Leola Rutherford, the sole sixth grade teacher at Girdwood PreK-8 School near Anchorage, Alaska, has walked teachers, emergency managers, Alaska Native middle school students, and her own classroom through a seemingly silly activity: tugging one sandpaper-covered wooden block across a sandpaper runway.
It sounds like fun and games, but exercises like these hold important lessons. That activity, called the earthquake machine, simulates the geology behind earthquakes. As learners pull one block with a rubber band, they mimic tectonic plate movement. When the block lurches across the sandpaper in a jerking, stop-and-go rhythm, it mimics an earthquake. And by pairing that basic science with practical safety tips, Rutherford and other educators hope to build geohazard resilience in Alaska.
Rutherford learned many science fair–like activities, including the earthquake machine, in 2019 during an educator workshop put on by a National Science Foundation–funded education program called ANGLE, which stands for Alaska Native Geoscience Learning Experience. “It’s definitely one of the best trainings I’ve ever attended,” Rutherford said. “I can guide discussions with my students a lot better because I’ve actually experienced it with other teachers and heard their a-ha moments.”
ANGLE began in 2018 with the goal of fostering disaster resiliency through education, particularly in rural Alaskan and Native coastal communities. The project was modeled after previous Washington and Oregon programs (Cascadia Earthscope Earthquake and Tsunami Education Program (CEETEP) and Teachers on the Leading Edge (TOTLE)) that brought educators together for similar workshops. Now, as ANGLE draws to a close, the team behind 5 years of community-focused training will present its work on 14 December at AGU’s Fall Meeting 2022.
Building Community Resilience Through Education and Networking
Thousands of Alaskans live at risk of earthquakes, tsunamis, landslides, and volcanoes. In particular, because of their locations and distance from emergency services, rural coastal communities are particularly vulnerable to earthquakes and tsunamis, said ANGLE organizer Beth Pratt-Sitaula of Central Washington University.
The earthquake machine was just one activity of many at ANGLE’s 4-day educator workshops, which taught Alaskan K–12 teachers, emergency managers, and park and museum interpreters more than they could learn from a textbook, Rutherford said. They networked with different types of educators, practiced activities in a judgment-free learning space, and grew a curiosity about Earth’s inner workings.
In addition, ANGLE organizers have modified these workshops to bake them into preexisting programs for middle and high school students from rural Alaska Native villages. ANGLE supported about a dozen Alaska Native Science & Engineering Program (ANSEP) academies for students that ranged from 1.5-hour virtual sessions to weeklong career explorations. In one such workshop, for example, middle schoolers learned how GPS works and designed tongue depressor structures to withstand an earthquake.
After those academies, some ANSEP students said they want to be geologists, said Beth Spangler, the program’s senior director. ANGLE materials remain a part of ANSEP programs today, she noted.
“The work that ANGLE is doing is very important and is often overlooked,” said Elizabeth Vanacore, a seismologist at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez who is not involved with the team. “When you’re looking at things like grants or promotion in academia, this type of work should be encouraged and rewarded.”
The educator workshop participants almost doubled their geohazard knowledge, according to surveys collected by ANGLE. Before each workshop, educators didn’t feel very confident about helping to prepare their community for disasters. Afterward, their confidence and optimism increased.
ANGLE workshop participants also returned home with a box of materials, including the earthquake machine, to continue sharing these lessons in their communities.
Vanacore has witnessed similar ownership of disaster preparedness in Puerto Rico, where she and the local TsunamiReady program equipped community leaders with tsunami resources. Now, those same leaders run annual tsunami evacuation exercises on their own.
Although ANGLE funding is expiring at the end of 2022, the network it has built will remain. “We’re a small town in Alaska, so we’re going to see each other, and we’re going to be able to continue these relationships,” Rutherford said. “Anyone can go online and watch YouTube videos, but nothing replaces meeting people face to face and physically being able to play. I mean, it’s science. It should be fun.”
—Anna Marie Yanny (@annamarie_yanny), Science Writer