Cool Class: Natural Disasters—Hollywood vs. Reality

In EARTH 101, disaster films are the gateway for conversations about understanding and communicating the science of earthquakes, tornadoes, meteors, and more.

Blue sign that says Cool Class Earth 101 with a white arrow by Nick Sloff '92 A&A


In geosciences professor Kevin Furlong’s class, EARTH 101: Natural Disasters—Hollywood vs. Reality, students watch clips from Hollywood movies to understand earthquakes, tornadoes, tsunamis, meteors, and other natural disasters. The drama of classic “disaster” films like “Dante’s Peak, “Volcano,” and “Megafault” grabs students’ attention and engages them quickly, says Furlong, and makes for a great conversation starter.

“The goal isn’t to say ‘what’s wrong with Hollywood,’ but to say, ‘what’s going on here,’” he says.  “Hollywood really gets the students engaged and it’s our starting point to understand the underlying realities of events like earthquakes and meteors, to learn about their impact, and to discover some of the differences and discrepancies between Hollywood and reality.”

Inevitably, EARTH 101 students learn a good amount of the science behind natural disasters. But Furlong’s assignments are designed to teach students how to communicate that science to a broader audience. They may be asked to write a newspaper article or an op-ed piece on a given topic, or produce an information brochure about volcanic hazards for a national park,” he says. “One of the hardest things about writing about technical things is you have to understand it to be able to write it in a way that doesn’t just rely on jargon. And that’s what we want, because, sure, they can memorize terms like earthquake magnitude, but that’s not what matters. What matters is being able to communicate the science.”

Furlong also shows students PBS documentaries and episodes of NOVA. These deepen the conversation, he says, and bring up other issues related to the impact of natural disasters, like climate change, environmental justice, socioeconomic disparities, and emergency preparedness policies.