Culturally relevant curriculum teaches students in grades K-12 about tsunami generation and preparedness

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In Brief

The Alaska Tsunami Education Program blends Alaska Native knowledge and science instruction in a hands-on, standard-aligned curriculum for grades K through 12. Digital lectures, interactive multimedia, and mapping projects give students an opportunity to learn the science of tsunamis in a culturally relevant context.


On average, two tsunamis inflict damage near an earthquake’s source each year. Approximately every 15 years a destructive, ocean-wide tsunami occurs. In Alaska, the tsunami threat level for the Bering Sea and Arctic coasts is very low. The southern coast of Alaska, however, is at risk. Major tsunamis were generated along the state’s coast in 1946, 1957, 1958, 1964, and 1965.

The Great Alaskan Earthquake in 1964, the second largest earthquake ever recorded by seismograph (with a magnitude of 9.2), lasted 4 minutes and was felt around the world. The quake extensively damaged buildings and infrastructure, triggered landslides and avalanches, and caused 131 deaths along the Pacific coast of southeast Alaska, British Columbia, Oregon, and California. Open ocean sea wave tsunamis created by movement in the sea floor and local wave tsunamis created by underwater landslides destroyed entire villages and port harbors. Due to vertical displacement of up to 38 feet, some towns and villages permanently relocated to higher ground.

Specific issues

Given the history of earthquakes and tsunamis in Alaska, it may be important for local students to learn how to prepare for a tsunami; however, curriculum that is implemented in Alaskan schools must meet state education standards.

The practice

The Alaska Tsunami Education Program curriculum includes hands-on, standards-aligned classroom lessons, visual aids, interactive multimedia, digital lectures, and global information technology exercises to increase awareness about tsunamis among students in grades K-12.

The curriculum has nine units, plus additional global information technology exercises, on the following topics:

  1. Introduction to Tsunamis
  2. Tsunamis of the Past
  3. Dynamic Earth
  4. Tsunami Generation
  5. Tsunami Propagation
  6. Tsunami Inundation
  7. Measuring and Predicting Tsunamis
  8. Hazard Mitigation
  9. Tsunami Event, Aftermath and Response

Each unit contains lessons for grades K-4, 5-8, and 9-12. Each ready-to-use lesson covers Alaska grade-level expectations, lesson objectives, materials, needed, background science information, activity preparation, activity procedures, handouts, answers to handouts, and visual aids.

The curriculum aims to blend cultural and scientific information in order to increase learning and be relevant to students’ experiences. Examples of culturally relevant information in the curriculum include:

  • Grades K-4 study tsunami facts from the perspective of Aleutian legends and oral traditions, including games for learning about the 1964 tsunami via storytelling. They learn about the resilience of Elders after the 1964 tsunami and evaluate community response in a way that reflects cultural values. Part of the curriculum also involves learning about how the science of waves affected the design of traditional kayak technology.
  • Grades 5-8 participate in telling local cultural stories and relating them to scientific information.
  • Grades 9-12 are asked to speak with Elders or culture bearers to learn about traditional tsunami survival skills.

Global information technology exercises teach the basics of mapping, graphing with GPS, and using Google Earth to create visualizations of tsunami trajectories, among other things.

What made this practice possible?
  • Federal funding. The program was funded by the US Department of Education.
  • Community collaboration and feedback. Scientists from the Geophysical Institute and the West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center, local teachers, community members, and tribal Elders contributed their expertise, stories and feedback during the design phase of the program.

Alaskan schools have a tsunami preparedness curriculum that is culturally relevant and aligned with grade level standards.

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