Project-Based Learning: Preparing for an Emergency
Tornado sirens wake you up in the middle of the night. You have only a minute to grab the essentials and get to your place of safety. What do you do? How quickly you and your family will recover from an emergency tomorrow often depends on the planning and preparation you do today.
During the tornado that ravaged Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, Alabama, last year, I learned something about myself. In the past, I'd thought I would grab my most valuable treasures and stroll downstairs to the basement. But when I heard those sirens last April, the plan that had once been so clear to me seemed unimportant. With the worst-case scenario in mind, I grabbed the tennis shoes I use for yard work, my old blue jeans, my binder of important papers, my dog, and all the water I could carry and ran downstairs. My focus had shifted from preserving material items to thinking about what I would do if the house were to fall down around me.
Teaching the importance of being prepared
In my personal finance class, I kick off the project by asking students to answer an essential question, "Am I financially prepared for an emergency?" Students evaluate their personal needs, identify resources to develop a plan, identify types of documents that are important, and construct a binder with their important documents. By carrying out this project, students move beyond reading the section of the text on important financial documents and begin the process of creating their individual emergency plan by collecting documents and assembling a binder.
As I introduce the topic, I direct the students to resources for use in preparing for an emergency. We talk about some of the lessons from the Atlanta Fed's Hurricane Katrina curriculum. I typically show the first two videos from the series. This curriculum does a great job of creating an emotional connection to the topic with the students and laying the foundation.
I also use resources from Ready.gov. In particular, the Basic Disaster Supply Kit is a great starting place for preparing for an emergency. It is helpful that the site offers a downloadable brochure that focuses on family needs, individuals with special needs, elderly Americans, and pets. Ready.gov stresses the idea that everyone should have 72 hours' worth of supplies on hand. The site also addresses multiple types of disaster plans student should be aware of.
I instruct students to use a checklist created by FEMA titled "Emergency Financial First Aid Kit" as a template for what they should include in their binder. Many items on the checklist lend themselves to an older audience, who have mortgages, life insurance policies, and other obligations. But for high school students, you could easily have them substitute items they will need to apply to a postsecondary education program. Instead of mortgage documents, they could obtain a copy of a lease and familiarize themselves with the requirements to rent an apartment. Or, they could research renter's insurance and include information about a policy instead of an actual policy.
Regardless of the students' level of financial sophistication and age, they will need to know what these documents are and why they are important in an emergency. I also have them come up with a couple of items to put in their binders that are not included on the list. These items could include school transcripts, family pictures, pictures of their homes or of the contents in their homes, or a list of medications for an elderly family member.
The personal nature of personal finance
To bring the project full circle, I assign a reflective essay. In a one-page, typed, and double spaced essay, the students address the following questions.
It is always interesting to get feedback once the students have completed the assignment. For the most part, students agree that the process takes longer than they anticipate. Most will be missing one or two documents and will promise to continue looking. All agree that the project was an important tool for if an emergency does occur.
Other projects in project-based learning
A paper-free emergency plan?
Disasters can happen anytime and anywhere. A project-based learning approach like this can help students understand the critical importance of being adequately prepared for an emergency and that having such a plan is the first step to a sound financial strategy. It has the added benefit of taking them through the steps so they actually become prepared in the process of learning how.
By Julie Kornegay, senior economic and financial education specialist with the Birmingham Branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta
August 26, 2012