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Tsunami demo smashes learning barriers

Curious Minds

Republished from Curious Minds

In the first project of its kind, a group of scientists are hoping to make a world of difference for young people with learning disabilities who are leading, or are about to lead, independent lives.

The project, called Action Planet, takes 16- to 25-year-olds on field trips around the Greater Wellington region to give them hands-on experiences relevant to their lives – including responding to earthquakes and tsunamis, keeping bad bacteria away and dealing with climate change.

The project is run by a collaboration between earth science experts and aided education specialists that is led by Chris Hollis, Principal Scientist in Paleontology and Past Environments at GNS Science.

For Chris, Action Planet’s source of inspiration started at home.

“Its existence is partly due to the ‘arguments’ that my son Ben and I have had about climate change!” he says.

Ben and his brother have Fragile X syndrome and it was through them that Chris realised that young people with learning disabilities are less likely to find the facts on issues like climate change.

“Most don’t get their knowledge by reading the newspaper or online articles, but from the TV or social media,” Chris explains. “So I wanted to come up with a way that gives them the right information while making it meaningful and usable in their daily lives.”

“I don’t think there’s another project specialising in teaching earth sciences to young people with learning disabilities anywhere else in New Zealand. Or anywhere else in the world, actually.”

Exploring earthquakes

On 20th October, the young adults embarked on their third day of an eight-day series that runs every 1-2 weeks until December.

he day started with a visit to Mount Victoria Lookout in Central Wellington, where GNS Science Earthquake Geologist Ursula Cochran showed them where and why the huge 1855 earthquake and tsunami happened in Wellington Harbour.

The highlight for many was seeing the landscape shaped by the historical quakes, along with Ursula’s surprisingly realistic demonstration of an earthquake-triggered tsunami using a big tub of blue water – which they also had a go at recreating.

Afterwards everyone went to Houghton Bay on Wellington’s south coast, where they learnt about how to know which earthquakes are most likely to create a tsunami and how high up to go to avoid its impact.

Ursula showed how long a 1-minute earthquake feels like and then got everyone to walk up to two tsunami safe zones – seen as bright blue lines on the road. They found that it was quicker to walk to the blue line on the steepest road closest to the shore than on the easier shallow incline, which could make all the difference in the 10-minute window before the tsunami arrives.

“I liked learning about the earthquakes and how the big ones make tsunamis. It would be cool to have an earthquake ‘cause then the school would be closed and I’d get to sleep in!” jokes 17-year-old Niue.

Iopu, 19, adds, “My favourite part was being up Mount Victoria and finding out how the tsunami hit Wellington Harbour.”

Thinking differently about storytelling

The project is a big learning curve for the scientists too.

The aided education specialists tell us that many of the young adults have an attention span that quickly drops off if they have to stay still and listen. So people like Ursula and Chris have to rethink how they share their scientific knowledge.

“This is quite different from communicating with other scientists as we have to try and show them concepts rather than tell them, which is pretty challenging,” Ursula says.

“As scientists, we’re so used to just talking about what we know, so it’s quite hard to try and come up with visual ways of explaining these things that doesn’t take up too much time or money.”

Ursula has also seen that all of them respond differently to what they experience, which has shown her that everyone has their own rhythm in learning.

“A few of the participants came over here from the Pacific Islands quite recently and they’re really into it – especially the stuff about earthquakes as these fieldtrips are a new opportunity for them,” she says.

“Others seem like they’re not paying attention because they’re not looking at you for example, but then suddenly they’ll say loads about what you’ve just been talking about.”

“This is only our second field trip and already they’re all really blossoming, which is just so great to see.”

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