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UBC Reports | Vol. 50 | No. 8 | Sep. 2, 2004

Disaster Course a Hit with Students

By Michelle Cook

The combination of mass destruction and human drama that has made so many Hollywood disaster movies box office hits, has also proven to be a winning formula for a UBC Science course.

With 1,200 students expected to enrol this year, the earth and ocean sciences first-year course on The Catastrophic Earth -- Natural Disasters is one of UBC’s most popular elective courses. You could call it an academic blockbuster.

While many courses start off with large enrolments, then lose students after classes start, enrolment in EOS 114 usually increases by 100 students in the first few weeks. Talk about rave reviews.

“Students like it because we make disasters fun,” says Prof. Roland Stull, the course’s creator and lead instructor.

“We firmly believe that science doesn’t have to be boring. We believe we can teach the science of disasters -- the physics, the dynamics and those things -- yet keep the whole thing exciting.”

With the aid of dramatic film footage, photos, statistics and news clips, students are taken on a wild trip through the science of earthquakes, volcanoes, landslides, storms, tsunamis, meteor impacts and mass extinctions.

Although no longer part of the coursework, in previous years, Stull even had students watch Hollywood disaster movies to critique them for scientific accuracy. (Just in case you were wondering, The Core gets a thumbs down, and The Perfect Storm a solid thumbs up.)

Sarah Chan and Samantha Tsang, both 2nd-year Arts students, signed up for the summer 2004 session of EOS 114 on the recommendation of a friend who had taken the course. They say they liked it so much they’ll pass the recommendation on to others -- but they’re not ready to jump ship from Arts to Science -- yet.

“The course was well taught and it put a lot of things into perspective,” Chan says. “In the media, you’re told the wrong things about disasters. It’s very stereotyped. In this course, you learn the truth.”

Chan and Tsang also say they’ll never watch Hollywood disaster movies in quite the same way again.

“It’s a lot of fantasy,” Tsang says.

“But now we can be critical of it on the basis of scientific information,” Chan adds.

But didn’t all that talk of mass destruction leave them feeling a little paranoid?

“Yeah, living in Richmond, a little bit,” Chan laughs. “If there’s an earthquake, we’re going to be the first to go.”

Launched four years ago, EOS 114 is taught by a “dream team” of seven specialists in specific disasters who’ve all had first-hand experience in the field. Stull, for example, is a weather expert who used to chase storms in Oklahoma when he was a university student.

The instructors are supported by an army of TAs who also staff an Earth Course Assistance Centre during the term to give students one-on-one help.

The goal of the course is to teach students how and when natural disasters occur, how to recognize them, how to identify hazards, the science behind them, and what students can do to ensure their own safety and plan their lives. Things “like where they might and might not want to buy a house, like probably not along the shoreline of Florida because a hurricane or storm surge will wipe it out,” Stull says.

Despite his obvious enthusiasm for the course, Stull says it’s not meant to make light of the often devastating natural occurrences that happen around the globe on a daily basis.

“I tell the students every day that our business is to help save lives and reduce economic losses,” Stull explains. “Even so, this is our field of study and we’re excited about it, so we teach it with the same excitement, but I let people know we’re not insensitive.

“I think the students feel that. They can tell that when there’s a really good storm or earthquake, we get excited about it.”

Originally conceived as a way to increase enrolment in the department, the course is also designed to advertise related courses in the field, and encourage undeclared students to consider earth and ocean sciences as a major.

The approach has been so successful that it’s even spawned a spin-off. Dinosaur’s Earth (EOS 116) was launched last year after students raved about the segment of EOS 114 on mass extinction.

The popularity of EOS 114 doesn’t surprise Stull.

“Everyone is interested in disasters,” he says. But, he adds, if students learn one thing from the course, it should be that science is fun -- and they should choose where they live very, very carefully.

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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