Diversity and Democracy

Unnatural Disaster Day: Improving Access to Global Learning and Civic Engagement

Teaching democratic practices in an interconnected world can be challenging. Part of that challenge is giving students equitable access to educational environments where they can become more civically engaged and globally aware. General education reform and related changes to pedagogical and assessment practices are levers for ensuring that students have reasonably equitable educational experiences. But even when infusing global learning and civic engagement into the general education curriculum, institutions can face structural challenges to equity, including limited availability of the resources instructors need to incorporate new learning opportunities into their courses.

Because global learning and civic engagement efforts often hold issues of equity at their core, it is particularly important to provide students equitable access to these experiences. As Ira Shor notes, economic and social equities are closely connected with equity in educational experiences: that is, access to similar education provides the best chance for people to become equal in society, both economically and socially (1992). With global awareness and intercultural skills critical to success in today’s job market, students’ access to social and economic resources may depend in part on their exposure to civic and global learning opportunities.

At Chandler-Gilbert Community College, we have created a cocurricular event that models participatory democracy and gives students—no matter who they are—an experience of civically engaged global learning. That event is Unnatural Disaster Day.

Global Learning across the Curriculum

Unnatural Disaster Day grew out of attempts to infuse global learning into the general science curriculum. An interdisciplinary team began planning the day while attending AAC&U’s Shared Futures institute at Sonoma State University in 2007. In designing the event, the team aimed to support Chandler-Gilbert’s defined global learning outcomes, which state that students should acquire interdisciplinary knowledge of the world’s social, environmental, and economic problems; develop a heightened sense of global interconnections and interdependence; explore the historical legacies that have created the dynamics and tensions in the world; learn how to engage in deliberative dialogue about global issues, even when there might be a clash of views; and engage in actions to sustain and preserve communities and the environment for future generations.

To create each event, a cohort of instructors from different disciplines—including geology, biology, history, English, and economics—selects an environmental disaster to study across their respective general education courses. Each faculty member then devotes one or two weeks of class time to studying that disaster from the faculty member’s disciplinary perspective. Then, on Unnatural Disaster Day itself, all classes meet for a two-and-a-half hour event. At tables organized to seat one student from each discipline, students share their understanding of the disaster from their disciplinary perspectives.

On a piece of butcher paper at the center of the table, students note commonalities between disciplines. On another piece of paper, they categorize their knowledge as political, social, economic, or environmental. They then brainstorm to create an action plan for preventing or mitigating the effects of future similar disasters. After posting their action plans on the walls, students conduct a gallery walk. They discuss the commonalities and differences in their action plans and engage in a ten-minute written reflection about what they have learned.

Since its initiation in fall 2007, Unnatural Disaster Day has focused on a range of disasters, including contamination at the Love Canal site, environmental damage resulting from oil drilling in Ecuador (1964–92), the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the nuclear disaster at Fukushima, the depletion of the Ogallala aquifer, and climate change. The event calls attention to how a lack of human planning intensified these “natural” disasters and guides students to begin developing the knowledge that is essential to preparedness. Embodying the Deweyan notion of learning by doing, Unnatural Disaster Day requires high levels of engagement and participation from students and creates an educational environment where “action is essential to gain knowledge and develop intelligence” (Shor 1992, 16).

A Model of Participatory Democracy

Although Unnatural Disaster Day was originally designed with global learning goals in mind, instructors soon noticed that the event is also a model of participatory democracy. Participants practice informed public dialogue as they form a more complete understanding of the disaster in question. Like citizens coming together with specialized knowledge to create public policy, students apply their different disciplinary perspectives to draft “action plans.” Each disaster selected for study shines light on the value of knowledge in creating public policy. Ultimately, the project aims to equip students to make better decisions about the future of the world.

In centering on an environmental problem, Unnatural Disaster Day provides ample opportunities for students across disciplines to participate in public dialogue. Take the open oil processing waste pits that Texaco left in Ecuador as an example. To prepare for discussion about this topic, geology students studied the formations of subterranean oil deposits and biology students studied the effect oil waste has on human health and the environment. History and English students addressed the humanistic aspects of the disaster, applying the lenses of imperialism and postcolonialism, examining the historical context and the consequences of nonrenewable energy use, and analyzing the rhetoric that Chevron (now the owner of Texaco) used to defend its practices. Thanks to the interdisciplinary design, each student at every table has something unique to share.

Buoyed by students’ enthusiasm, we have also created mechanisms for translating students’ new knowledge and engagement into concrete political action. At the conclusion of each Unnatural Disaster Day, most instructors ask students to write a letter to a national or local leader proposing their plan of action to address the issue in question. On occasion, we have invited a lobbyist from the Sierra Club to observe the conversations, review the action plans, and comment briefly at the end of the event on the day’s discussions and how they relate to the Sierra Club’s current work with the Arizona State Legislature. The event, then, not only offers global and civic learning to a broad cross-section of students, but also encourages participation in the political process—advancing political as well as social and economic equity.

Assessment has been an important component of the project. Evaluations of student essays, letters, and feedback have informed us of the critical importance of this event in creating a democratic education. To paraphrase John Dewey, the purpose of democratic education is to increase students’ abilities to make meaning from their experience and to act on it (1963). Unnatural Disaster Day is infused with this very purpose.

Expanded Opportunities for Students

At Chandler-Gilbert, Unnatural Disaster Day has provided a broad range of students with a democratic, globally attuned education. Last semester, we held three Unnatural Disaster Days, involving close to one hundred students in each event. We hope to expand those numbers by recruiting more faculty to devote a week or two of their curriculum to preparation for the event. These experiences of engaging in deliberative dialogue about public issues have the potential to benefit every student. Regardless of relative privilege, participants in Unnatural Disaster Day graduate from Chandler-Gilbert with an expanded awareness of global interconnectivity and interdependence and the capacity to better participate as members of the global community.


Dewey, John. 1963. Experience and Education. New York: Collier.

Shor, Ira. 1992. Empowering Education. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Paul Petrequin is professor of history at Chandler-Gilbert Community College, and Roy Schiesser is professor of geology at Chandler-Gilbert Community College.

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