Since its inception in fall 2007, Unnatural Disaster Day has used a single environmental disaster to call to attention how a lack of human planning intensified “natural” disasters and guides students to begin developing the knowledge essential to preparedness.
Each year, a cohort of instructors from different disciplines—including geology, biology, history, English, and economics—selects an environmental disaster to study, such as the BP oil spill, the Fukushima nuclear disaster or the depletion of the Ogallala aquifer. Each faculty member devotes 1-2 weeks of class time studying that disaster from their disciplinary perspective. On Unnatural Disaster Day, all classes meet for a two-and-a-half hour event. At tables organized to seat one student from each discipline, students share their understanding of the disaster from their disciplinary perspectives.
On one sheet of butcher paper, students note commonalities between disciplines. On another, they categorize their knowledge as political, social, economic, or environmental. Like citizens coming together with specialized knowledge to create public policy, students then brainstorm to create an action plan for preventing or mitigating the effects of future similar disasters. After posting their action plans on the walls, students conduct a gallery walk. They discuss the commonalities and differences in their action plans and engage in a ten-minute written reflection about what they have learned.
The event models a participatory democracy as participants practice informed public dialogue while forming a more complete understanding of the disaster. Many instructors ask students to write a letter to a national or local leader proposing their plan of action to address the issue in question. Ultimately, the project aims to equip students to make better decisions about the future of the world.
Last semester, Chandler-Gilbert Community College held three Unnatural Disaster Days, involving nearly 100 students in each event.