Transformative disaster

Winter in Wollongong is usually a fairly benign affair. Cool dry air, blue skies. But this past week we’ve had an east coast low that has brought severe weather warnings, heavy rain and localised flooding.

On Tuesday I was teaching our big first year human geography class. Five hundred students spread across five campuses – Wollongong, Shoalhaven, Southern Highlands, Batemans Bay and Bega. The theme of the lecture was ‘natural disasters’, and we were considering how they’re not quite as ‘natural’ as they might seem.

Among other things, I spoke about the UOW-led project PetaJakarta – a civic co-management platform that uses social media (in particular, Twitter) to map and disseminate information about flood affected communities in Jakarta, Indonesia. I drew on this fantastic project to illustrate the significance of community in negotiating environmental hazards, and to explore how hazards have transformative potential.

Tuesday was something of a hot-spot for extreme weather in our region. Turnout to my lecture was lower than usual, as roads were closed and warnings to avoid getting on them unnecessarily circulated. As we started the lecture one of our Bega students held up his phone to the video conference and asked if we’d heard that parts of the Shoalhaven were being evacuated due to flooding. With an inkling of the answer, I asked ‘how did you hear about this?’ His response: ‘Twitter’. Classmates had done a regular internet search and found nothing.

Intro Human Geography: Living in a Material World (Photo: Carrie Wilkinson)

Intro Human Geography: Living in a Material World (Photo: Carrie Wilkinson)

Back in Wollongong a couple of students left early to collect children following messages from schools alerting them that roads would be closed. But in the final half hour, something remarkable happened. Our Shoalhaven group politely interjected to let me know they needed to leave. They weren’t being rude – they were being evacuated. Flood waters were expected to cut road access.

I couldn’t have choreographed this class.

After weeks of clear, dry weather, my lecture on extreme environmental events coincided with our region’s extreme environmental event. Social media played a role in alerting us to the evacuation that we were about to witness – or experience – just as I spoke about the role of social media in communicating flood events in another part of the world.

The next day’s emails announced Shoalhaven campus closed for the day, at least. By all accounts our students are safe and well.

I’m left with a few thoughts rattling around in my mind:

  1. Weird coincidences make you think.
  1. Experiential learning is extremely affective. In geography we invest time and energy into field trips for our students. But life experience can be brought into the classroom in lots of different ways.
  1. I’m now even more intrigued about the transformative potential of ‘natural disaster’. Tuesday’s events transformed our lecture and our learning. Our Bega students announced the evacuation in part through care for the Shoalhaven students. Empathy, concern were palpable where I was in Wollongong. The events captured my attention and peaked my interest. If one extreme weather event can transform our learning on one day – can interrupt the usual way of things, inspire care, and peak interest – then surely natural disaster has the potential to transform existing social conditions.


[Thanks to my good colleague Lesley Head for suggesting – on Twitter – that I turn these brief observations into a blog.]


2 thoughts on “Transformative disaster

  1. Terrific stuff! Given the power of this, and that unusual events cannot be pre-programmed, my question now is how can we learn from this remarkable learning experience to introduce more real-life experiences into students’ learning. Problem-based learning in medicine comes to mind, but there are other ways of getting students out of the lecture theatre and into the real world.

    • Thanks for your great question Michael! Just what I’m thinking through. Field-based teaching is something we do, and do pretty well I think, in geography. Similarly problem-based tasks (such as ‘transforming a slum’, which our first year students are now working on, using a fictional place with real-world costings and moral dilemmas). I’m very keen to learn more about effective ways of bringing experience into teaching and learning. Next challenge!

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