Force of Nature

Ha long Bay world Heritage Site, Vietnam

On Course
Title: GSC 100 Natural Disasters: Hollywood vs. Reality
Department: Geological Sciences
Semester: Spring 2010

Each spring geophysicist Shimon Wdowinski packs a lecture hall full of 100 or so non-science majors eager to explore the causes, effects, and social responses related to volcanoes, earthquakes, tornados, and other chaotic occurrences.

“My class gets full very quickly,” said Wdowinski, a research associate professor at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. Of course, including the word Hollywood in the class’s name helps. So does having a syllabus that lists a spate of big-budget, special effects-laden blockbusters. Wdowinski livens up lectures by screening movies about mayhem, cinematic cyclones with taglines like “Terror is off the Richter scale” and “The coast is toast.”

But behind the silver screen lurks a serious message. “I want them to learn about the Earth and how it works, about relations between human life and the natural environment, and about social aspects and decision-making related to disasters and the environment,” he explained, ironically just weeks before April’s epic oil tragedy. “These concepts are good for general knowledge but may also be practical for some students who will pursue careers in politics or as civil servants.”

Another semester highlight is the Hurricane Smith simulation, in which students take roles as city officials in three communities in Florida, South Carolina, and North Carolina as a hurricane approaches land. Every 15 minutes during the exercise, students receive a weather update and must work in teams to continue evaluating the danger level, making decisions about whether to alert citizens about possible evacuation and other vital information. “After the activity, students usually get very interested in the real story,” said Wdowinski, who based the scenario on a 1999 hurricane that had a death toll of 57, according to the National Hurricane Center.

“This year, with the Haiti and Chile earthquakes,” noted Wdowinski, “we discussed more reality than Hollywood.”