Hurricane Georges: An Interdisciplinary Lesson
(Published in the TechEdge, 1998-99)
During late September, 1998, hurricane Georges cut a path of destruction through heart of the Caribbean and the Gulf coast of the United States. Over three hundred people living on Caribbean islands were killed by the storm. Its strong winds, heavy rains, storm surge, and tornadoes resulted in an estimated two billion dollars in damage on the island of Puerto Rico alone. Thanks to advances in meteorological technology and the communication potential of the internet, events like hurricane Georges provide opportunities for integrated classroom learning about dramatic current events. This article provides detailed instructions for teaching a multi-day classroom lesson about Hurricane Georges using computers and internet resources as tools in the learning process. A copy of this article, including links to all referenced resources, is available online at www.wtvi.com/teks.
Integrated Learning is the Best
It is unfortunate that today in Texas, because of the tremendous pressure to help students succeed on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, fewer teachers have time to present integrated, thematic lessons. Research shows that students learn best when knowledge and skills are presented contextually rather than in isolation. By choosing a topic like Hurricane Georges for class instruction, a wide variety of skills and concepts in different subject areas can be explored simultaneously.
In the December 1960 issue of The Mathematics Teacher, Jerome Bruner observed "Teaching children to think is most difficult. We know that education does not take place without thought and without encouraging further thought. We also know that further thought about any topic will exist only to the degree that one possesses a favorable disposition toward that topic, idea, or subject." When teachers use internet resources to focus on an exciting topic like tropical storms, students get excited. They ask questions which go beyond the scope of the planned lesson. They acquire knowledge and skills in math, science, reading, and social studies, without ever realizing they are "doing work" in a particular content area. Perhaps most important, as Bruner noted, students get excited about the learning process itself and engage in critical thinking.
This lesson can be presented either in a classroom setting with a single computer (or "garden" of computers), or taught in a lab where each student has access to his/her own computer. The minimal requirements include:
It is important to note that a classroom phone line, network wiring connection, or other connection to the internet is NOT required. Using WebWhacker software, internet content can be downloaded at home or in the computer lab and transferred to a computer in the classroom. For more information about WebWhacker, refer to the article "Offline Web Browsing = No More Excuses" at www.wtvi.com/teks/article4.html or the workshop "Internet Research in the Classroom: Online and Offline" at www.wtvi.com/offline.
If available, several other materials are helpful. The teacher can use a television, VCR, and recorded news reports or video coverage of a hurricane's damaging effects to introduce the lesson. If an AverKey or other scan converter is available to display the computer screen on the television, the class can view satellite images, news photos, graphs, and other multimedia elements during the lesson more easily from their seats. Students can complete the basic lesson requirements with a pencil and their handout. The optimal situation, however, is for students (individually or with a partner) to transfer their written answers and map drawing into a digital computer document. The ClarisWorks drawing environment works well for this purpose on both Macintosh and Windows computers.
The purpose of this lesson is to motivate students to learn a wide variety of information about tropical storms and extend their understanding of the scientific relationships of meteorology. While learning these concepts, students exercise a variety of reading skills and demonstrate mastery of numerous mathematics, social studies, and science skills. Additionally, if equipment is available, students can utilize computer technology to find information and incorporate it (in both textual and graphic forms) into a word processing document or multimedia presentation. The overarching purpose of this lesson is to encourage students to embrace an attitude of inquiry relating to meteorology and tropical storms, which will lead to personal discoveries and learning experiences which go beyond the stated objectives of the lesson.
If students have the opportunity to put their answers into a computer document, some of the specific TEKS for Technology addressed by this lesson include:
Introducing the Lesson
Videotaped news coverage of hurricane Georges, or any other powerful hurricane, provides an excellent introduction to this lesson. If you do not have access to videotapes of hurricanes or do not have an opportunity to tape a segment yourself from the evening news or the Weather Channel, short video clips are available to download from the internet. Visit www.cnn.com/video_vault/explore and search the video archive for the keyword "hurricane." This simple search yields over 100 different movie clips in varying formats. To search for only Quicktime movies (or another specific file format), click on "Expanded Search" (http://magnifi.cnn.com/powersearch.html) and check only those file formats you want to find. For tips on downloading and presenting Quicktime movies , see www.wtvi.com/teks/article6.html.
One of the most popular sites for obtaining information about current events is the Cable News Network's site, CNN Interactive (www.cnn.com). In the case of a Caribbean hurricane, however, better news coverage is often provided by international sources. The site "El Nuevo Dia Interactivo" (www.endi.com) is the Puerto Rican equivalent of CNN in Spanish. Whether or not you have Spanish language skills, this website can provide your classroom with a wealth of multimedia resources on Caribbean current events. Additionally, it can provide an eye opening experience for students to the international nature of the internet. The link to "Galería fotográfica del huracán" (Photographic Gallery of the Hurricane) on the ENDI homepage in late September, 1998, contained numerous, dramatic photos of hurricane damage, including the accompanying photograph of a severed highway bridge near the Arecibo radio telescope. Due to the dynamic nature of a website like endi.com or cnn.com, however, information about hurricane Georges may not be available there when you decide to teach this lesson. If you do not have success finding images at either of these websites, use the resources mirrored at www.wtvi.com/teks/hurricane.
The introduction to this lesson provides an ideal time to review place location geography skills with students. Reviewing the locations of continents, oceans, and the islands in the Caribbean is a good place to start. Longitude and latitude should also be discussed. Next, ask students where they think hurricanes are born, or spawn. The Federal Emergency Management Agency website (www.fema.gov) includes a link to a page which answers this question. The color coded map of hurricane tracks for 1998 (www.fema.gov/hu98/tracks98.gif) shows that hurricanes affecting the eastern and southern United States form off the coast of Africa. Students looking at that map can see how some hurricanes veer north and lose their energy, while others head toward the US only to turn abruptly east. Students can also see how some hurricanes, like Georges, plow west across the Caribbean and over the United States, possibly even dropping large amounts of rain on their own hometown. Additional information about hurricane origins is available from The Weather Channel online at http://www.weather.com/breaking_weather/encyclopedia/tropical/origins.html. FEMA's Tropical Storm Watch page (www.fema.gov/fema/trop.htm) is also a useful resource.
After introducing the lesson, pass out a copy of the project instruction sheet to each student. First, students should use the data contained in the table to plot nine points on the path of hurricane Georges in the Caribbean. Instruct students to round longitude and latitude measurements to the nearest whole number, and review the rounding process. As a technique for plotting, have students sketch a light line across their page on the appropriate parallel (latitude line), and a light, vertical line along the meridian (longitude line). Have students draw an "X" or large dot on the intersection of these two lines. This instructional technique was effective with fourth, fifth, and sixth grade students. Older students may need less guidance. If they are struggling, however, allow students to pair up and work collaboratively on this project. After you have graphed three points together as a class, have students continue the plotting process independently.
Once students have successfully plotted the path of hurricane Georges on their paper, they can replicate the track on the computer. If you are teaching this lesson in a one computer classroom or another situation where it is not practical for every student to utilize a computer, you can choose to complete these next steps together.
Prior to the lesson, insert the hurricane tracking chart created by NOAA (www.citi-net.com/george/tropical/images/htrkchrt.gif) into a ClarisWorks drawing document or other word processor that includes drawing tools. Rather than reduce the image to fit on a single page (in landscape, not portrait orientation), move the map so the longitude and latitude axis scales are visible on the bottom and right edges of the page. Have students use the circle and line tools from the drawing toolbar to plot the track of Georges across the Caribbean, as shown in the accompanying illustration.
After students complete their digital hurricane plot, have them answer questions two through six using internet websites and multimedia CD-ROM encyclopedias. To facilitate this process, you can either link to or WebWhack (two levels deep) the following webpage: www.wtvi.com/teks/hurricane/georges.html. This webpage contains all the links students will need to answer the questions on their project instruction sheet. You may consider adding your own questions to this list. An online copy of the instruction sheet is available at www.wtvi.com/teks/hurricane/handout.html, which you can print or copy and paste into your own word processing document to make modifications as appropriate.
In addition to the websites already listed, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Geostationary Satellite Server (www.goes.noaa.gov) is a fantastic repository of current and archived satellite photos. The GOES satellites are the geosynchronous satellites that the United States government maintains over each coast. Technically speaking, "a geosynchronous orbit is one that has the same orbital period as the Earth's sidereal rotation (23 h 56 m 4 sec), but does not have an orbital inclination and eccentricity of zero" (www.astro.virginia.edu/~eww6n/physics/GeosynchronousOrbit.html). In layman's terms, this means that the satellite's continuous fall toward earth (its orbit) is in perfect sync with our planet's rotation. GOES 8 is the satellite over the east coast, GOES 10 is over the west coast. From the GOES image search browser, you can download any image from either satellite from the past twenty-one days. The search interface allows you to specify the date and time of the photo, as well as the type (visible or infrared). This website is a tremendous resource! Since photos of hurricane Georges may not be available when you choose to teach this lesson, copies of several GOES images are available at www.wtvi.com/teks/hurricane/georges.html.
Use of GOES satellite imagery will naturally introduce the concept of GMT (Greenwich Mean Time), also called "Zulu time," into your classroom. As part of the project activities, students will learn about this standardized time used by pilots, meteorologists, truck drivers, and UPS delivery men. They will also learn how to convert their local time into GMT, and vice versa.
While this lesson can be taught in a variety of settings and with students of different grades, it was originally designed as a computer lab lesson to be taught during three weeks. During that period, students came to the computer lab for three forty-five minute lessons.
The best time to teach a lesson about hurricanes is during hurricane season. What time of year is that for the United States? The fifth question on the student instruction sheet asks just that question. A graph on the FEMA website (www.fema.gov/hu97/strmfrm.htm) provides the answer: August through October. Whether you choose to teach a lesson on hurricanes during these months or not, students can benefit tremendously from the knowledge and skills they gain in a variety of content areas. These benefits go well beyond the geographically oriented purposes for this project.
In the area of mathematics, this lesson teaches students how to plot points on a coordinate grid system. They are required to successfully round longitude and latitude measurements to the nearest whole number. Students learn about measuring wind speed in knots and air pressure in millibars. They additionally interpret data contained in graphs and could even construct their own graphs with gathered data as an extension activity.
Students practice a variety of reading skills during this lesson as well. Students are required to summarize information, interpret data contained in a table, make generalizations, and determine the main idea of a passage. Students must draw inferences from textual information and write sentences which support these conclusions with evidence from the text.
Social studies skills embedded in this lesson include an understanding of longitude and latitude and the ability to plot points on a map. Students learn how to use geographic tools to collect, analyze, and interpret data. They review place location (names and locations of continents/oceans/islands) and are further exposed to the concepts of time zones and time conversion.
As the stated purposes of this lesson indicate, it is principally focused on helping students understand scientific concepts and relationships. Students learn about the development and life of tropical storms and hurricanes, geostationary satellite orbits, and concepts of air pressure and wind speed.
This list of student knowledge and skills is only partial. Additional directions the lesson takes are up to you and your students to determine!
Can you say "TAAS Objectives?"
After reading over the previous list of curriculum links, Texas teachers can quickly recognize that virtually all of these skills and concepts correspond to objectives of the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS). Rather than presenting TAAS skills in isolation, however, this lesson takes an integrated approach which is more motivational and simply more fun for students and teachers alike.
This lesson epitomizes the philosophy that technology is not the "end" of classroom instruction, it is merely one of the "means" of making that instruction more exciting and effective. Whether your lesson is about hurricane Georges or a different topic, technology can open doors of instructional opportunity for you and your students that would have been impossible just five years ago. The potential for this type of classroom instruction is available to every one of us: our challenge is to obtain the tools and knowledge required to realize that potential in our classrooms!
Wesley Fryer is a teacher in the Lubbock Independent School District. He majored in Geography at the US Air Force Academy and has always had a passion for meteorology. He invites your questions and comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.