Science

How to Teach About Natural Disasters With Care

By Sarah Schwartz — October 04, 2022 5 min read
This GOES-East GeCcolor satellite image taken at 9:56 a.m. EDT on Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022, and provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), shows Hurricane Ian passing over western Cuba. Hurricane Ian tore into western Cuba on Tuesday as a major hurricane, with nothing to stop it from intensifying into a catastrophic Category 4 storm before it hits Florida, where officials ordered 2.5 million people to evacuate before it crashes ashore Wednesday.
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Teaching current events isn’t just for social studies. From exploring how the coronavirus vaccine works to studying how wildfires affect communities, it’s increasingly a focus in science, too.

Anchoring lessons in news events or experiences from students’ lives this way can foster students’ authentic interest in science, experts say, especially if kids come to class already full of questions about the topic. And it’s a way to demonstrate how science works in the real world—an important part of the Next Generation Science Standards, which undergird how many states and districts approach science.

“There is no better driver of learning than witnessing what’s happening from a natural phenomenon in terms of impact on humans,” said Wendy Binder, the program director for STEM in the professional learning division at the National Science Teaching Association.

But teaching about events that take a human toll—like pandemics, climate change, and natural disasters—can also come with challenges. Delving into the details can be painful for students, especially those who have been personally affected.

That’s the tightrope some teachers have walked this past week, as they’ve crafted lessons on Hurricane Ian. The Category 4 storm hit Florida last week and has since traveled north to the Carolinas, leaving dozens of fatalities and widespread damage in its wake.

Teachers need to prepare for the emotional toll that discussing the hurricane could take—but that doesn’t necessarily mean they should avoid the topic altogether, said Lauren Madden, a professor of elementary science education at The College of New Jersey.

“We owe children accurate information,” Madden said. “They deserve to have the tools to unpack their world.”

Read on for some tips from experts on how to discuss these events in the classroom with care.

Finding the right ‘phenomena’

Current events can often make for strong “phenomena,” Binder said.

The term refers to a key component of lessons aligned to the Next Generation Science Standards.

The standards, released in 2013 and since adopted by 20 states and the District of Columbia, are designed to center student inquiry. One of the goals of the NGSS was to move away from a model of science education that has students memorize decontextualized facts, and toward a system in which students learn core content knowledge and the skills scientists use by investigating questions about the natural world.

These questions are prompted by “phenomena,” events that students can observe around them and that they can use science knowledge to explain, or to predict.

“Instead of simply learning about a topic, they’re seeking out evidence to solve a problem,” Binder said.

Guidance from NextGenScience, a group of the nonprofit WestEd that supports educators in implementing the standards, outlines some unifying features of strong phenomena:

  • They’re relevant to students’ lives;
  • Students should be able to explain how they work after the lesson or the unit is over;
  • Crucially, they drive instruction.

Teachers should be able to introduce core content knowledge through discussion of the phenomenon—it’s not just as a flashy hook to the lesson.

How teachers craft these lessons will be different at different grade levels, depending on the standards, said Madden.

Within the NGSS, elementary, middle, and high school students all learn about earth systems, weather, and climate, but in increasingly complex ways as they move through the grade levels.

In middle school, to investigate how winds affect the oceans, teachers might explore what kinds of tools meteorologists use, or what storm maps look like, Madden said. High schoolers might use mathematical and computer models to simulate the storm, she added.

For younger students, teachers can explain the situation in broader strokes: “We’re seeing increases in the number of extreme storms, and that systems in our planet … all interact with each other,” she said.

Attending to students’ emotions

It can be tricky to talk about hurricanes and other natural disasters with young children. But Madden thinks that ultimately, the potential benefits outweigh the harms.

“If we don’t give kids enough information, their brains are going to fill in the blanks. And what they fill in might be worse than what the situation is,” she said.

When speaking with young children about Hurricane Ian—or even to middle or high schoolers—Madden suggests first establishing a baseline. Figure out what they know, and what questions they have, she said.

It can also be helpful to focus on solutions. Going beyond understanding how hurricanes work to explore how scientists, engineers, and policymakers mitigate their effect can give students a sense of hope—and it also opens opportunities to discuss the science and engineering practices that are embedded in the NGSS, Madden said.

“It’s absolutely necessary that we talk about innovation and the solutions that are being developed that no one’s ever thought of before,” she said.

She gave an example from her own state. In New Jersey’s Barnegat Bay, scientists are working to restore oyster reefs. They’re a key part of a healthy habitat for other marine life, but they can also serve as a breakwater, protecting against giant waves that occur during storms.

Giving these kinds of local examples can help students make connections between their own experiences and events going on in other parts of the country or the world, Madden said.

Below are a few examples of lessons that can spark some of these conversations. While not all of them cover hurricanes specifically, they focus on weather systems and natural hazards.

  • The National Science Teaching Association’s “Our Beautiful Planet” collection features lessons on wildfires, sea level rise, dust storms, and ocean warming, among other topics.
  • A middle school unit on drought and floods from OpenSciEd, a group that creates free, open-source science curriculum, asks students to investigate how changes in Earth’s system impact our communities.
  • Elementary school lessons from a project at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa explore what regulates weather and climate and how natural hazards affect individuals and societies.

A version of this article appeared in the October 19, 2022 edition of Education Week as How to Teach About Natural Disasters With Care

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