Purpose: Students will work in groups to develop regulations and strategies to prevent or reduce damage caused by natural hazards in their region and then determine which of the proposed solutions would be best for their community to implement.
Procedural overview: After reading the online Science News articles “How to protect your home from disasters amplified by climate change” and “Technology and natural hazards clash to make ‘natech’ disasters,” students will receive a briefing about the potential threats their area might face based on current climate change models. This briefing and the choice of natural hazard will be made by the teacher. Working in groups, students will then role-play, pretending that they serve on the town or county planning board. Groups will research plans, regulations and infrastructure investments that could reduce the impact and help protect the town from specific types of natural hazards and then create proposals to be presented to the class. The class will debate the merits, feasibility and costs of the proposals before deciding which ones should be implemented.
Approximate class time: 2 class periods — 1 class period for group research and preparation of presentations and 1 class period for group presentations and class discussion
Virtual procedural overview: The activity can be conducted virtually using conferencing software such as Zoom or Google Duo.
Planning Ahead to Prevent Future Disasters student worksheet
A projector (optional)
Computer access for research
Conferencing software such as Zoom or Google Duo for remote teaching
Directions for teachers:
Before the first class session, ask students to read the Science News articles “How to protect your home from disasters amplified by climate change” and “Technology and natural hazards clash to make ‘natech’ disasters” as homework. Introduce the articles by describing various types of damage that follow natural hazards, including natech disasters. These are the disasters that come about when natural hazards collide with technology. Examples include toxic pollution created by man-made materials burning in wildfires and the Fukushima power plant meltdown caused by an earthquake and the resulting tsunami. As the climate changes, natural hazards are becoming more frequent, requiring innovative approaches to mitigate damage and, where possible, reduce the impact on the surrounding environments and communities.
At the beginning of the first class, tell students that they will act as members of a planning board or task force that has just learned that, due to climate change, their area is at increased risk of devastating damage from a natural hazard. To keep the project manageable for the students, choose the natural hazard you want them to address. You can pick it yourself or have students choose which hazard will affect their area.
Provide a planning board briefing to the class. Below, there is a sample briefing that addresses wildfires. You can use this or develop one of your own for a different type of natural hazard. You can adapt the details and the amount of information to match the needs of your class. You may want to connect your briefing to a recent natural hazard, such as the wildfires that have devastated parts of the United States and Australia. You can search the Science News archive for natural hazard ideas or direct the students to the archive to research natural hazards and possible solutions.
During a class discussion, have the students brainstorm a list of possible ways the town can reduce the impact of natural hazards and natech disasters. Then divide the students into small groups so they can research the pros and cons of one or more solutions and create a proposal to present to the class. The students should do as much as they can in class, and complete the rest as homework. During the next class period, have the groups present their proposals so the class can discuss the proposals before voting on which ones to implement.
Remote learning setup
Set up the virtual lesson the same way you do the in-person version, but hold the small sessions in breakout rooms as part of a larger remote meeting. Afterward, recall students to the main meeting room to present their proposals.
Planning board briefing
Here is a suggested briefing designed for fires. The suggested text is in italics.
Situation: Climate models suggest that your region will be at an increased risk of drought and devastating wildfires.
As the climate warms, your region is becoming hotter and dryer.
The dry conditions are creating optimal conditions for wildfires.
People have been moving into areas that were previously undeveloped or less developed (forests, prairies, floodplains, former farmland and pastureland), which puts more people and property at risk.
Some neighborhoods have only one way in or out, making evacuations difficult.
Homes built with fire-resistant materials can survive better than homes without these materials.
There are a variety of long-term and short-term measures that can be taken to mitigate the risks. They include zoning rules and building codes, information campaigns, information networks and community cleanup campaigns.
Source: J. Baxter et al. Mitigation Ideas: A Resource for Reducing Risk to Natural Hazards. FEMA. Published January 2013.
Hazard Mitigation for Natural Disasters. U.S. EPA Office of Water. Published June 2016.
About Disaster Mitigation. Public Safety Canada. Published 2015.
Disaster Prevention and Mitigation. World Health Organization. Published 1999.
Science News and Science News for Students
C. Gramling. What data do cities like Orlando need to prepare for climate migrants? Science News. Published May 12, 2020.
K. Kowalski. Building resilience to climate’s emerging impacts. Science News for Students. Published January 10, 2019.
K. Kowalski. This grid moves energy, but not always reliably. Science News for Students. Published January 24, 2019.
K. Daigle and M. Singh. As waters rise, coastal megacities like Mumbai face catastrophe. Science News. Published August 15, 2018.
Explain that in order to create proposals, students will have to suggest and research potential solutions. Lead students in brainstorming ideas and guide their various suggestions. During the brainstorming session, the class should consider the following four questions.
1. What information do you need to have about this particular type of natural hazard?
Planners need to know how frequently these natural hazards occur, what features in the town will be most affected by the hazard and how much it costs to mitigate and recover from a resulting disaster.
2. What outside groups should the planning board consult to develop solutions for preventing or mitigating a potential disaster?
Answers will vary by natural hazard. Engineers, scientists, residents, politicians and businesses are some of the groups that should be consulted as they have stakes in decision-making. For instance, scientists and engineers might have suggestions for solutions. Local businesses could be driven out of the area if the disaster occurs, or their operations could be negatively affected by the solution implemented. Politicians are needed to implement the solutions through legislation.
3. What are some solutions that could be used to prevent or mitigate a potential disaster?
Answers will vary by natural hazard. Possible solutions include developing codes that require specific materials and building techniques — fireproof building materials and wind-resistant roofs are two examples — and offering cash grants or tax incentives to help people pay for upgrades to meet new codes. Physical planning measures could include zoning restrictions to prevent building in fire-prone areas and road construction to ensure there are adequate evacuation routes. The planning commission should also create a disaster team to manage the response at the local level and to coordinate with state and federal agencies.
4. How do community leaders decide which solutions to use?
Community leaders debate various options, lobby for specific ideas and try to find the right balance of cost, effectiveness and ease of implementation. Often more than one solution will be chosen. For example, building codes for new construction might be paired with economic measures to make it easier to retrofit existing structures. Community leaders also try to create management structures to effectively coordinate organizations should a disaster strike. Planners often look for solutions that bring the most benefits at the least cost.
After students have identified a number of solutions, assign them to groups to research the pros and cons of one or more solutions. Then have the groups develop proposals to present during the next class. If groups cannot finish the work during class, assign it for homework, and give them time at the start of the next class to finalize their proposals.
Remind the groups that proposals should address the situation described in the briefing. To support collaboration, consider having students use a whiteboard, a Google Doc, One Drive or other platforms that would allow members of a group to work on aspects of the plan simultaneously and give each other immediate feedback.
Ask students to incorporate the steps required to carry out their proposals, and encourage them to identify issues or potential unintended consequences of implementing their proposed solutions.
Students should answer the following questions in their groups.
1. What solutions will you research to create your proposal?
Answers will vary. Here, the students should state the solutions they are working on — building code changes, laws banning certain activities, public service announcement campaigns or the creation of an emergency management organization. The students may be working on several solutions that can be combined in a proposal.
2. How do your solutions address the possible threats posed by the natural hazard? Note whether they are short-term or long-term strategies.
Answers will vary. A building code change may make structures more resistant to damage, reducing the impact of a hazard. This is a long-term strategy as it would only apply to new construction. Another strategy might be to clear out dead trees and plants in a community at risk of fire or to plant drought-resistant plants whose roots could hold back soil in areas where cycles of drought are followed by heavy rains. These are short-term strategies.
3. What are some of the drawbacks of your solutions?
The answers will vary based on the proposal. For instance, a building code change might only affect new buildings. How would older structures be handled? Cost is a drawback. To cover the costs, expensive changes might require a grant or a tax increase. Some solutions might require a lot of time to implement or may require people to relocate. Recreation, farming and forestry can be affected in areas with a high fire risk.
Presentations and group discussions
Have each group present its proposal to the class. The presentations should last approximately 5 minutes, and students can use PowerPoint or a whiteboard. Allow time for questions from the class.
Before the class votes on the best proposal, have the students return to their groups to quickly answer the questions at the end of this section. While students are working in their groups to answer these final questions, walk around and help facilitate their conversations. Use this time to formatively assess group progress. You should hear students discussing their proposals and determining how they align with the overall goal of preventing or mitigating potential disasters.
Here are some questions to ask students to check for understanding. How does your proposal fit in with the other groups’ proposals? Are you considering the information through more than one viewpoint? How can you improve your proposal to make it more effective?
Each group should answer the following questions.
1. How does your group’s proposal compare with those proposed by the other groups?
Our proposal is easier to implement than the proposal by group A and will complement the proposal of group C.
2. What is the most important part of your proposal in terms of preventing disasters? If the disaster cannot be prevented, what is the most important part of your proposal in terms of mitigating the damage from the disaster?
Our proposal focuses on changing building codes to create safer buildings and providing grants to help existing buildings meet the new codes. In the case of a disaster, our proposal creates grants to help people rebuild.
3. Why is it important to collaborate and seek feedback from other groups working toward the same overall goal?
Proposals are strongest when strategies dovetail — or fit together — in complementary ways. Also, because there are so many groups with a stake in the end result, it is important to receive feedback to fix oversights in the proposal.
4. How can your group combine resources and expertise with other groups to most effectively reach the overall goal?
We can structure the proposals to work together. For instance, if our group is focusing on building codes and another group is focusing on public service announcements and zoning restrictions, we can combine the proposals. The public service announcements could be used to educate people about code changes and resources to upgrade homes and businesses. If the building and zoning divisions work together, the community might be better protected from disaster.
When the groups have finished their last assessments, gather the class for any final discussion before holding the vote.
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