visualize a hurricane and the damage it causes. Seismic activity gets the juices flowing, because people are naturally terrified of earthquakes and volcanoes. Consequently, there is emotional involvement. There is also fluency in mathematical calculations, plotting on charts, critical thinking, and inter-team communication. And after the first twenty minutes, I am often doing nothing other than walking around to observe class interaction. At these times, I find myself wearing a smirk on my face because I know that this is what teaching is all about.

Behold the Chaos

One time, two fifth graders were working through the island scenario. One boy grabbed the other by the shoulders and had to calm him down saying, "Hey…this isn't real!" There was a long pregnant pause, and that same boy said, "Or is it?" I almost leaped with joy as I said to myself, "Gotcha!" It is that "gotcha" that we all strive for in our instruction. That moment where imagination takes over and students become the engineers, scientists, emergency responders, and technicians solving real-life problems. They own it. They are teaching themselves. They are self-regulated. It is glorious to behold the chaos. It is the wonderful kind of chaos that makes you want to return the next day and make it even better.


Montserrat Eruption Role-play 

Learners react to the events on Montserrat in their roles as crisis management teams based at the Montserrat Volcano Observatory.

Water, Water Everywhere

Have your class learn about floods, discovering that different types of floods occur from different water sources, but primarily from heavy rainfall. They learn what makes floods dangerous and what engineers design to predict, control and survive floods.

Naturally Disastrous

Pupils are introduced to natural disasters, and learn the difference between natural hazards and natural disasters. They discover the many types of natural hazards — avalanche, earthquake, flood, forest fire, hurricane, landslide, thunderstorm, tornado, tsunami and volcano — as well as specific examples of natural disasters. They also explore why understanding these natural events is important to engineers and to everyone's survival on our planet.

Save an Animal Board Game - Impact of Human Activity or Natural Disasters

Play a board game in which players try to ensure the survival of their animal species while dealing with problems the animals encounter during the game.