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Interdisciplinary Team Obtains Half a Million Dollar Grant for Disaster Preparedness Study

June 05, 2019

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded Lewis & Clark a $559,617 grant for a transformative interdisciplinary project that engages faculty members from four CAS departments. “Rehearsing disaster: Understanding Earthquake Preparedness Behavior in an Interactive Environment” will be led by Associate Professor of Geological Sciences Liz Safran, Associate Professor of Computer Science Peter Drake, Associate Professor of Psychology Erik Nilsen, and Associate Professor of Rhetoric and Media Studies Bryan Sebok. This project aims to understand earthquake preparedness—more specifically, how different methods of communication can influence a group traditionally under-messaged in this area: young adults aged 18-29.  The research focuses on how individuals of diverse circumstances choose preparedness actions they consider both meaningful and feasible from myriad possibilities; and how social influences via cooperation, observational learning, or discussion within virtual social networks affect preparedness and coping behaviors. Using custom built interactive environments featuring the impact of a M9.0 Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake on the Portland Metropolitan Area in a series of experiments and focus groups, this robust team will explore the effectiveness of this platform to communicate earthquake risk and preparedness, while also evaluating whether key constructs of social cognitive theory are applicable to earthquake preparedness.

Together with their students, this interdisciplinary team of faculty has been collecting preliminary data and working on the foundational aspects of this project for several years. This effort will grow significantly in September when this NSF support begins. Over the course of the four-year funded project, 45 Lewis & Clark undergraduate students will be engaged to assist throughout the year with game design as well as the execution and analyses of the proposed experiments—ultimately co-authoring publications on the study. Funding will also support student participation at professional conferences. The project will engage local emergency management collaborators at both the platform development stage and during community outreach. 

NSF’s Human, Disasters, and the Built Environment (HDBE) Program, which is part of the Directorate for Civil, Mechanical, and Manufacturing Innovation (CMMI), funded this competitive proposal. HDBE supports research across the disciplines on the interactions between humans and the built environment in communities exposed to natural, technological, and other types of hazards and disasters. Studies indicate that the Pacific Northwest is dangerously unprepared for an anticipated megathrust earthquake and tsunami originating at the Cascadia Subduction Zone. Since most of the region’s infrastructure developed without adequate attention to seismic safety, a megathrust earthquake could leave Western Oregonians without power, water, fuel, sewers, major roads, and health care facilities for weeks to months. This project will help address this urgent societal problem by targeting new methods of communication to young people, so they will be better prepared for such an event.

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