Teachable Moments, for all of us

On Friday, when discussing the earthquake and tsunami that had just struck Japan, I remember saying to students, "It looks like the death toll will be in the hundreds, which is horrible, but considering the size of the earthquake is pretty low." Well...as I write this,1 the official death toll is at 2,414 and expected to rise to perhaps as high as 10,000.2

Still image from a 1st person view of the tsunami
Still image from a 1st person view of the tsunami

We've been discussing the earthquake and tsunami in class, though I haven't done much "educationalizing" of the disaster at this point. So far my M.O. has been to show some videos or pictures, give news updates of what's going on, and then have time for students to ask questions or just talk about what's going on. At some level I feel like trying to craft organized lessons about subduction zones, Moment Magnitude scales, tsunami generation, or nuclear power generation would be taking advantage of the disaster.

I want students to know what's going on in Japan. I want students to understand the details. That's why I show the videos, why I spent a big chunk of time searching for video and images that seemed to capture the disaster. And the fact is, students want to know about the earthquake and tsunami and potential meltdowns at nuclear power plants. They want to know why tsunamis are so dangerous ("I don't get it, it's just water, right?"), what causes earthquakes ("I heard it was caused by the 'super moon.'3"), and how nuclear power plants work ("If there's an explosion at a nuclear power plan, how can it not be a nuclear explosion?").

The general public wants to know what's happening and why. Our students want to know what's happening and why. I want to know what's happening and why. However, I want student interest to drive our classroom learning about the disaster. I don't want to use the disaster to drag out a month of earthquake & tsunami lessons if the students aren't interested in learning more.4

I have been pleasantly surprised with the number of more "mainstream" media outlets doing some exemplary explaining about earthquakes, tsunamis, and nuclear reactors. I've especially been impressed with the time given to explain how nuclear reactors work and then what's going on at the Fukushima Nuclear Plants. Boing Boing did an excellent job describing how nuclear power plants work and NHK World explained simply yet thoroughly what was happening at Fukushima.

These are the times when it seems very clear to me that a little scientific literacy (or at least a healthy dose of skepticism) is an extremely useful skill. There are quite a few bits of misinformation out there, but there are also a lot of quality explanations of the science behind the disaster.


  1. at 10:10pm EDT, March 14, 2011       (back)
  2. via http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2011_Sendai_earthquake_and_tsunami#Casualties (back)
  3. FYI, it wasn't. See here for a in-depth take down of the super moon myth     (back)
  4. Yes, I get following the state curriculum means I'm essentially forcing this same thing most of the school year with students. My especially guilty feeling on these topics most likely derives from the fact that I'd feel like I'd be taking advantage people's suffering simply as an educational hook.    (back)