Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Right to the Source

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Right to the Source

Article excerpt

A Slightly Damaged House

Look below at George Barker's 1889 photograph: "A Slightly Damaged House." What could have caused such devastation? A tornado? Hurricane? A close investigation reveals telltale signs of the actual cause--a flood.

On May 31, 1889, following several days of intense rain, the South Fork Dam on Little Conemough River in Pennsylvania gave way, releasing 20 million tons of water toward Johnstown, 14 miles away. A 35-40--foot wave hit the town at 40 miles per hour, killing more than 2,200 people. The force of the water was so great it pushed 170,000-pound locomotives 4,800 feet from their original locations.

The Johnstown Flood--or Great Flood of 1889--also resulted in one of the first major peacetime humanitarian relief efforts, led by Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross. Documentation of the event is extensive. Related photographs, newspaper articles, and maps are available online from the Library of Congress.

Analyzing primary sources such as Barker's photograph can be a good way for students to sharpen their "science forensic skills" as they reflect on what might have happened. It can also lead to additional questions and investigations that touch upon all three dimensions of science education.

For instance, in seeking to understand what caused the flood, students must grapple with core disciplinary concepts such as Earth systems as well as key engineering decisions that may have led to the failure of the dam. Meanwhile, in seeking to eliminate future disasters, students might consider science and engineering practices, such as how to model such events and design relevant engineering solutions. …

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