Following a Coastal Geologic Hazards course in Rhode Island

This post belongs to a special series of posts written by students in Dr. Simon Engelhart’s Coastal Geologic Hazards course at the University of Rhode Island. In this course students learn about coastal processes, including storm surges and sea level rise, and how these impact people and the environment.

What are coastal geologic hazards? You may have heard about the recent 7.5 magnitude earthquake that rattled parts of Indonesia and triggered a tsunami that so far has claimed over 1000 victims. This is one example of a coastal geologic hazard, but coastal storms such as hurricanes and Nor’easters, sea-level rise, and beach erosion are other topics that come to mind. With much of the global population living along coasts and within 10m above sea level, it is important to understand the impacts that these hazards have on our communities. Geology plays an important role both by understanding the processes involved, such as how sediment is transported, and by allowing us to reconstruct when high impact events happened in the past, beyond our relatively short instrumental and historical records. But how do we communicate this research to the public? Writing and storytelling.

At the University of Rhode Island, Simon Engelhart is a faculty fellow of the SciWrite@URI program. SciWrite@URI is an NSF-supported Research Traineeship Program for both  graduate students and faculty members addressing the concern, while students are often trained to write for discipline-specific journals, they receive little instruction in communicating to public and non-specialist audiences. As part of his role as a Faculty Fellow in the program, Dr. Engelhart modified his Coastal Geologic Hazards course (GEO577) to encourage students to write for non-specialists, a particularly critical skill in the area of natural hazards, where clear communication of science is an important component in helping the public understand the hazard and be able to appropriately manage the risk from it.

University of Rhode Island students in a salt marsh. Source: Photo by Simon Engelhart.

Within the Geosciences department at URI, many of the undergraduate and graduate students choose careers that feature a significant writing component. This includes options such as environmental consultancy in fields ranging from hydrology to site remediation, following an academic track with the ultimate aim of obtaining faculty positions, or research positions within governmental or private organizations. A key component of many of these positions is being able to translate scientific results and jargon to a non-specialist audience. We invite you to follow along in the course this semester (without doing the homework!) by reading posts from students who will write about topics spanning the abrasion of micro plastics on beaches to the impact of sea-level rise on coastal wells in southern New England.

Over the next three months, the students (both senior undergraduate and graduate level) in the class will contribute reports on scientific papers, descriptions of the field trips that they take, and their semester-long research projects. The first reports will focus on the first field trip to Fox Hill Marsh in Rhode Island and readings on sea-level changes. To read these posts, follow the GEO577 tag.

Note from the instructor: We appreciate any feedback you have and are keen to hear your thoughts/ideas on promoting writing within class. If you have questions on how the course is structured, feel free to contact Simon Engelhart.

Feature image: Coastal environment in Italy. Photo by Simon Engelhart.

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Laura Schifman

I earned my PhD from the University of Rhode Island in Environmental Science with a focus on Hydrology in 2014. I have a fascination for the urban environment and clean water. So, what better way to combine that than working in stormwater? Aside from the sciency stuff I enjoy torturing myself on long bike rides, playing volleyball or tennis, riding horses, making anything edible (I miss the lab work), or playing cards. Twitter: L_Schifman

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