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December 18, 2017
Students and Teachers Respond to 2017’s Natural Disasters

by John Larmer
Editor in Chief

As I write this Southern California is ablaze with wildfires. It’s very unusual for the fire season to continue into December, but I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised in these times of global warming. Along with the images of destruction, I’ve been reminded once again of how people rise up to support each other during natural disasters and show incredible resilience, from hurricanes in Houston, Florida and Puerto Rico, earthquakes in Mexico, the spring floods in the Midwest, to the tornadoes last January in the Gulf states and South Carolina.

Resilience and the determination to rebuild are themes we’ve seen here in Northern California too. Last winter we experienced widespread flooding, and then in October came the infamous wildfires in wine country. The air around our office in nearby Marin County was smoky for days, and we all know someone who was directly affected. But even while the fires were still raging, we heard stories of neighbors helping neighbors who didn’t previously know each other, and communities coming together even stronger than before.

Students and Teachers Respond with Projects

We always say ideas for PBL projects can come from many sources, including current events. Throughout the year I saw examples of teachers and students responding in positive ways to natural disasters by doing projects in which students took action. Here are a few--and if you know of more, please add them in the comments below:

•  At Daniel K. Inouye Elementary School in Hawai’i, first graders in Jennifer Lesner’s classroom decided to help students in Houston by doing a project focused on the driving question, What do they need to do their best learning? The students learned about what floods were and why they occur, how people are affected, and brainstormed ideas for how to help. Then they raised money and shipped boxes of school supplies to Houston and other affected areas in Texas.

•  At Rocket New Tech high school in El Paso, Texas, 9th graders in Melissa Saldana and Emma Weatherly’s AP Human Geography/English class tackled “The FEMA Project” with the driving question, How can society prepare itself for inevitable natural disasters? The students read the short story “The Most Dangerous Game” to begin thinking about the idea of “survival strategy” then added maps, geo-spatial devices, and technology to explore the geography of human interaction. Students created a natural disaster survival resource website, and held a fundraiser to help the victims of Hurricane Harvey.

•  At Sage Canyon Elementary in Castle Rock, Colorado, the 2nd grade teaching team has recently planned an economics/civics project in which students will “explore the impact of disasters in different places and how they lead to a scarcity of resources. They’ll collect and analyze data to determine how to best support those that have been recently impacted and create a plan to prepare for areas in which those disasters frequently happen.”

•  At Green Run Collegiate, a high school in Virginia Beach, VA, history teacher Hilary Hoffman designed a project with the driving question, How can we best aid an area in need as a result of a natural disaster? Students chose to focus on California, Mexico, or Puerto Rico and consulted with experts as they developed and carried out their plans to help.

•  At Tri-County Early College High School in North Carolina, students are engaged in the “Superhero Solutions” project, with the driving question, “How can we identify problems and create practical solutions to support communities impacted by natural disasters?” The project will conclude this week with a fair in which students will interact with adult professionals in emergency management services and disaster relief operations.

•  After the fires were out, students from Compass Academy in Idaho Falls (photo below) visited their fellow New Tech school in Napa in a rental truck loaded with supplies donated by Idaho Falls residents, to be made available in a “community store.”

The Napa Valley Comes Back
Speaking of Napa, as you might know that’s where the Buck Institute holds its annual PBL World conference. The city of Napa and towns up the valley were untouched by the fires, as were the vineyards on the valley floor. American Canyon High School, where PBL World takes place, is south of the fire area and was used as an emergency shelter. Many of the hills around the valley were blackened, but by spring we can count on our winter rains to have restored the grasses, a process that’s already started.

The people of Sonoma, Mendocino, and Napa Counties are as resilient as Mother Nature, as residents everywhere prove to be when disaster strikes. They’re rebuilding homes, keeping businesses going, and tending to the natural environment. Recently I have heard advertisements on the radio asking residents of the Bay Area to visit the wine country and support local businesses, who saw a big drop in out-of-area visitors in October, usually their biggest month for tourism. So it was great news when the Napa Unified School District approved our request to hold PBL World at American Canyon again; it felt like we were contributing to the area’s comeback. You can too—registration is opening soon. Here’s to seeing you in June!


If you know of more PBL projects done in response to natural disasters, please add them in the comments below.


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