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Rocked by Nature’s Power After learning about natural hazards and their impact on society, students in this geology course took a mind-blowing field trip to Mount St. Helens.

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Photos courtesy of Mary Wilson Grist ’22, Ruth Dibble ’22 Geology Lab Technician Emily Falls.

Natural hazards often have catastrophic effects, but movies like “The Poseidon Adventure,” “The Day After Tomorrow” and “San Andreas” make them the stuff of entertainment.

Cassidy Jay, visiting assistant professor of geology at Washington and Lee, parlayed the morbid fascination behind such films into a 2019 Spring Term class that examined the science behind phenomena like hurricanes, volcanoes and earthquakes, as well as how scientists and the media can better inform and educate the public. As part of Jay’s course, Earth Lab: The Next Big One, students visited Mount St. Helens in Washington to examine the aftermath of a massive volcanic eruption.

The class was made up of mostly first-year students and sophomores, some of whom are thinking about declaring a geology major or minor.

“A lot of people don’t find rocks incredibly interesting,” Jay said. “But when you start thinking about natural hazards, it is more active and exciting, more relevant and accessible. So I personally think it makes a good entry point.”

The course began in Lexington with lessons about the science behind natural hazards. Next, students watched a few of those “bad disaster movies,” as Jay called them, and reflected on the messages they put forth. They discussed whether the films improve understanding among audiences or actually increase risk by perpetuating misconceptions and encouraging unsafe behavior.

On May 5, the group headed for Washington, where they checked into the Mount St. Helens Institute and spent several days exploring the area. A guided hike allowed students to learn about the ecology of the area pre-and post-eruption, while a role-playing activity challenged them to analyze data and make decisions about when and how to alert the public in the face of an imminent volcanic eruption.

While exploring the landscape, the group saw giant stumps and fallen logs from trees that had been blown over from the lateral blast of the eruption, as well as mangled logging equipment that had been twisted like taffy. The class also explored lava tubes, which are cave-like structures formed by basaltic magma that solidifies on the outside of the flow.

“We learned about volcanoes in the classroom, but it seemed like there was a big perspective change when we actually got out there and saw the scale of the destruction and how big the mountain is now compared to how much bigger it was before 1980,” Jay said.

As a final project in the course, students were tasked with developing community educational materials. One built an educational game based on the game “Mafia,” but with a Mount St. Helens theme. Several teamed up on a website that provided resources for different natural hazards. One group came up with a song geared toward children, while another created a hands-on activity for use at farmers markets and other public gathering places.

“They took on a range of communication strategies,” Jay said, “but I thought they did a fantastic job of taking the science that we talked about and using it to mitigate risk and make communities and people safer.”