From Bureau of Economic Geology, The University of Texas at Austin (
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2003 Geological Society of America Annual Meeting & Exposition
November 2-5, Seattle, Washington

Cataclysms and Catastrophes: Engaging Students to Address Real-World Situations Using Scientific Data Analysis

Rebecca Smyth, Katherine Ellins, Nedra Bonal, Tiffany Hepner, Matthew Morris, Gail Christeson, Sean Gulick, Mae Dinan, Timothy Fennell, and Darwin Thomas


The explosion of Earth science data widely available to educators and students has served as a catalyst for the development of inquiry-based learning activities that can be used effectively to teach science and mathematics. Our NSF-sponsored Cataclysms and Catastrophes curriculum resources comprise six teaching modules that collectively contain 16 inquiry-based activities developed by scientists from the Institute for Geophysics (UTIG) and the Bureau of Economic Geology (BEG), middle and high school teachers, and UT graduate students (NSF GK-12 fellows) working together. Our aim is to get students' attention through critical analysis of catastrophic events such as hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, and asteroid and meteorite impacts. Learning activities utilize real scientific data to address real-world situations to which students and their teachers can easily relate. They introduce a wide range of modern technologies used in the Earth sciences today, including: scientific ocean drilling, airborne topographic mapping using Lidar, GIS, GPS, marine geophysical surveying, geophysical logging, earthquake seismology, and computer modeling. All activities are aligned with national and state education standards.

The Coastal Processes module allows students to collect beach topographic data to determine dune and beach volumes, calculate rates of shoreline change, and study effects of storms on beaches. Activities are based on data from BEG's Texas High School Coastal Monitoring Program. The Plate Tectonics module uses plate reconstructions generated by the UTIG PLATES project and data collected by the Ocean Drilling Program to introduce plate tectonics and understand how continental drift, earthquake/volcanic activity, crustal generation/subduction, sea-floor spreading, and mantle hotspots are explained in plate tectonic theory. The Earthquakes module uses data from the TexSeis network to characterize seismic waves and identify earthquake locations. The Forensic Seismology module uses TexSeis data for Space Shuttle reentries over Texas and the breakup of Columbia to introduce this emerging field.