Unit Overview
6.5 Natural Hazards

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

Unit Summary

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 where tsunamis occur, how they form, how they move across the ocean, and what happens as they approach shore. The second part of the unit transitions students to consider combinations of engineering design solutions and technologies to mitigate the effects of tsunamis. Finally, students apply their understanding to consider how to communicate about another natural hazard to stakeholders in a community.

*Note about recent changes to this unit - In February 2022 the development team adjusted the unit to include a new section building towards MS-PS4-3: Integrate qualitative scientific and technical information to support the claim that digitized signals are a more reliable way to encode and transmit information than analog signals. This updated version integrates a new Lesson 8 into the storyline that focuses on developing PS4-3 through further exploration of hazard communication systems and different signals used to send alerts to communities. Using text, images, and videos, students explore the evolution of emergency communication systems over time. They obtain information about the benefits and challenges of different systems, and in particular, the types of signals used to alert people. Students gather information from the text and multimedia to support the claim that digital signals are more reliable ways to transmit information. The remaining lessons in the unit are unchanged.

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Additional Unit Information

Building Toward the Following Standards and Practices
Performance Expectations
  • MS-ESS3-2: Analyze and interpret data on natural hazards to forecast future catastrophic events and inform the development of technologies to mitigate their effects.
  • MS-PS4-3: Integrate qualitative scientific and technical information to support the claim that digitized signals are a more reliable way to encode and transmit information than analog signals.
  • MS-ETS1-1*: Define the criteria and constraints of a design problem with sufficient precision to ensure a successful solution, taking into account relevant scientific principles and potential impacts on people and the natural environment that may limit possible solutions.
  • MS-ETS1-2*: Evaluate competing design solutions using a systematic process to determine how well they meet the criteria and constraints of the problem.
Disciplinary Core Ideas
  • 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 historical tsunami data, videos, simulations, and physical models to investigate where and why tsunamis form, how they move across the ocean, and what happens as the wave approaches shore. They also use historical data for nine other natural hazards to determine general patterns of risk and their own local level of risk for each hazard.
  • 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. Students use criteria and constraints, based on the science and engineering ideas developed in the unit, to evaluate design solutions and technologies that work together to mitigate the effects of natural hazards.
  • ETS1.B: There are systematic processes for evaluating solutions with respect to how well they meet the criteria and constraints of a problem. Students systematically evaluate structure design solutions and technologies to determine how well they meet criteria and constraints for communities and stakeholder groups.
Focal Science and Engineering Practices
  • Analyzing and Interpreting Data: Students construct and/or use multiple graphical displays (e.g., maps, scatter plots) of large data sets to identify linear relationship and distinguish between correlation and causation.
  • Mathematics and Computation Thinking: This is the first time in 6th grade that students use digital tools to  build their own scatter plots with large data sets and look for patterns and trends between multiple variables.
  • Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions: Students construct written explanations during the mid-point (Lesson 4) and summative (Lesson 9) assessments to apply science ideas and evidence to identify areas of risk and why, and to use relationships between variables to support a prediction of risk for tsunami and local natural hazards.
  • Engaging in Argument from Evidence: For the first time in 6th grade students are evaluating competing design solutions based on jointly developed and agreed-upon design criteria. Initial students are given some criteria for the tsunami design solutions, but later in the unit, they develop their own jointly agreed-upon criteria for natural hazards communication systems. This scaffolding allows students to practice developing criteria and constraints as a class and then apply them to design solutions.
  • Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information: Throughout the unit students are gathering, reading, synthesizing and evaluating information from multiple sources (e.g., text, data, maps, graphs, images). The scaffolding around this practice lessens so that by the final project in Lesson 9, students are gathering, evaluating, and communicating information independently with a guiding framework for the kinds of information they need, but flexibility to allow 
Focal Crosscutting Concepts
  • Cause and Effect: Students will build a Tsunami Chain of Event diagram that links together cause-and-effect relationships across science and engineering ideas from the unit. These science and engineering ideas are developed in Lessons 2-7.
  • System and System Models: Integrated with the Tsunami Chain of Events is a Hazard System Model that links components of subsystems with those science and engineering ideas about tsunamis. These components and subsystems are developed in Lessons 5-7 and integrated in Lesson 8.
  • Stability and Change: Throughout the unit, students often consider the rate of onset of hazards and how quickly a “sudden event” can disrupt the stability of a system. This aspect of the crosscutting concept is used to consider how people will need to respond in such an event.
  • The unit also includes opportunities to practice using Patterns; Scale, Proportion, & Quantity; Energy and Matter; and Structure and Function
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 

Unit Acknowledgements
Unit Development Team
  • Audrey Mohan, Unit Lead, BSCS Science Learning
  • Whitney Smith, Unit Lead, BSCS Science Learning
  • Ari Jamshidi, Writer, University of California, Berkeley
  • Natalie Keigher, Writer, Lisle Junior High School
  • Dawn Novak, Writer, BSCS Science Learning
  • Tracey Ramirez, Writer, The Charles A. Dana Center, The University of Texas at Austin
  • Abe Lo, Reviewer, PD design, BSCS Science Learning
  • Mikala Popovec, Pilot teacher, Chicago Public Schools
  • Ty Scaletta, Pilot teacher, Chicago Public Schools
  • Katie Van Horne, Assessment Specialist, Concolor Research
  • Jerry Mitchell, Unit Advisory Chair, University of South Carolina
  • Brittany Bird, Advisory Team, Hermosa Middle School
  • Cindy Colomb, Advisory Team, Hermosa Middle School
  • Michael Novak, Advisory Team, Northwestern University
  • Karla White, Advisory Team, Bethany Public Schools
Production Team

BSCS Science Learning

  • Kate Herman, Copyeditor, Independent Contractor
  • Rosemi Mederos, Copyeditor, Independent Contractor
  • Renee DeVaul, Project Coordinator
  • Valerie Maltese, Marketing Specialist & Project Coordinator
  • Chris Moraine, Multimedia Graphic Designer
  • Kate Chambers, Multimedia Graphic Designer
Unit External Evaluation
NextGenScience’s Science Peer Review Panel

An integral component of OpenSciEd’s development process is external validation of alignment to the Next Generation Science Standards by NextGenScience’s Science Peer Review Panel using the EQuIP Rubric for Science. We are proud that this unit has earned the highest score available and has been awarded the NGSS Design Badge. You can find additional information about the EQuIP rubric and the peer review process at the nextgenscience.org website.