When Teens Learn SciViz Techniques To Explore Impact of Hurricane Sandy and Climate Change

Last fall, high school students in the After School Program, Visualizing Climate Change, offered at the American Museum of Natural History, learned about the science of climate change through the filter of data visualization. This was the first climate change data visualization program to be offered to students at the Museum. It used our current exhibit, Nature’s Fury, and the work taking place the Marshall Islands by Jenny Newell, curator of Pacific Ethnography. The youth used CartoDB, a powerful online data visualization tool and Hurricane Sandy datasets to explore their own questions related to the impacts of Climate Change on New York City.

On the first day of class, very few students even knew what a data visualization was. But by mid-December they had the CartoDB menus and toolbars under their belts, with clear maps about the impacts of Hurricane Sandy on New York City to prove it!

The youth in the program learned about climate change from geophysical and anthropological perspectives and the science behind how climate change increases risks for coastal communities. At the same time they were learning about different types of data, how to read data tables, and how these data tables were translated into visualizations. They peeled oranges to discuss map projections and layered vellum paper drawings to represent map layers. Students learned about symbology, how to label and create categories and then took this new knowledge and engaged in discussions and critiqued what makes maps useful, confusing, or misleading.

The youth went even further and put all of this into the context of understanding community preparedness and emergency planning for natural disasters. Working in CartoDB allowed these students to think about and interact with data in a way they never had before. We as educators learned that a tool such as CartoDB could effectively be incorporated into our curriculum and offered students the opportunity to explore publicly accessible datasets that were of particular interest to them.

Before long the students were spouting off basic cartography terminology and concepts as they navigated between the data tables and map views and shared their visualizations with their classmates. As December drew closer, the youth began to narrow their focus for the final project. Though they were working in groups, each individual was responsible for analyzing their own datasets and producing their own maps.

In their final projects each of the three groups tackled different questions:

  1. The impacts of Hurricane Sandy on New York City. Students in this group took a closer look at the location of New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) developments in relation to the areas that experienced flooding during Hurricane Sandy, as well as information representing the population below the federal poverty line. They were also interested in the location of power plants, specifically, which ones were affected by Hurricane Sandy and how the super storm impacted the public transportation system.




  1. A close examination of the 100 year flood zones around Manhattan, or the areas that have a 1% chance of flooding each year in the year 2050. This group explored the locations of airports, MTA transportation stations, and MTA subway stations in relation to these 100 year flood zones in 2050 to predict how a future flood will affect New York’s essential infrastructure.




  1. The location of FEMA Evacuation Zones related to our highest need populations. To explore this, students in this group examined the proximity of evacuation centers, medical centers, and senior centers to these high risk areas. They also researched Go Bags, and made recommendations for New York City residents as to what to include in their own Go Bags and how to prepare for future evacuations.



Complete student reports as well as content covered and discussed in the Visualizing Climate Change program can be found on the program’s Tumblr page.

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