Students navigate real-time coastal hazards in World Campus course

David Kubarek
November 07, 2017

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — As regions across the Atlantic Ocean were bracing for a recent string of hurricanes, real-time lessons were being explored around the globe in a class taught through Penn State World Campus in partnership with the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences’ John A. Dutton e-Education Institute.

About 50 students are taking Earth 107: Coastal Processes, Hazards and Society, which was designed with guidance from Timothy Bralower, interim head of Penn State’s Department of Geosciences, and is taught by a revolving quartet of professors, including Bralower; Maureen Feineman, also of geosciences; Diane Maygarden from the University of New Orleans; and Sean Cornell from Shippensburg University.

The class was partially developed as a way for students to learn lessons born from disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, which killed 1,833 people in 2005. However, recent natural disasters such as hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria are adding to the course material and have increased interest in the class.

“Right now, we’re going to have to revise the course to reflect what we’ve learned from these recent events,” Bralower said.

The class breaks coastline hazards — including hurricanes, tsunamis and rising sea levels — into four parts. Students study the geology of the coastline, then look at effects of the hazards, then ways to combat threats, and, finally, policy initiatives regions can enact to respond to and mitigate future disasters. The course takes a holistic approach, addressing the science, engineering and policy impacting coastal environments.

“It’s obviously very relevant with what’s happened in the past few months,” Bralower said. “We really want students to get an appreciation of what the future holds because it’s likely that storms will be more intense. Sea-level rise is ongoing, and it will be a threat to coastal areas for a long time to come. And for tsunamis, there’s no way we can predict them, and they can be devastating as well.”

Throughout the course, students get a feel for the threats cities face because they’re paired with a coastal city. In real time, they’re charting the geology and topography while monitoring sea levels and weather patterns. To mitigate dangers, they’re tasked with using engineering and policy to keep their citizens safe. And, if a storm or other disaster strikes, they’re tasked with responding.

What steps will their city take to brace for a storm? Will their citizens evacuate? How will their city improve its response for next time? These are just a few of the many questions students face.

Although cities such as Miami, Houston, New Orleans and New York are some of the most vulnerable to rising sea levels, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration said that 123.3 million people — 39 percent of the nation’s population — lived in counties directly on the shoreline in 2010, a population trend expected to rise by 8 percent by 2020.

“People want to live along the coast. Some of the biggest cities are on the coast,” Bralower said. “And those cities are very much threatened by sea-level rise.”

Bruce Kriete, a political science major, said he first learned how powerful storms could be when a 5-foot wave slammed through a waterfront apartment he was renting during Superstorm Sandy. He said that his interest in the government side of public policy and growing up just miles from the ocean sparked his interest in the course.

“This course definitely meets my goals in understanding complex coastal processes and provides context for the difficulties that local governments have in ensuring citizens’ safety,” Kriete said. “Places that have been relatively safe for years are not guaranteed to always be safe in the future. It is up to local leaders to foster an environment of open discussion about coastal hazards and outcomes. Long-term and sustainable planning should be a priority. We cannot be reactionary.”

Kriete is interested in public policy and sees courses like this as a way to further his existing career and aid a possible transition to graduate school when he graduates this spring.

The course is open to all majors and is also part of Penn State World Campus’ Undergraduate Certificate in Earth Sustainability. Bralower and his team will revise the course this spring and will offer the updated course starting next fall to keep pace with demand.

It’s one of four courses in the certificate that are centered around sustainability that cover both the science and social science behind policy initiatives. Bralower said that’s key to accomplishing change.

“As scientists, we conduct research but until you actually take that discovery that you make in the lab and educate people, the change doesn’t happen,” Bralower said. “You have to make citizens more knowledgeable and that’s why we’re doing this.”

  • Coastal hazards

    Populations along the coastline are increasing at a time when coastal threats from natural disasters appear to be strengthening. Earth 107: Coastal Processes, Hazards and Society, which was designed with guidance from Timothy Bralower, interim head of Penn State’s Department of Geosciences, helps students understand and respond to these threats.

    IMAGE: Pixabay
  • Timothy Bralower

    Timothy Bralower

    IMAGE: Penn State
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Last Updated November 07, 2017