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Disaster touches students

| Thursday, Jan. 20, 2005

The Indian Ocean tsunami wreaked havoc half a world away -- about as far from Pittsburgh as is possible.

But relentless images of the disaster and mounting hardship made an indelible impression on local students, prompting many of them to raise money and their teachers to incorporate discussion of the tsunami into classes.

"It's what is called a teachable moment, and teachers everywhere usually take advantage of this," said Don Lee, superintendent of Shaler Area schools.

Lee saw a particular interest among students in Shaler, which itself was devastated by a flood in September.

"They are not on the same scale, of course," he said. "But there has been a lot of discussion and ongoing support concerning the flood."

In Shaler and elsewhere, the tsunami was discussed in nearly every classroom, Lee said. In some districts, teachers went further by including it in their lesson plans for several days.

Marisa Cicconi, a science teacher at Plum High School, devoted a week of her Earth and space science class to the tsunami. Her students studied powerful earthquakes of the past -- Chile in 1971 and San Francisco in 1906 -- as well as the top 10 volcanic eruptions, including Vesuvius and Mt. Etna.

"I was really surprised at what the students took away from it," she said.

Until December, 54,000 people had died as a result of tsunamis over the past century. The death toll from the Dec. 26 tsunami has topped 160,000.

"We studied this disaster because it is in a class of its own," Cicconi said.

Plum students studied more than the geologic cause of the tsunami, Cicconi said.

"We did a lot with the social issues -- there is a powerful human aspect with it."

In Vince Kuzniewski's technology education class at Hampton High School, the tsunami's economic impact received the most attention. Many exotic woods, including teak from Sri Lanka, are Asian, so the cost of lumber and construction could go up. Indonesia is also a well-known producer of sports shoes.

"Lots of things are manufactured over there," said. "In many cases, production will have to be shifted to other places or decreased."

Much of the discussion in Kuzniewski's class also focused on the disaster's human toll.

"It's very vivid footage. It's like watching the World Trade Center (attack)," he said. "So, of course, students are moved by that."

Many schools raised money to help survivors of the tsunami. At Hampton's Central Elementary School, students raised more than $1,200; at Richland Elementary School, students raised $813. Students at both schools brought in their own money.

The 200 students at Schaeffer Elementary School in Pittsburgh's Crafton Heights neighborhood have raised more than $1,400, according to Ellen Maust, a teaching assistant at the school, where 65 percent of students qualify for free lunches.

"We decided to do something on our own," Maust said. "Many of the students brought in their own piggy banks."

The school plans to donate the money to either the American Red Cross or Save The Children, Maust said.

At Quaker Valley High School, students in the school's community service course used the disaster as an opportunity to study geography and international relief agencies, said Ron Beers, a teacher at the school's Student Service Learning Center.

Students are planning how they could best help tsunami victims.

"We discussed how we could respond as civic minded people," Beers said.

Quaker Valley plans two fund-raisers specifically for the region's children, many of whom lost parents and are homeless, district spokesman John Hanna said.

Many teachers said they had to reassure younger students that a tsunami is a geologic impossibility in Western Pennsylvania.

"The kids were concerned about whether this could happen in West Mifflin," said Anita Smith, a third-grade teacher at New Emerson Elementary School. "They had a lot of questions. The loss of parents was what really struck a chord with them."

Smith even had her students participate in a small science project -- shaking chairs with clear containers of water on them to re-create the cause of a tsunami.

"It's exactly the same effect that caused the tsunami."

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