Grant to aid students' grasp of science behind natural disasters

Jim Carlson
February 07, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The largely unseen science behind natural disasters such as hurricanes, wildfires, flooding and landslides is exactly what Scott McDonald wants students to not only see, but also to understand.


Scott McDonald

IMAGE: Penn State

The associate professor of science education and director of the Krause Innovation Studio in Penn State's College of Education is working with The Concord Consortium in Massachusetts on a four-year, $2.8 million, National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to develop data visualizations and simulations that help middle-school students understand big, system-level science ideas.

"Really, the idea is to try to develop pretty sophisticated visualizations and simulations that kids can understand and engage with so they can do investigations in Earth and space science," McDonald said. "One of the challenges for Earth and space science is the phenomena are really big, both physically and in terms of time, and they're hard to observe like the way we can with phenomena in chemistry and physics and biology."

McDonald said the strength of The Concord Consortium has been developing technologies and curriculum. What Penn State will do, McDonald said, is help them think about curriculum differently. 

"We've helped them think about redesigning online curriculum," McDonald said. "We want students to do more of the explaining instead of just building a digital textbook. We really want it to be driven by kids' ideas, so we're trying to figure out how to do that in an online context."

McDonald, The Concord Consortium and the NSF have teamed up before on a geoscience project about plate tectonics, technology from which is now being used in classrooms in State College Area School District middle schools and around the country. "This (new project) stays within Earth and space science but now we're just looking at natural hazards," McDonald said. 

"The first thing we're developing is some simulations and data visualizations around hurricanes. We'll be looking at hurricanes, wildfires, flooding and landslides. Finding good ways to visualize data and to develop simulations that help kids understand these is hard but really important, because that's the only way they can see such a big system as a whole. You can't really understand hurricanes as just weather, you have to understand them as part of this big, climatic system and how hurricanes are a result of it," he said.

The trick, according to McDonald, is to help students observe phenomenon that they cannot typically observe, and technology helps them do that. The simulation will show how hurricanes develop and how they move in relatively regular trajectories.

"What the technology will enable them to see is hurricane tracks of where they start and their pathway, but also how their intensity changes over that time," McDonald said. "Patterns of not only where they move to but where they gain intensity and where they lose intensity."

A simulation component to aid the students visually will be to construct a digital town called Disasterville, according to McDonald.

"The idea of Disasterville is to look at what happens when these hurricanes interact with people and human structures. They're only hazards because they affect us," McDonald said. 

"If there weren't humans around or hurricanes coming onto land, it wouldn't be a hazard, per se, it would just be part of the natural environment. We care about these things because they have the potential to kill us, but also because we've built all this infrastructure that it impacts. Natural hazards are a thing that we have to worry about. What we're looking at is building a simulated city so students will be able to see the impact on human infrastructure as a hurricane makes landfall depending on its path and its intensity," he said.

Through that, students will be able to see if buildings are getting destroyed, where it is flooding and why. Students will come up with ways to remediate damage in Disasterville by building sea walls and building houses to different specifications in an attempt to reduce the impact on the human infrastructure.

Understanding the science of the phenomenon is paramount, according to McDonald.

"How do hurricanes form? Why do they get stronger? Why do they move the way they do? We want them to understand low and high pressure," he said.

"We want them to understand that as global warming increases sea surface temperature, that's going to increase the frequency of hurricanes and also the power of hurricanes, because there's going to be more hot water to provide energy for them. We want them to understand how hurricanes function as a phenomenon and how they move. Hot, moist air that is rising and condensing to add energy to the winds. A lot of chemistry to understand how these hurricanes form and move," McDonald said.

While hurricanes and floods are phenomenon that develop over longer period time, wildfires and landslide are a bit of a different area of study. 

"A wildfire, it starts and moves," McDonald said. "Based on its path and speed, you can say which houses are in danger. Landslides are like earthquakes in that you can predict they'll happen but when they happen and where they happen are a lot harder to predict -- and they happen fast, just like earthquakes."

The focus on this NSF grant that differs from the previous one is the inclusion of the idea of risk in the hopes that students understand this complex idea, McDonald said. 

"When we say there's a 60 percent chance a hurricane's going to hit where you live, what does that mean? And what does that mean for the choices that you make as an individual homeowner or resident, and also how the city makes choices about asking people to evacuate and things like that," McDonald explained.

In many respects, McDonald said, wildfires can look like hurricanes, at least in relation to topography.

"We'll be able to map a certain area in terms of its topography and then we'll be able to have a fire started and show how that would spread based on the prevailing winds," he said. 

"We'll have things like that where students will be able to look at data from real fires and then the simulation, and we'll have a similar thing like Disasterville. Unfortunately, Disasterville is going to get hit with lots of disasters. We'll simulate a wildfire there and say, OK, if a wildfire starts there and the prevailing winds in this part of the country are in this direction and this is topography, what's the likely path of the fire and what do we do to figure that out and individual houses, what do we do to respond to that risk?" McDonald said.

While a lot of initiation of fire is human action, how that fire spreads and moves is not. McDonald said combustion is a fundamental process. The impact of wind and what a particular forest is made of also contributes to how forests burn differently.

"Humans build fires in the environment all the time but they don't always lead to wildfires," McDonald said. "Why do they spread and how do they spread? What are the conditions and what are the things that have to happen? People do these silly things and not realize the consequences."

He also explained that fire is good for forests.

"This idea that fire is a natural part of how forests operate … it's always been that way," McDonald said. They're also more frequent because we haven't let them burn in the past, so fuel has built up in these forests in a way that makes them much more likely to catch fire. 

"That component, especially around the risk, is something we want them to learn about being citizens. That's one of the unique things about natural hazards is they have such an easily identifiable social impact that kids can really think about. How do we think about places that are repeatedly flooded or burned down or hit by hurricanes and yet we keep putting the same buildings back up and hoping it doesn't happen again? How do we engage with that as a society?" he said.

The end goal for McDonald is trying to get middle school students to understand that science is about explaining the world and developing their own explanations of it. 

"What gets me excited about this project and the previous project is a lot of those science ideas are really observable and kids can engage with them trying to develop their own explanations and make those explanations better, and that's what science classes should be built around," he said. "Kids can think about a thing like a hurricane as something they can develop an explanation for, that they really genuinely understand. 

"They can do that by using these simulations and visualizations and doing observations. There are lots of real things happen in the world that we can try and help kids explain, but these projects help kids think about big, systemic phenomenon that are hard to observe and lets them observe in ways that lets them build explanations. That's what I think is pretty cool," McDonald said.

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Last Updated February 08, 2019