Teaching Tsunamis and Invasive Species

In the summer of 2012, an enormous Japanese dock washed up on the Oregon coast, bringing with it over 100 species of sea creatures, most considered non-native to the West Coast. Even though the magnitude 9.0 Japanese earthquake happened over two years ago, the continued arrival of floating tsunami debris along the Pacific Northwest coast illustrates the long-term effects that tsunamis can impart, including a newly discovered phenomenon: the threat of invasive species hitchhiking across the ocean on tsunami marine debris.

Japanese dock

Japanese dock washed up on the Oregon coast summer 2012

Because of the tsunami’s impact and relevance, Oregon Sea Grant at Oregon State University has developed a new tsunami-related curriculum that integrates science, civil engineering and the role of people and communities to connect science-based lesson plans to the impacts of tsunamis, including actions that individuals and communities can take.  Oregon Sea Grant WISE program has been busy sharing this curriculum with teachers.  It is now available for free on line, and we have presented it at several workshops specifically focused on getting students and teachers excited about STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math), including a LEGO League robotics “Nature’s Fury”  workshop on October 19th 2013 and a SMILE (Science, Math, and Investigative Learning Experiences) workshop March 16, 2013

At the WISE/SMILE workshop, a group of WISE teachers met at Oregon State University and learned all about the animal hitchhikers from Japanese tsunami debris, and just as importantly, how they can help kids learn about tsunamis. Part of the lesson plan involved interacting with the sea creatures themselves.

Teachers studied invasive species at the tsunami workshop.

Teachers studied invasive species at the tsunami workshop.

In the conference room where the workshop took place, water-filled jars sat arranged on tables. These jars contained large-clawed crabs, slimy clusters of kelp, starfish, gooseneck barnacles with long stalks and a strange-looking, shrimp-like animal called a caprellid that resembles the monsters in the movie “Alien.” Teachers picked up the specimens and examined them more closely, studying the animals’ unique attributes and matching them to the names and descriptions on their checklists.

The activity was one of many that teachers tested for the first time, playing out activities that they could use in their own classrooms. In one activity led by Hinsdale Wave Research Lab education and outreach coordinator Alicia Lyman-Holt, teachers gathered at the back of the conference room, observing two long, plastic tubs filled with sand and water. Grabbing wooden paddle boards, the teachers pushed against the water, causing the waves to lap up against the sand and wash over plastic blocks that looked like buildings. With enough force, the water could completely knock over the buildings, mimicking the full force of a real tsunami.

This quick activity represents the nature of tsunamis in real life – they’re not giant tidal waves that instantly envelop the coast. Instead, they’re a series of shockwaves, giant ripples that emanate from an event like an earthquake.

Other activities introduced real life applications of math by showing how to calculate the speed of an incoming tsunami and help determine how much time people have to escape the advancing wave. And the sea creatures in jars came in handy when they provided the teachers with a hands-on opportunity to interact with the Japanese dock creatures in a scientific scavenger hunt called a “bioblitz.”

Bioblitzes are a great way to introduce students to a wide variety of species: participants scour a natural area for organisms, identifying them and marking them on lists to get a feel for the biodiversity of a habitat. While this sort of activity is a lot of fun, it’s hard to pull off in the classroom. The new curriculum provides a way to do the entire activity indoors.

Organisms found on Japanese floating dock on Agate Beach, Oregon, June 2012

Organisms found on Japanese floating dock on Agate Beach, Oregon, June 2012. Image Credit: Jessica Miller

For this exercise, teachers used preserved specimens from the dock and compared them to their checklists by going down a list of characteristics and matching them up by description. An excellent lesson in taxonomy, this bioblitz had the advantage of being portable, making it more accessible to classrooms.

Earlier this June, Siuslaw School District teacher Andy Marohl tried out the tsunami curriculum with a class of eighth graders, and he says the experience was helpful for his students. Since the curriculum is adaptable and easy to rearrange depending on available time, Marohl focused on the introductory slideshow and bioblitz.

“They were especially interested once they found out about the European blue mussel,” Marohl says of his students. “They thought it was pretty interesting about the pathway that marine debris can take, and they were really curious about the potential impact of these invaders on their shores.”

Marohl says that his students were curious about the larger effects of potential invasive species in coastal ecosystems. He talked about the Japanese kelp Undaria and described how it could impact kelp forests in shore environments.

“I’m definitely interested in invasives and teach about them every year, so the curriculum was engaging to me from the get go,” Marohl says. “I thought the bioblitz activity was great. As a teacher, I found it really interesting.”

The WISE Program’s tsunami curriculum is now available for free online. Please visit the WISE webpage for curriculum, downloadable slideshows and further tsunami resources.


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One Response to Teaching Tsunamis and Invasive Species

  1. Niki says:

    Sounds like (WISE) Program with a very interesting topic: Teaching Tsunamis and Invasive Species. Stright away after reading the article it made me curious too- what was European blue mussel .
    thanks for the interesting insights

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