CORVALLIS - An innovative course about earthquakes at Oregon State University that links science, technology and public policy was outlined today as one of the ways that geological information and other sciences can be effectively communicated along with their policy implications to a broad, often non-scientific audience or group of students.
In a presentation at the annual meeting of the Cordilleran Section of the Geological Society of America, OSU educators noted the high popularity of the course and success in helping students understand both the geology of earthquakes in the Pacific Northwest and the lessons they hold for concerned citizens, homeowners, and informed voters.
"OSU's baccalaureate core actually requires that students take a course such as this, because there's an increasing recognition that science and technology are relevant to our daily lives and as a society we have to make good decisions," said Andrew Meigs, an OSU assistant professor of geosciences and instructor for the course. "Hopefully more universities can develop educational approaches such as this which connect science with the world around us."
In this case, OSU students learn about earthquake risks in the Pacific Northwest. Since the course is open to students with little or no scientific background, the course begins with an introduction to basic geology, the vastness of geologic time, plate tectonics, faults, earthquake seismology, and other issues.
The students then consider the various types of earthquakes that may face the Pacific Northwest, such as shallow crustal quakes, slab earthquakes and the potentially catastrophic subduction zone phenomenon that can generate a region-wide earthquake of magnitude 8.0 to 9.0 every 300-600 years.
Students, teachers and guest lecturers talk about earthquake forecasting, building codes, tsunami response, earthquake insurance, landslides, soil liquefaction, financial costs and potential casualties. And they finish the class with a term paper that synthesizes some aspect of these issues.
"This course is enormously popular," said Bob Yeats, who is a professor emeritus of geology at OSU, the author of "Living With Earthquakes in the Pacific Northwest, a textbook developed for the course, and an internationally recognized expert on earthquake science.
"They like the multidisciplinary blend of science and policy, and it gets them thinking about new issues and potential solutions," Yeats said. "The course is always filled to capacity."
Having more people aware of the risks from earthquakes in the Pacific Northwest is a small, first step in preparation for this potentially catastrophic problem, Yeats said. It's always difficult to motivate and sustain public awareness and action about earthquakes, he said, because they happen so infrequently and people tend to forget about them soon afterwards. Strict adherence to appropriate building codes is a viable long-term approach, he said, but does little to address the short-term risks that are of special concern to schools, hospitals, and other large public buildings.
Students also learn some of the basic and often fairly inexpensive things they can do to prepare their own home for an earthquake - small steps that range from strapping down a water heater to adding some bolts that fasten the house to the foundation.
Another value of the course, Meigs said, is helping students to understand the scientific method - an evolving system of looking at the world based on data, experiments and verifiable observations, not just a "collection of facts" which never change, as too many people often assume. Understanding the process of science, Meigs said, can hold great value not just for considering the risks of earthquakes but in making informed decisions about a wide range of issues.
"Our changing view of earthquakes in the Pacific Northwest is actually a classic case of science at work," Meigs said. "Fifty years ago no one thought that earthquakes posed a major risk to this region, and those beliefs were grounded in the best science available at that time.
"Now, with numerous new studies, a better understanding of plate tectonics, and compelling new data, the scientific perspective on earthquakes in the Pacific Northwest has come full circle, and we realize we are very much at risk here."