Skip to main content


Making Group Work Natural

Using Group Work to Teach Natural Hazards

CONTENT AREA Earth Science


BIG IDEA/UNIT Natural hazards

ESSENTIAL PRE-EXISTING KNOWLEDGE Basic understanding of types of natural hazards

TIME REQUIRED 3–6 class periods

COST About $40–$50

SAFETY Use of safety glasses

Group work has long been touted as an effective way to engage middle school students in science. Effective group work can promote problem solving, creativity, and language development, as well as foster social skills (Cohen and Lotan 2014). One way to help facilitate effective group work is through structuring student interactions using various teaching strategies (see “tips and strategies for effective group work” in Supplemental Materials). Regardless of the strategies used, effective group work requires that students make decisions and collaborate meaningfully with their peers (Cohen and Lotan 2014). When students collaborate with one another, we can help them understand this is much like the collaborations that scientists and engineers engage in as they do their work.

Nature of science and engineering

Nature of science refers to how science works, what scientists do, and the characteristics of science and scientists (Clough 2011). Similarly, nature of engineering explores what engineering is, how it works, what engineers do, and how engineering is similar to—but distinct from—other fields such as science (Pleasants and Olson 2019). To effectively teach nature of science and engineering, teachers need to create a classroom environment that mimics the scientific and engineering enterprises such as engaging students in collaborative tasks (Wilcox and Lake 2018). It is important to note that teachers need to have students reflect on their experiences and make explicit connections to nature of science and engineering to help students understand nature of science and engineering concepts (Abd-El-Khalick and Lederman 2000; Deniz et al. 2020; Wilcox, Kruse, and Decker 2021).

This article describes how we embedded group work into a 5E lesson plan about natural hazards (partially addressing MS-ESS3-2), which teachers could use as an engaging, summative unit wrap-up after addressing the science concepts related to natural hazards (e.g., plate tectonics, weather, climate, gas laws) more in depth. Throughout the 5Es, we have included numerous group-work strategies to help foster an environment where students are meaningfully collaborating with one another. We use these experiences to ask students explicit/reflective questions about the nature of science and engineering.

Engage—videos of natural hazards (first part of Day 1)

To engage students with natural hazards, we show short video clips (2–4 minutes) from YouTube videos of a tornado, an earthquake, a hurricane, and a flood (see links in Online Resources). We make sure students understand that the videos could be upsetting and that they don’t have to watch them if they don’t want to (we have a place reserved for them outside the classroom where students can read about the natural hazards instead). Although we carefully select the videos to ensure they aren’t too scary, we do show real footage of these disasters to ensure we are starting with a concrete experience to help students visualize the hazard and to promote interest and curiosity (Chibnall, Wilcox, and Willeford 2018; Olson 2008). In our experience, students are very interested in the natural hazards videos and have a lot of observations and questions about them. During the videos, we look for opportunities to pause the video to ask questions and make statements such as:

  • What do you notice is happening here?
  • What do you think will happen next?
  • I want you to pay close attention to ______.

After each video or reading, we ask students to do a modified version of a 3-2-1 writing strategy (Zygouris‐Coe, Wiggins, and Smith 2004) where students write three observations, two questions, and one thing that surprised them. Once students have seen each video or have read about each disaster, we ask students to form groups of four to discuss their ideas and then make decisions about which ideas they would like to share with the large group. We make a three-column chart on the board to record their ideas about the observations, questions, and one thing that surprised them. This process helps us better understand our students’ prior knowledge of natural hazards and what they are interested in learning more about.

Explore—researching a natural hazard (second part of Days 1 and 2)

Once students have discussed natural hazards, they work in pairs to explore one natural hazard (e.g., tornado, hurricane) through a jigsaw. We use a wheel of names website (see link in Online Resouces) to randomly select student groups to choose a natural hazard but allow for substitutions if students have concerns or a deep interest in a particular hazard. This ensures each natural hazard is more or less equally distributed among the class. Once students have picked a hazard, we use the three-column chart from the engagement phase as a starting place to make a checklist of questions students will use to research their hazards:

  • Why does this natural hazard occur?
  • Where in the United States does the hazard tend to happen?
  • How are these hazards measured in terms of severity?
  • What is the damage done at the different levels?
  • What do communities do to prepare or prevent damage from these hazards?
  • Research at least two questions that interest you.

Although we want students to have the freedom to explore their interests in natural hazards, we also want to ensure that they explore the cause, location, frequency, and magnitude of natural hazards (as articulated in MS-ESS3-2). Once the research checklist is created, we briefly discuss using the databases the school has access to, using credible websites, and properly citing their information. To help students get started, we provide a list of resources with credible information (see “resources for research” in Supplemental Materials). To differentiate based on readiness (Sousa and Tomlinson 2011), we provide resources that have different reading levels and text features.

As the students investigate their chosen natural hazard, we walk around and scaffold their learning as necessary. For example, students sometimes get a bit confused by the EF scale to measure tornadoes. We ask scaffolding questions such as, “Why might it be problematic for someone to say ‘That’s an EF3 tornado!’ while the tornado is on the ground?” and “How is the damage caused by a tornado used to determine what type of tornado occurred?” During the work time, we check in with each group to make sure they have a plan for how they will store the information they collected (usually in a Google Doc) and what their plan is for the next day to ensure they have collected the information they need. Toward the end of class, we bring students back together to discuss how their work was like the work of scientists. We ask explicit/reflective questions that connect to nature of science such as:

  • How did you work together today? Why is it good that scientists work together?
  • We noticed you were curious about natural hazards. Why do you think scientists need to have curiosity too?

Given that the students were just engaged in a topic that sparked their curiosity and required collaboration with classmates, they are ready to make the connection between what they did in class and how scientists are also curious and collaborative.

Explain—impact of natural hazards (Days 3–5)

After the students research their hazards, they spend Day 3 creating a poster that includes key questions they researched about the natural hazard. We want all students to get the opportunity to learn about the other hazards, so on Day 4 we display the finished posters in a gallery walk. In this gallery walk, students explain their natural hazard with a two-minute presentation about their posters. For each group of three, we can assign each student the letters A, B, and C. There are three rounds, and students should take turns presenting their posters as shown below:

  • Round 1: Student A presents, Students B and C walk around the room
  • Round 2: Student B presents, Students C and A walk around the room
  • Round 3: Student C presents, Students A and B walk around the room

We divide up the class time into three equal parts. Because our class was 50 minutes, each round lasted 15 minutes with a few minutes for transition between rounds. We have found the gallery walk strategy puts less pressure on the students because they present to smaller groups and are able to refine their thinking through presenting multiple times.

The next day, we help students summarize and discuss their findings as a group. Although we guide the discussion, we want students to be able to participate by explaining their findings and asking questions. We can begin the discussion by looking at a table of natural hazards and a map of the continental United States (see Figure 1) to help students recognize patterns in the data (crosscutting concept). We ask, “What patterns do you notice about where each of these hazards occur?” Students might say, “Tornadoes happen in the Midwest” or “Hurricanes occur in coastal areas of the United States and occur most often in the East Coast or the Gulf of Mexico.” After discussing the locations of each hazard and filling out the map, we have students investigate what is needed for each hazard using books and online sources, make connections back to previous lessons we have taught about weather and plate tectonics, and discuss why the hazards probably occur in those locations.

We also want students to understand the predictability of each hazard. We ask students, “Why do these hazards occur?” and “Which hazards happen quickly, and which hazards have a warning?” Students discuss the hazards’ predictability, and we lead the discussion to talk about what people do to be prepared for each one. Students often say, “Some hazards are predictable and some hazards are not but there are things we can do to prepare for each one.” We gather a quick formative assessment by giving students an exit ticket near the end of class with the following questions:

  1. What patterns did you notice about where natural hazards occur?
  2. How can we predict where natural hazards might occur? Which natural hazards might be easier to predict?
  3. How do you think you did working with your group? How did you contribute to the learning of your team?
  4. Think about working with your team. Why would it be beneficial for scientists to work together?

This discussion and exit ticket lead us into our next piece of the lesson: engineering.

Elaborate—building the structure

Given that we just explained the predictability of each hazard and what people can do to prepare for each one, we elaborate using an engineering activity. We start by posing a challenge to the students: “We are going to model a natural hazard and we would like you to make a structure that can withstand it.” Through this engineering activity, students demonstrate what they have learned about the frequencies, location, magnitude, and predictability as they design a structure to withstand the natural hazard that they previously researched. To help students define the problem and begin brainstorming possible solutions, we provide them with the prompts in Figure 2. All students will be provided the same variety of materials to work with—construction paper, modeling clay, craft sticks, toothpicks, balloons, paper/plastic cups, pipe cleaners, Styrofoam balls, and cardboard (see “materials list and cost” in Supplemental Materials). After students are given the materials list and prompt associated with their natural hazard, we will pause to ask them open-ended questions to help them identify the criteria and constraints: “What are the requirements of this task?” and “In what ways are you limited throughout this task?” As students are working to identify the criteria and constraints, teachers should circulate, listen in, and ensure students are documenting the criteria and constraints to help guide them throughout the planning, building, testing, and iterative design process.

Once the criteria and constraints have been defined, we ask students to discuss ideas with their groups and draw out their ideas on paper as we walk around the room. We want students to be creative with their ideas, but we scaffold with questions and suggestions as necessary. For the tornado group, we suggest devising better ways for securing the house walls, anchoring the foundation, and using strong building materials that can withstand flying debris and strong winds. For the hurricane group, we suggest shutters to cover windows, materials to resist strong winds and flying debris, or a detachable foundation that floats on water. For the flood group, we suggest waterproof materials, drainage systems to divert water out of the house, and stilts to keep the house above high waters. For the earthquake groups, we suggest flexible materials that do not crumble or shatter. Additionally, we provide interested students with resources and videos on how real-life engineers test structures in hazardous conditions.

After the students have completed their designs on paper, we talk about safety. Instead of telling students how to be safe, we have found asking questions and guiding their thinking helps students take ownership as well as understand why we have the policies we do. We ask, “What are some things you are going to need to do to keep safe during this activity?” Students often mention they need to be on task, be careful with the materials, and not goof around. We follow up with, “Why do you think you need to wear safety glasses during this activity?” Students note that the tests might send stuff into the air, and we need the glasses to protect them. Once we think students deeply understand the safety requirements, they begin building their structures. We remind the students that each partner should have an equal part in building the structure. We ask the students what are some ways they can ensure everyone gives equal effort. They may respond with “take turns every few minutes” or “divide up the parts” prior to students building and testing their designs.

After giving students adequate time to create their initial designs, we allow them to test their structures and provide feedback to one another. We use four different methods to test designs for the four different hazards. For the tornado groups, we use two large fans or hair dryers, alternating low, medium, and high settings for 10 seconds each. We point one fan at the tornado groups’ roofs and another at one side of the house. We safely toss three small objects (erasers, tight wads of paper) at the structures to simulate flying debris while the fans are on high. For the hurricane groups, we use a large fan or hair dryer and watering can to pour water over the structure (like rain). We again safely toss debris at the structure. For the earthquake groups, we place the structure on a piece of cardboard and shake the cardboard around as an earthquake would. For the flood groups, we place the structure in a small tub and slowly fill it with water.

Once students test their initial ideas, they get a chance to share with the whole group their designs and give feedback to and receive feedback from one another. The students discuss and hear from their peers about what went well and what aspects of their designs they should integrate into the redesign. Students also discuss “problem” locations in their designs, and we encourage them to note those problem areas on their drawings, as well as discuss why those aspects of their designs may have been less successful. Specifically, we want students to make connections back to the criteria and constraints. To help them with this, we might ask, “To what extent was your design successful in meeting the criteria of the task given the constraints?”

After engaging in whole-group communication, feedback, and systematic evaluation, we want students to use the observations from their first test to make improvements to their structures, but we also want them to consider the underlying science and engineering concepts that are leading to some of their challenges and successes. Therefore, after students redesign, but before they engage in subsequent tests in their small groups, we ask, “What did you change about your design, and why?” From a classroom management perspective, allowing students to perform subsequent tests in small groups helps keep all students engaged, as students who test their designs quickly have more time to revise their designs as other groups are finishing up. Yet, providing a rationale for how and why they are making changes to future iterations helps discourage trial and error. This process of iterative design also helps us set the stage for discussing some aspects of the nature of engineering.

Nature of engineering

After the activity, we want to help students understand some connections between this activity and the nature of engineering (see “nature of science and nature of engineering ideas” in Supplemental Materials). We ask, “What things, besides a house, could get damaged during a natural disaster?” Students note that electrical lines, roads, buildings, and many other things people make can be damaged. We then ask, “Why might engineers want to consider natural hazards when they do their work?” Students point out that if the things we build could withstand natural hazards, it would be better for people. We then begin connections to the nature of engineering by asking, “What was the value of beginning the task by identifying the criteria and constraints? How was that helpful as you began designing your structures? In what ways might engineers be limited in their work?” Students will typically recognize that it is difficult to engage in an engineering task if you do not know the end goal(s) and that the more successful structures keep the criteria and constraints in mind throughout the process. Further, students notice that while their limitations make the task more difficult, these constraints are similar to what real engineers experience—for example, in materials, budget, and/or time.

Another nature of engineering idea that can be addressed is the concept of iterations. For this concept, we ask, “Why might it be good that you revised your designs?” and “Why might it be good that engineers change their designs?” Students note that if we can find ways to build things stronger, we won’t have so much damage. Students mention that they got to share ideas and make their ideas better. This allows us to transition to the nature of engineering concept of collaboration by asking:

  • Why was it a good thing you worked in a group during our lessons on natural hazards?
  • What was the value of testing your designs in front of your peers?
  • What did you gain by communicating about your designs?
  • What was helpful in receiving feedback from your peers?
  • Why might engineers also engage in collaborative feedback and communication when working on their models and designs?

Students are able to recognize that working together in groups allowed them to hear more perspectives and ideas, but they also had to take the time to reconcile disagreements. In doing so, they were able to make connections back to the criteria and constraint, and to think more deeply about why they were designing things in a certain way. They are also able to make connections to the work of real engineers, who often engage in collaborative design and systematic group evaluation of their work. Ultimately, scientists and engineers benefit from sharing their ideas and collaboration leads to better science and engineering.


After students test their structures, we summatively assess students by asking them to identify the locations that a hazard is likely to occur, consider how to prepare for a hazard, and connect their learning to the nature of science and engineering (see Figure 3). We want students to understand why certain regions are more affected by certain hazards than others, so we ask students to mark which hazards occur in each region of the United States (Midwest, South, West, Northeast) and explain why those trends occur. Next, we provide a scenario for each hazard that includes important details (e.g., severity, location). Students then predict what damage would be caused and explain how well their structure would withstand the hazard. Finally, we ask students to make connections to the nature of science and engineering.

We assess students using standards-based grading practices and a holistic rubric (see Figure 4). For this assessment, we generated learning targets that draw from the three dimensions of NGSS standard MS-ESS3-2. Additionally, we wrote a learning target to assess students’ knowledge of the nature of science and engineering.


Group work is an important part of the science classroom. Throughout this article, we have demonstrated various ways we engage students in group work. These include:

  • 3-2-1 writing strategy and discussion
  • a student-generated checklist to guide their research
  • gallery walk presentations
  • creating models
  • discussions throughout the lessons

While engaging students in group work is worthwhile in its own right, we can also use those experiences to teach students how scientists and engineers collaborate with one another. Together, we are not only modeling how scientists and engineers do their work, but also teaching students about the nature of science and engineering.

Online Resources

Wheel of names website—

Wray Colorado Tornado—

Florida hurricane IRMA 2017—

Flash flood—

Top 10 strongest earthquakes 2019—

Supplemental Materials

Materials list and cost

Natural hazards for continental U.S. states by region

Nature of science and nature of engineering ideas

Resources for research

Tips and strategies for effective group work

Katie Murano is an elementary teacher at Carlisle Elementary in Carlisle, Iowa. Jesse Wilcox ( is an assistant professor of biology and science education at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Jaclyn Easter is an assistant professor of education at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa. Cat Lucht is an earth and physical science teacher at Winterset High School in Winterset, Iowa.


Abd-El-Khalick, F., and N.G. Lederman. 2000. Improving science teachers’ conceptions of nature of science: A critical review of the literature. International Journal of Science Education 22 (7): 665–701.

Chibnall, D., J. Wilcox, and S. Willeford. 2018. Astronomy that makes sense: Helping students with visual impairments hear and feel the cosmos. Science Scope 44 (2): 45–52.

Clough, M.P. 2011. Teaching and assessing the nature of science. The Science Teacher 78 (6): 56–60.

Cohen, E.G., and R.A. Lotan. 2014. Designing groupwork: Strategies for the heterogeneous classroom (3rd ed.) New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Deniz, H., E. Kaya, E.Yesilyurt, and M. Trabia. 2020. The influence of an engineering design experience on elementary teachers’ nature of engineering views. International Journal of Technology and Design Education 30 (4): 635–656.

Olson, J.K. 2008. The science representation continuum. Science and Children 46 (1): 52–55.

Pleasants, J., and J.K. Olson. 2019. What is engineering? Elaborating the nature of engineering for K–12 education. Science Education 103 (1): 145–166.

Regions of the United States. 2020, August. The World Atlas. Retrieved from

Sousa, D.A., and C.A. Tomlinson. 2011. Differentiation and the brain: How neuroscience supports the learner-friendly classroom. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

Wilcox, J. 2011. Holding ourselves to a higher standard: Using standards-based grading in science as a means to improve teaching and learning. Iowa Science Teachers Journal 39 (3): 4–11.

Wilcox, J., J.W. Kruse, and S. Decker. 2021. Exploring the STEM landscape: Integrating the nature of STEM into elementary earth science. Science & Children 58 (6): 30–37.

Wilcox, J., and A. Lake. 2018. Teaching the nature of science in elementary: Strategies and resources. Science & Children 55 (5): 78–85.

Zygouris-Coe, V., M.B. Wiggins, and L.H. Smith. 2004. Engaging students with text: The 3-2-1 Strategy. The Reading Teacher 58 (4): 381–384.

Crosscutting Concepts Earth & Space Science Environmental Science Instructional Materials Middle School

Asset 2