Jan. 18, 2005

Cornell graduate student uses Asian tsunami as opportunity to teach area high schoolers about science -- and tragedy

ITHACA, N.Y. -- If there ever were a teachable moment when it comes to tsunamis, physics and fault lines, that moment is now. And Cornell University graduate student Evan Variano is making sure it's not lost.

In the wake of the devastating Asian tsunami, he's taking a lesson plan he has developed -- and a portable teaching device -- to high schools in the Ithaca and Rochester areas during January to answer students' questions about the physics of tsunamis, the technology required to detect the killer waves, and the economics and sociology of developing early warning systems.

"I'm trying to cover whatever the students are curious about," says Variano, a graduate student in Cornell's School of Civil and Environmental Engineering. His mentor is tsunami expert Philip Liu, professor of civil and environmental engineering, who is leading a fact-gathering delegation of American scientists from the National Science Foundation's Tsunami Research Group and the U.S. Geological Survey into wave-ravaged Sri Lanka.

Variano, whose specialty is turbulence, is a fellow in the Cornell Scientific Inquiry Partnerships (CSIP) program. The fellowship is a National Science Foundation-supported program that gives 10 Cornell graduate students free tuition and a stipend in exchange for about 15 hours a week teaching in area public schools.

He is teaching high school students studying earth science, environmental science and biology how underwater earthquakes trigger the destructive waves. The teaching device, which Variano built with the help of Cornell technicians Paul Charles and Tim Brock, is a tube that allows students to experiment to see how a tsunami develops differently depending on what type of shoreline it hits.

"The wave drives through the deep ocean at 500 miles per hour, and without losing energy it builds up to 30 feet tall as it approaches shallower water and the shore," explains Variano. "When it hits the coastline, it's the turbulence -- the mixing -- that hits from all sides and holds people underneath the water. This causes most of the death and destruction."Variano also makes a point of discussing more than the science of waves and earthquakes with the high school students, because, he says, "Science doesn't happen in a vacuum."

Observes Karen Taylor, an earth science teacher at Dryden High School, which Variano visited last week, "Many eyebrows were raised when Evan shared with them the cost of an early tsunami detection system in the Indian Ocean [$30 million] versus the amount of relief money donated worldwide [$3 billion to $4 billion] versus the amount of money the United States has spent on the war in Iraq [more than $200 billion]. Evan did a great job of clearing up some misconceptions the students had, and they learned quite a bit about wave formation and why the tsunami behaved as it did."

Variano also visited Sarah Brumberg's earth science class at the Lehman Alternative Community School in Ithaca, where the students' interest was so great that Variano came back for another two days.

"He was really wonderful in answering the kids' questions and letting discussions build," says Brumberg. Variano covered tsunami detection systems, who makes the decisions and where the money comes from, how the waves vary depending on the shape of the shoreline, what would set off a tsunami warning system, false versus real alarms and whether animals could sense the Asian tsunami beforehand. "We talked about the two kinds of earthquake energy waves, how waves travel, the speeds of waves and how water waves are the slowest so animals could have heard or sensed vibrations before the tsunami."

Says Variano, "The lesson ends with the students writing about what they can learn about their own lives and their place in the world community from the Asian tsunami disaster." The high school students have the option of contributing to a book of community writings on the Asian tsunami to be published and distributed locally in conjunction with the Durland Alternatives Library at Cornell.

Variano expects to visit at least another half dozen schools by the end of the month, to discuss both the science of tsunamis and the socioeconomic problems resulting from the disaster.