Curricular Unit: Natural Disasters

Contributed by: Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Colorado Boulder

Six images: (left to right) Photo of a TX tornado's black funnel cone looking huge in a street scene with telephone poles, photo of homemade mini-marshmallow-toothpick structure wobbling on a bed of Jello-O, photo shows a Clarksville, MO, street intersection submerged in Mississippi River water, cutaway diagram shows underground layers and parts of a volcano, photo shows red lava spewing and flowing down a Kilauea, HI, slope, aerial photo shows hillside and road that slid down into a La Conchita, CA, neighborhood of houses.
Natural hazards include tornados, earthquakes, floods, volcanoes and landslides.
Copyright © NOAA Photo Library; 2004 Jessica Todd, ITL Program, University of Colorado Boulder; NOAA; US Geological Survey; FEMA; RL Schuster, US Geological Survey, US Department of the Interior


Students are introduced to our planet's structure and its dynamic system of natural forces through an examination of the natural hazards of earthquakes, volcanoes, landslides, tsunamis, floods and tornados, as well as avalanches, fires, hurricanes and thunderstorms. They see how these natural events become disasters when they impact people, and how engineers help to make people safe from them. Students begin by learning about the structure of the Earth; they create clay models showing the Earth's layers, see a continental drift demo, calculate drift over time, and make fault models. They learn how earthquakes happen; they investigate the integrity of structural designs using model seismographs. Using toothpicks and mini-marshmallows, they create and test structures in a simulated earthquake on a tray of Jell-O. Students learn about the causes, composition and types of volcanoes, and watch and measure a class mock eruption demo, observing the phases that change a mountain's shape. Students learn that the different types of landslides are all are the result of gravity, friction and the materials involved. Using a small-scale model of a debris chute, they explore how landslides start in response to variables in material, slope and water content. Students learn about tsunamis, discovering what causes them and makes them so dangerous. Using a table-top-sized tsunami generator, they test how model structures of different material types fare in devastating waves. Students learn about the causes of floods, their benefits and potential for disaster. Using riverbed models made of clay in baking pans, students simulate the impact of different river volumes, floodplain terrain and levee designs in experimental trials. They learn about the basic characteristics, damage and occurrence of tornadoes, examining them closely by creating water vortices in soda bottles. They complete mock engineering analyses of tornado damage, analyze and graph US tornado damage data, and draw and present structure designs intended to withstand high winds.

Engineering Connection

Engineers learn about our planet so that humans can exist with and survive its powerful natural forces. Engineers must be aware of natural hazards in order to prevent or minimize their harmful effects on people and property. By creating improved techniques and materials, engineers make sure the structures we rely upon are built strong enough to reduce human injuries and casualties from the tremendous natural forces of wind, snow, water, fire and moving earth. While most natural hazards cannot be prevented, engineers do their best to create data gathering, monitoring, measuring, prediction and warning equipment, tools and models to protect human populations. Engineers use their science and math skills to build instruments and computer programs that can detect gases, changes in the shape of volcanoes, monitor underground movement, and estimate storm locations and severity. Data is collected by cameras, seismometers, GPS, pressure sensors, radar and satellites. Other helpful technologies include avalanche beacons and airbags, lightning rods, building shock absorbers and sliders, and warning sirens. Engineers work with scientists to determine locations at which dangers exist, how to minimize risks, and how to prevent the actions of people from creating catastrophes. Engineers also design test facilities to simulate and study hazard characteristics and model scenarios with computer simulations. Engineers also analyze and learn from past failures as a way to continue to improve structural designs, advance warning systems and emergency procedures for human safety. As engineers create devices that detect natural hazards, build structures to withstand them, and invent devices to study them, they use the process of gathering and analyzing data to better understand problems and formulate solutions.

Educational Standards

Each TeachEngineering lesson or activity is correlated to one or more K-12 science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) educational standards.

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Unit Overview

All lessons provide a real-world engineering context, helping students understand what engineers study and create to help people live with natural hazards. Overview of topics by lesson: 1) introduction to natural hazards and natural disasters, 2) the structure and dynamics of the Earth, its layers, tectonic plates, continental drift and faults, 3) earthquake measurement including seismographs, and structural considerations, 4) the Earth's core and the causes, composition and types of volcanoes, 5) characteristics of and contributing factors to land and mud slides, 6) understanding tsunami formation and devastation to human-made structures, 7) various causes of flooding and the Earth's water cycle, 8) the characteristics, damage and occurrence of tornados, and structure design to withstand high winds.

Unit Schedule


See individual lessons and activities.


© 2006 by Regents of the University of Colorado

Supporting Program

Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Colorado Boulder


This digital library content was developed by the Integrated Teaching and Learning Program under National Science Foundation GK-12 grant no. 0338326. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the National Science Foundation, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.