How to make a hurricane boring

Suddenly it's hurricane season in Connecticut. Some local schools have already cancelled the first day of school next Monday.

Natural disasters create a lot of interest among the general public about the Earth's processes. In theory, these could be powerful educational hooks to spur learning in the classroom on weather, climate, or oceanography.

Michael Doyle, reflecting on the surprisingly strong "East Coast Earthquake of 20111" thinks it may have been better that summer break was still on when the earthquake hit:

"I am glad today was not a school day in New Jersey.

Those of us sitting on the state's udder, the tip of Cape May county, got a nice ride for less than we'd pay at Morley's, and countless afternoon chats under the sun made the surreal feel real.

Now imagine if we had school tomorrow--kids would be assaulted with seismographs, joule calculators, fault maps, Richter scales, and whatever else tools teachers could find to make the real become more abstract.

All that matters, at some level, of course, but for most kids, I imagine having a spectacularly lovely August afternoon off to replay a minute's worth of otherworldliness will make this one stick for a long, long time."

I agree. The underlying problem isn't that the earthquake would simply be discussed at school the next day- it's the way we schoolify the event. I think we should include current events in our classes- especially when those events relate to our curriculum (I've written on this a bit in the past).

What to do? Shawn Cornally to the rescue (Read the whole post. I'm not doing it justice here):

The problem is that we’re schooling life-long learning out of our students. What do we do about it?



If you think that sounds ridiculous, then you’re the problem. Students are smart. Teenagers are curious. However, at school, they tend not to be. Porque?

Students are generally interested in hurricanes, earthquakes, or nuclear reactors, especially after a notable event. However, too often we (educators) use this interest as an excuse to break out our favorite "How is the Moment-Magnitude Scale differs from the Modified Mercalli scale" lecture. This is bad.

Instead, students should have time for independent investigation about the event. Have them pick a related topic that interests them. Give them the time and support to follow that interest down the rabbit hole.

While students are following their interests, they'll suddenly find they need to understand seismic waves, or logarithmic scales, or moment-tensor solutions simply as a part of their investigation.

In essence, don't just tell students about the Modified Mercalli scale and expect them to be super interested- provide an environment where they'll find they need to know about it.


image credit: NASA courtesy Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, via Earth Observatory



  1. A little self-aggrandizing, no? I'm sure you West Coasters- and especially Alaskans- are all having a nice chuckle.     (back)