K-20 Education

If you want to know which trees best resist South Florida’s hurricane winds, just ask Natalie Lazaro.

A curious forth grader at the St. Lawrence School in North Miami Beach, Natalie looked into this subject for her school science project. She took photographs and prepared a catalogue of the trees in her neighborhood and interviewed representatives of the Miami-Dade Agricultural Extension Service and the Miami-Date Office of Emergency Management.

She found out where trees should (and shouldn’t) be planted, and how they can be pruned so that their limbs are less likely to become flying missiles in a hurricane. Currious adults in her neighborhood wound up eager to have their trees included in her research.

Natalie’s project stems from an innovative program called “Developing a Culture of Mitigation Through Education,” also know as the “K12 Project,” that was developed by Ricardo Alvarez, an architect specializing in mitigation, and his wife Marcia, a teacher and educational psychologist. Under the auspices of Florida International University (FIU), the program is designed to teach children about measures people can take to lessen their vulnerability to natural disasters as well as terrorist attacks.

“It’s not easy to educate the public about tried and true measures they can take to protect their homes,families and businesses from disaster,” Says Alvarez, now the program’s director. “This program aims to change that by educating children about mitigation, or disaster damage reduction, so that they will think about it and practice it as adults.”

Alvarez, an adjunct professor and research associate in the Department of Construction Management at FIU discovered that hazard mitigation was not being taught in Florida universities – and recognized the value of teaching it in schools as well. The project provides school teachers with the support and knowledge they need to add content to their existing programs, so that they can teach the children about damage, hazard, vulnerability, and mitigation. Information provided by the Department of Homeland Secrity’s Federal emergency management Agency was incorporated into some teaching materials.

Ten elementary, middle, and high schools in Miami Dade and Broward counties and a primary school in Costa Rica participated in 2004. Teachers from public, private and parochial schools received fund to develop lesson plans purchase teaching materials, participate in workshops or evaluate the program. The program not only provides educational materials on hazard mitigation, it also uses field trips and a variety of creative approaches.

For example, to teach preparedness for natural and manmade disasters, two teachers developed a game called “Home Free USA.” In this board game students learn what steps to take to prevent or lesse the effects of such incidents. Classes also visit local firehouses, emergency operations centers, and the International Hurricane Research Center, and the children develop individual projects at home and present them at school science fairs or other events that also involve the parents and the local community.

Alvarez says his program sparks interest in the school-wide events by turning them into contests. “We invite local and state mitigation people, as well as local fire and rescue to judge the kids’ projects and give prizes for the best projects,” he said. The children have shown how creative they can be. Kids have come up not only with mitigation plans for their families, but they have also shown that they think about the community at large. Their ideas include innovative plans for residences, commectial buildings, airports, even the Everglads. “The kids have com up with some amazing projects. For them anything is posible,” notes Alvarez. Ones child, for example, proposed mounting a house on hydraulic lifts, so that it could be raised when flooding is imminent. “He even thought of having a pump to remove floodwaters from the foundation,” Alvarez exclaims.

K12 also sponsors events to reach whole communities. During Hurricane Awareness Week, the program sponsored an exhiit at the Miami Children’s Museum. There, school science fair prize winners showed [they] were able to teach other children the concept and practice of hazard damage prevention.

The exhibit included a wind tunnel and models of houses with various types of roofs. By placing the models in the wind tunnel, the children learned which types of roofs resist strong winds the longest.

But it is not only the children who benefit. Often, parents become involved as their kids work on school science projects. K12 surveyed the parents of the children in the program at the beginning of the year to find out how many of them knew what hazard mitigation was, and again later to see how much they had learned through their children. According to Alvarez, the children, who are free of pre-conceived notions, acquire the knowledge more easily than their parents.

“We are trying to fill a gap in knowledge that exists. People are always surprised when hazards, such as hurricanes happen,” says Alvarez. “Through this program, we are trying to teach that we can protect ourselves and we can do it through mitigation.” The project was initially funded by the U.S. Office of Naval Research trhough the University of South Florida’s Center for Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance. The Florida Division of Emergency Management’s Department of Community Affairs provided subsequent funding.

More information on the K12 project can be obtained by calling (305) 931-0871 [or emailing Ricardo Alvarez].