UBC Reports | Vol. 50 | No. 8 | Sep.
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
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
“Students like it because we make disasters fun,”
says Prof. Roland Stull, the course’s creator and lead
“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
“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
“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.