Kate Gramling Principal consultant Illumineer

Making Sense of a Natural Disaster

PostedWednesday, April 3, 2019 at 9:11 AM

Making Sense of a Natural Disaster

On March 21, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released its annual Spring Outlook. It included a map showing elevated risk for major or moderate flooding for roughly half of the continental US. This wasn’t welcome news to people in Nebraska who were, at that moment, still reeling from one of the worst floods in the state’s history.

2019 Spring Flood Outlook

Flooding is the most common natural disaster. Every single state and territory in the U.S. experiences floods. The greatest risk of flooding comes at different times of the year in different parts of the country, but it can happen in any season. It is incredibly destructive, causing billions of dollars in damages each year.

Even if your community has been lucky enough to be spared devastation so great it makes the national news, chances are very good that you and your students have — or know someone who has — a first-hand account of some kind of flooding. That can make it a sensitive topic.

The students of today, however, will likely see, read about, or experience many more catastrophic floods during their lifetimes. Heavy rainfall events are increasing in number. They are happening more frequently and they are producing heavier downpours. Rising sea levels and more intense tropical storms are also increasing the risk for flooding in coastal communities. Plus more people are living in densely populated areas that are vulnerable to flooding.

Why am I talking about floods in an engineering education blog?

Understanding the how and why of floods involves every STEM subject — plus history, geography, economics, and communications. It involves recognizing different stakeholders trying to solve different kinds of problems - often involving trade-offs that affect other people. This is a topic that naturally lends itself to be investigated through engineering-oriented activities and discussions.

Here is just a small sampling of questions that could be explored:

  • What kind of flooding is the greatest hazard to our community (or my family)?
  • What is a levee and where should it be built for effective flood control?
  • What is the best way to protect a single house on a low hill from rising floodwaters? (This one could be a great design challenge.)
  • Why are communities built in floodplains? What would protect them from a flood?
  • What technologies or infrastructure could help a community recover from a major flood?
  • What is more cost-effective: building to prevent a flood or building to recover quickly in the event of a flood? (This could a great gateway question into a discussion of resilience for older students.)
  • Which areas of our community would be most vulnerable to flash flooding? What infrastructure would help make them less vulnerable?
  • How can a city protect itself from high storm surges? Would the same infrastructure work for small towns? In different regions?
  • A community is located downstream from an aging dam. What belongs in their community emergency plan to respond to a record-breaking rainstorm? What about a family living in that community?

Many free resources are available for anyone interested in learning about different aspects of flooding. Here are just a few:

How to Prepare for a Flood book cover coverThe Federal Emergency Management Agency has produced a guide, “How to Prepare for a Flood” that includes useful, easy-to-digest information.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provides several flooding resources, access to free computer applications that model storm water flow – including one that will allow users to model how different green infrastructure tools affect run-off, and a “Flood Resilience Checklist” which helps guide a discussion on community flood preparedness.

The Association of Floodplain Managers has put together a collection of K-12 Flood Education Resources that includes links to sites that provide background information, downloadable materials, sources of data for your own projects, and a few lesson plans.

There aren't as many lesson plans or student resources that use engineering to help students understand flooding, but here are a few: 

Don't Flood the Figits is an online game developed by the people at Design Squad Global.  Players have to decide how to spend a budget to build a community for the Figits that can withstand flooding.

Floodplain Modeling is a TeachEngineering activity designed to help students think about how water moves through a landscape. Variations on the activity have students considering how a permeable surface affects water flow and how topography affects the course of a river (and where buildings are sited).

Pump It! Design-Build-Test Helpful Village Water Pumps is another TeachEngineering activity. This one has student groups design, build, test and improve devices to pump water for a rural village. Pumps help supply drinking water and can help protect the village during a flood.

I wish I had more examples of flood-related engineering education activities that I could share with you. I feel like there should be lots of them, because it’s a topic that brings together so many different subjects and cries out for people to work together to find better solutions.

If you know of any good activities, or have suggestions for how to improve or create them, please add a resource, ask a question, or leave a comment below. Together, I think we can help students — the engineers of tomorrow — start thinking about protecting people in future floods.

Photo Credits:

Feature image of 2008 Flooding in Missouri from the FEMA Photo Library, found on Wikipedia
2019 Spring Flood Outlook from the NOAA website
How to Prepare for a Flood from the FEMA document cover

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