Unit Overview
6.5 Natural Hazards*

Where do natural hazards happen and how do we prepare for them?

Unit Summary

*This unit is still being revised based on the feedback from the field test.
This unit begins with students experiencing, through text and video, a devastating natural event that caused major flooding in coastal towns of Japan. This event was the 2011 Great Sendai or Tōhoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami that caused major loss of life and property in Japan. Through this anchoring phenomenon, students think about ways to detect tsunamis, warn people, and reduce damage from the wave. As students design solutions to solve this problem, they begin to wonder about the natural hazard itself: what causes it, where it happens, and how it causes damage.

The first part of the unit focuses on identifying the causal mechanism for how tsunamis form, how they move across the ocean, and what happens as they approach shore. The second part of the unit transitions students to consider design solutions for reducing the damage from a tsunami wave. Finally, students apply the science ideas they have developed to consider how to communicate about a local natural hazard to stakeholders in their own community.

Additional Unit Information

Building Toward the Following Standards and Practices
Performance Expectations
  • ESS3-2
  • ETS1-1*
  • ETS1-2*
Disciplinary Core Ideas

The unit is guided by two overarching ideas: (1) We can protect communities from some of the damage of natural hazards by using science ideas about the natural hazards and engineering design principles to reduce damage and warn people, and (2) Hazards affect all communities; we can design safer communities by proactively communicating with stakeholders about which hazards can impact our local community and how we can prepare for, respond during, and recover after a potential hazard occurs.

This unit is designed to happen just after Unit 6.4 in the OpenSciEd Scope and Sequence. As such, it is intended for the second semester of a sixth grade classroom. 

In the anchoring lesson, students read text and watch videos of the 2011 Great Sendai or Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami that occurred off the east coast of Japan. This natural hazard caused great devastation to Japan’s coastal communities. This tsunami hazard was purposefully chosen for this unit for three reasons:

  • Tsunami hazards build directly upon Disciplinary Core Ideas from 4th grade in which students learned about physical waves (see next section for further explanation).  
  • Tsunami hazards also directly build upon Disciplinary Core Ideas from grades 6-8 regarding geologic processes and changes in Earth’s surface, which come just prior to this unit in the OpenSciEd Scope and Sequence (see next section for further explanation). 
  • Tsunamis have not had a direct impact on US communities in recent years and students in the US have likely not experienced one directly. This is an important consideration in choosing a natural hazard; the unit team purposefully chose a hazard that would be least likely to elicit direct emotional response from students who may have experienced devastation from other types of hazards. 

The anchoring lesson immediately introduces students to the idea that there are ways to protect communities from natural hazards by detecting when they are happening, warning people, and designing solutions to reduce damage. Students develop initial design solutions, and throughout the unit they evaluate existing design solutions, detection and warning systems, and communication and education systems. Through this work, students develop a better understanding of how these subsystems, within a larger hazard response system, can work together to protect communities. 

The first part of the unit (Lessons 2-4) focus on developing this DCI:

  • ESS3.B: Mapping the history of natural hazards in a region, combined with an understanding of related geologic forces can help forecast the locations and likelihoods of future events.

Students use maps, physical models, and simulations to identify the causal mechanism for how tsunamis form, how they move across the ocean, and what happens as they approach shore. Students then use these science ideas to think about which communities are most at risk for a tsunami. 

The second part of the unit (Lessons 5-8) focuses on developing these two DCIs:

  • ETS1.A: The more precisely a design task’s criteria and constraints can be defined, the more likely it is that the designed solution will be successful. Specification of constraints includes consideration of scientific principles and other relevant knowledge that are likely to limit possible solutions.
  • ETS1.B: There are systematic processes for evaluating solutions with respect to how well they meet the criteria and constraints of a problem.

Students work to identify criteria and constraints across different aspects of a hazard response system: (1) design solutions to reduce damage (Lesson 5), (2) technologies to detect and send warning signals (Lesson 6), and (3) communication and education plans that target stakeholders in the communities that will be impacted by a natural hazard (Lesson 7). In Lessons 5 and 7 they also use a systematic process to evaluate different design solutions and communication options. Finally, in Lesson 8, students develop a representation of how all these sub-systems work together in a more complex hazard response system to protect communities, and they also reflect on the engineering design process they used to evaluate those sub-systems.

Focal Science and Engineering Practices
  • Analyzing and Interpreting Data
  • Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking
  • Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions
  • Engaging in Argument from Evidence
  • Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information 
Focal Crosscutting Concepts
  • Cause and Effect
  • Systems and System Models
  • Stability and Change
Unit Information
What should my students know from earlier grades or units?

DCIs from previous units and/or grade levels. In planning this unit, it builds upon ideas from earlier grades and OpenSciEd units while also preparing students for ideas they will encounter in high school. As stated previously, the tsunami hazard was purposefully chosen for this unit to leverage ideas from grades 3-5 and the previous OpenSciEd units. 

  • Building upon waves. Tsunami hazards build directly upon Disciplinary Core Ideas from 4th grade in which students learned about physical waves: 
    • PS4.A: Waves, which are regular patterns of motion, can be made in water by disturbing the surface. When waves move across the surface of deep water, the water goes up and down in place; there is no net motion in the direction of the wave except when the water meets a beach.
    • PS4.A: Waves of the same type can differ in amplitude (height of the wave) and wavelength (spacing between the wave peaks).

Note: This unit does not build upon any new grade 6-8 DCIs for Waves and Wave Properties. Those DCIs are developed in Unit 8.2 Sound Waves.

  • Building upon the distribution and impact of natural hazards. Tsunami hazards build directly upon the grades 3-5 Disciplinary Core Ideas regarding the present and impact of natural hazards:
    • ESS3.B A variety of natural hazards result from natural processes. Humans cannot eliminate natural hazards, but can take steps to reduce their impacts. 
  • Building upon Defining Problems and Developing Solutions. This unit builds upon ideas from the 3-5 grade band for Engineering Design, but most specifically these three DCIs:
    • ETS1.A: Possible solutions to a problem are limited by available materials and resources (constraints). The success of a designed solution is determined by considering the desired features of a solution (criteria). Different proposals for solutions can be compared on the basis of how well each one meets the specified criteria for success or how well each takes the constraints into account. 
    • ETS1.B: Research on a problem should be carried out before beginning to design a solution. Testing a solution involves investigating how well it performs under a range of likely conditions. 
    • ETS1.B: At whatever stage, communicating with peers about proposed solutions is an important part of the design process and shared ideas can lead to improved designs. 
  • Building upon geologic processes. Tsunami hazards also directly build upon Disciplinary Core Ideas from grades 6-8 regarding geologic processes and changes in Earth’s surface, which come just prior to this unit in the OpenSciEd Scope and Sequence: 
    • ESS1.C: Tectonic processes continually generate new ocean sea floor at ridges and destroy old seafloor at trenches. 
    • ESS2.B: Maps of ancient land and water patterns, based on investigations of rocks and fossils, make clear how Earth’s plates have moved great distances, collided, and spread apart.
What are some common ideas that students might have?

Students will likely have ideas about the kinds of natural hazards that might impact their community, but may not bring with them ideas about the magnitude, intensity, seasonality, or causing mechanisms for why and how these natural hazards occur where and when they do. They will likely know of natural hazards that can get “really bad” or “really strong” or “really big”–these incoming student ideas will be useful in helping students develop ideas about the magnitude, intensity, and size of natural hazards. 

Students will also likely bring with them ideas about natural hazards happening “really fast” (e.g., an earthquake or tornado), but some that are not as fast, like an approaching hurricane. This idea can be leveraged to help students build an understanding that some natural hazards give people more or less time to respond when they are happening. 

Finally, students may not realize all the different kinds of hazards that are happening all over the world at any given moment. While this unit is focused specifically on the tsunami hazard, and also gives students an opportunity to investigate a local hazard when possible, it will be important to help students understand that natural hazards are linked to natural processes on Earth, and that they occur all over the world as these processes play out over time.

What modifications will I need to make if this unit is taught out of sequence?

This is the fifth unit in 6th grade in the OpenSciEd Scope and Sequence, and it is intentionally planned to come just after the 6.4 Plate Tectonics. Given this placement, several modifications would need to be made if teaching this unit earlier or later in the middle school curriculum. These include:

  • If this unit is not taught after 6.4 Plate Tectonic, then students will need to develop some ideas around geologic processes related to plate movements and the release of energy that we feel as earthquakes. This is the main causal mechanism for tsunami formation and are prerequisite ideas for Lessons 2 and 3 in this unit, and also an important idea if students investigate earthquakes as a hazard in Lesson 9. 
  • Additionally, if this unit is taught before 6.2 Thermal Energy, more support will need to be included for helping students identify a design problem and defining criteria and constraints. The current unit assumes students have already done some initial work in this area during the Thermal Energy unit. 
What are prerequisite math concepts necessary for the unit?

This unit requires students to triangulate data across different units of measurement and symbology as they work with a series of maps in Lesson 2. It also references units of measurement throughout the unit, such as magnitude or wave height. There are no required math concepts for this unit. However, prerequisite math concepts that may be helpful include:

  • CCSS.Math.Content.4.MD.A.1 Know relative sizes of measurement units within one system of units including km, m, cm; kg, g; lb, oz.; l, ml; hr, min, sec. Within a single system of measurement, express measurements in a larger unit in terms of a smaller unit. Record measurement equivalents in a two-column table. 
  • CCSS.Math.Content.5.NBT.A.3 Read, write, and compare decimals to thousandths.
  • CCSS.Math.Content.5.NBT.A.4 Use place value understanding to round decimals to any place.

It is important to note that this unit is reinforcing some elementary mathematics standards in a new context and using scales at which students may have not considered before; thus, we anticipate that while some of the mathematics in this unit is aligned to upper elementary math development, it may be a new challenging context for students to apply the mathematics ideas. 

How does this unit support empathy and emotions?

This unit has an intentional effort to support students’ empathy and emotional responses as they relate to natural hazards. Many students may have directly experienced a natural hazard in their lifetime, and in some cases, these students may have been scared or lost valuable property, their homes, or even a loved one. For other students, they may not have experienced a natural hazard directly, but they will feel empathy for the people who experienced the 2011 tsunami in Japan. They may have some level of anxiety or sadness associated with knowing the tsunami hurt and killed people, and destroyed homes and even entire towns. 

It is important to recognize for students that this is a very natural and normal response. No one wants to see others hurt during a natural hazard. Equally important is to emphasize for students that learning about natural hazards and how to protect communities can help save lives in the future. Indeed, this is the desire that drives engineers who focus on hazard mitigation; these individuals use their knowledge about natural hazards to design systems that can protect communities from future loss. The goal of this unit is to help students use science and engineering ideas and practices to empower them to prepare for and respond during a natural hazard that may impact them and their community. 

In particular, be prepared to support students in the following lessons:

  • Lesson 1: The videos and text of the anchoring phenomenon are likely to elicit an emotional or empathetic response from students as they view the destruction of the 2011 tsunami. The text and videos were purposely edited to avoid any viewing of people struggling in the tsunami or any audio of scared people. There are many videos of tsunamis and other natural hazards online, and the majority include people screaming, running, or being injured by the hazard. We recommend avoiding these videos as they will not add to the goal of the unit and can unnecessarily raise anxiety in students. 
  • Lesson 7: Students will hear an audio clip with tsunami alarm systems. This will raise anxiety in students as they listen to the sounds. This lesson purposely introduces the sounds to help students understand what it is like when a community member receives a natural hazard warning signal. They are intended to alert people to action. Prepare students prior to playing the clips, and do not play the clip if you have students who could be affected by loud, alarming noises. 
  • Lesson 9: Students will investigate a local hazard and develop a communication plan for stakeholders in their community. At this point, students are assessing their own risk of a natural hazard and planning for how they and their loved ones might respond. Emphasize for students that while it is scary to plan for a natural hazard that might impact their community, it is important to be prepared and respond appropriately if it does happen. 

If you have students who have traumatic experiences from natural hazards, a recommended source to read is: https://www.cdc.gov/childrenindisasters/schools.html