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Jun 13, 2017 10:04 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Tuckahoe Students Rely On Math, Problem Solving Skills To Save Caribbean Island In Simulation

Tania Callecas, left, and Caroline Luss participated in an eMission project, where they had to work together to save the residents of the island of Montserrat from a volcanic eruption in the face of an approaching hurricane. AMANDA BERNOCCO
Jun 13, 2017 10:36 AM

A thick stream of molten lava started pouring from the Soufriére Hills volcano on the south side of the small island of Montserrat on a recent Friday morning. The lava was quickly approaching several small villages and the Caribbean island’s capital, Plymouth. It was up to a team of about 20 scientists to evacuate the residents from the danger zone and transport them to a shelter. There was just one problem: a Category 3 hurricane was rapidly approaching the island from the east.

An ambulance was about to be dispatched to pick up the residents—that is, until Caralynn Caulfield received word from her fellow scientists on her volcano team that the roads were beginning to be covered with lava. She had to find another, safer route to transport the residents before it was too late.

It was a difficult task, especially considering the scientists in charge were all between 12 and 13 years old.

The seventh-graders in Dennis Schleider’s class in the Tuckahoe Common School District were participating in an e-Mission science class run by The Challenger Learning Center at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia. A NASA mission control agent, referred to as “Commander Dharawat,” joined the class via a Skype video chat to help track the hurricane, predict volcanic activity and consider evacuation options.

The agent, donning a blue NASA uniform, paged the class after she got wind of an emergency.

“I’ve just been informed that there are nine burn victims from the fires from the projectile lava,” Commander Dharawat stated. “So, we want to send them to the primary hospital in Plymouth—or should we go to the clinic in St. John’s? Over.”

“St. John’s—Over,” responded Caralynn, one of the 12-year-old scientists.

Mr. Schleider has been completing this exercise in his class for nearly two decades—since the university first started offering it. He said he applied because he thought the hands-on experience would be a great learning tool for his students.

“Teachers wishing to host must go through training sessions prior to doing it with students,” he explained in an email. “It is quite a different experience with adults!”

Prior to the June 2 mission, he broke his class into four teams—communications, evacuation, volcano and hurricane—to prepare for the simulated disaster. Each team had a different role and then had to rely on their math, problem solving and teamwork skills in order to be successful in the mission.

The young scientists were also challenged to think quickly, as they received satellite data from the island every five to six minutes with updates on the catastrophe. The volcano, hurricane and evacuation teams had to pass their information on to the communication team. The communication team, in turn, was responsible for keeping mission control informed about the situation and relaying the recommendations from all teams.

“We were in a simulation for Montserrat, and our goal was to save everyone’s lives … and evacuate everyone without getting killed from the volcano or hurricane,” Carli Cameron, 13, said.

Carli was on the communications team and said it could be difficult at times to talk to the mission control agent through Skype: “I had to be loud, and it was a little hard to hear them, but once you got into it you got used to it.”

Caralynn also pointed to some difficulties.

“Our evacuation team, at one point there were two places—Plymouth and Weekes—and they had lots of people, and we were having a really hard time trying to figure out where we could send them because there were so many people there,” Caralynn explained. “We had to find a shelter and an evacuation site.”

Mr. Schleider pointed out that his students could not transport people off the island, whether it was by boat or plane, because of the conditions created by the approaching hurricane. “They had limitations with where they could send people on the island,” he said.

The class appeared to be successful in its mission: “Nine people were hurt but they were brought to a hospital as quick as possible and they were safe,” Carli said. “No one was killed.”

Though the June 2 disaster was only a simulation, it was based, at least partially, on a real-life scenario. The Soufriére Hills volcano is active and last erupted in 1995; it was the first eruption from that volcano since the 19th century. The volcano’s eruptions have made more than half of Montserrat uninhabitable—the island is 10 miles long, seven miles wide and has 25 miles of coastline—and destroyed the capital city, Plymouth. It also caused widespread evacuations, though there was no hurricane in the real disaster.

The volcano is still active today.

After the in-class exercise, the students said they were grateful that they had a lot of practice before they were responsible for saving lives in Montserrat.

“When the volcano team gave me their slip I was like, ‘They are probably not going to be wrong’ because when we were practicing a lot their information was always accurate,” Carli said. “And I was really impressed with the hurricane team because, in practice, they had a little trouble sometimes, and there were some things that needed to be fixed, but they had nothing that needed to be fixed [during the e-Mission].”

Mr. Schleider added that his students did a good job working together to save the island of Montserrat.

“The kids did exceed my expectations as they rose to the occasion and problem solved on their own with each new dilemma presented,” Mr. Schleider said. “[It was] very beneficial to all students, [the] closest thing to real-life problem solving during a disaster.”

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