Disasters: Geology versus Hollywood

One of my favorite classes to teach is one aimed at non-science majors. Originally pioneered by Dr. Kevin Furlong at Penn State University, the idea is to use clips from Hollywood disaster movies to expose misconceptions, encourage discussion and invite students to discover the truth.  Can you really drive over a lava flow in a jeep? (Dante’s Peak) Are we foolish not to prepare for a major earthquake in New York City? (Aftershock) Could global warming melt the polar ice caps turning “dry land” into a myth? (Waterworld) Would the impact of an asteroid the “size of Texas” kill half the Earth by heat and freeze the remainder in a nuclear winter? (Armageddon) Learn the fundamentals of plate tectonics, how petrologic properties control volcanic explosivity, how to calculate earthquake locations from seismic data, and prepare a disaster readiness plan for a major U.S. city. By the end of the semester students should have acquired the background to understand the story behind disasters in the news and the role of the science in shaping disaster planning policy.