Popular "Sandy Studies" Course Explores Lessons from Disaster

2/1/2013

With its new disaster-studies class, "Sandy Studies," Stevens is turning the devastation of Hurricane Sandy into an opportunity to learn from the past and prepare for the future.

The "Sandy Studies" course is part of the new Science & Technology Studies (STS) program within the College of Arts & Letters (CAL). The unique undergraduate program explores the intersection of science and society to encourage effective, responsible and inclusive innovation.

The STS program, which launched in Fall 2012, introduced two new majors to the Stevens curriculum: a B.A. in Science Communication and a B.S. in Science, Technology & Society. The new course focused on Sandy addresses both majors by combining readings and analysis with the collaborative production of a disaster-studies blog.

"Sandy Studies" developed after CAL hosted a special Stevens program about the hurricane. Lee Vinsel, an assistant professor in STS, spoke at the event about social innovation in the storm's aftermath. After seeing widespread community interest in learning from the hurricane, he developed the semester-long "Sandy Studies" course.

Again, the response was overwhelming.

"The interest level was incredible,” said Vinsel. “The course is full, and I had to turn students away."

Vinsel hopes to turn the class into a recurring course offering at Stevens.

"I can imagine it becoming a permanent fixture, especially as we continue to form connections with decision-makers in the area,” he said. “This region will need to think about Sandy for a long time and to plan for the next storm."

The class draws inspiration from other disaster-studies courses, but its focus on Hurricane Sandy is wholly unique.

Vinsel plans to use a multifaceted approach to examine Sandy and other disasters in context. Assigned readings include texts about the Jamestown Flood, Hurricane Katrina and the disaster at Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant following the 2011 Tohoku earthquake. Visits from politicians and community leaders provide context for both structural failures during Sandy and plans for the future. Students are also required to create weekly blog posts and complete a final project.

Vinsel has high hopes for the enrolled students.

"I want them to walk away from the class with a more sophisticated understanding of their world and of the nature of 'disasters,'" he said. "Most of my students are engineers, and I hope that all of them come to have a better image of how disasters affect technological systems and how we can improve design in the light of this improved understanding."

There are particular challenges to learning from Hurricane Sandy. Many students and members of the Stevens community were affected by the storm, and some are still feeling its effects.

Vinsel is fully aware of the overlap between the scholarly and the emotional.

"My students have been affected by this storm," he said. "Some of them have raw nerves."

However, Vinsel sees a unique opportunity for meaningful work among students with first-hand Sandy experience.

"Frankly, I hope the class is cathartic for them," he said. "I want them to take that emotion and channel it into learning more about their world and into making something great."

Enrolled students like Teddy Poppe '13 are prepared for difficult classroom discussions. Poppe, currently in his final year of a dual degree engineering program, also serves as a Resident Assistant. During the hurricane (and for two days after), he was on call for his residents and worked with the Stevens administration to keep students safe.

"Sandy was the worst natural disaster that I have ever personally experienced," he said. "After experiencing first-hand the local infrastructure failure, I wanted to learn about what could have been done better and what was done well."

The Stevens culture of innovation creates an environment where the curriculum can rapidly adapt to changing circumstances. The school’s commitment to excellence ensures that both faculty and students approach delicate topics with sensitivity and professionalism.

Vinsel sees an ethical imperative in studying the effects of Hurricane Sandy.

"If we fail to learn from the storm, we fail to live up to our highest moral calling," he said. "Stevens is also an important institution of learning in this region. And for that reason, we must use the tools of academic thought to assist all of those around us, including the people of Hoboken."

Vinsel's thoughts are echoed in the sentiments of Poppe.

"It would be a mistake to pretend like it never happened, because it is going to happen again," said Poppe. "We have to learn from Sandy."