Pennsylvania Students Address Effects and Implications of Natural Disasters with Global Community Via Live Videoconference and Twitter

By Jennifer Oxenford, Strategic Planning Consultant, MAGPI,, and Amiena Mahsoob, Deputy Director, Education Programs, World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh,, and Timothy J. Devlin, Program Director of AlleghenyCONNECT

Recent events in Japan have shown us once again that natural disasters are inevitable, unpredictable, and utterly devastating. The destruction and lives lost in Japan after the recent 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami and the aftermath of tragedies that have followed demonstrate all too vividly the global need for improved communication around emergency preparedness, public policy and enhanced communications and life savings technologies. Similarly in 2010 the earthquake in Haiti was just one of a record number of natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods, volcanoes, typhoons, blizzards and landslides that caused major destruction around the world and resulted in $222 billion in economic losses. Severe weather resulting from climate change coupled with urbanization will only continue to increase the devastating effects of natural disasters on vulnerable populations.

Shouldn’t technology play a larger role in not only mitigating, but also communicating about natural disasters when they hit? Students in the Pittsburgh area thought so as they joined a community of fellow students and experts from around the world via live high-speed multipoint videoconferencing on March 3rd to discuss recent effects of natural disasters, public policy implications, and more. Approximately 500 students from 15 schools around the world participated in a day of discussions, disaster simulation exercises, and friendly debate using videoconferencing and the popular social media tool Twitter. While some might question to hear that their child spent hours on Twitter at school, students were instructed to use it during the summit to foster global teamwork during a real-time disaster management scenario based on the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Students broke into groups to address 10 issues aid workers faced following the natural disaster, including shelter, food, public health, security and communication. Twitter was used to facilitate cooperation among the international groups and even served as a platform for debate. Twitter enabled students to feel a sense of urgency in their discussions and gave them a practical use for social media.

The March 3rd live event kicked off with a panel discussion that included Anne C. Richard, Vice President, Government Relations & Advocacy, International Rescue Committee (Washington, D.C.) and Dr. Louise Comfort, Professor and Director, Center for Disaster Management, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Pittsburgh. The panelists shared their perspectives on recent natural disasters, the response by the international community, and public policy implications.

Following the panel there were interactive breakout sessions facilitated by local experts in which students discussed and analyzed a natural disaster scenario and then held a debriefing session for groups to share their approaches to the scenario. Students participating in the international disaster preparedness scenarios came from schools all around the world including Huron Park Secondary School, Ontario, Canada; The American Academy in Tbilisi, Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia; Roots School System, Islamabad, Pakistan; and several schools in southwestern Pennsylvania including Avonworth High School, Baldwin High School, Cornell High School, South Park High School, and Deer Lakes High School.

“We are shocked along with the rest of the world by the destruction caused by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and the string of disasters that occurred in 2010 beginning with the earthquake in Haiti. The International Student Summit helped students to understand how destruction can be mitigated through disaster planning as well as coordinated disaster response. This is especially important as the effects of natural disasters in one region of the world can affect the global economy and requires response from citizens half a world away. We were pleased to work with MAGPI on this project, which enabled us to connect schools across the United States and world to analyze and discuss how to respond to a disaster scenario.” said Amiena Mahsoob, Deputy Director, Education Programs, World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh.

MAGPI was pleased to partner with Allegheny Intermediate Unit 3, Hampton Township School District, the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh and AlleghenyCONNECT to be able to offer the International Student Summit: International Responses to Natural Disasters event. MAGPI provided technical support and international videoconference bridging and partnered with The Penn Video Network to provide live webstreaming for this global student summit event.

Tim Devlin, Program Director of the AlleghenyCONNECT regional network stated, “The teachers in our local schools and our foreign partners engaged in this project from the onset. We had the support of our district administrators and technical support personnel to ensure the success of this program for over 500 students around the world. Tears welled up in our eyes as we watched the interaction of students from disparate countries around the world engaged in dialog.”

“The recent tragedy of events in Japan has again drawn attention to the fact that we are all intimately connected and need to utilize existing technologies to the fullest to mobilize the global community in times of need.” added Greg Palmer, Executive Director of MAGPI. “The International Student Summit event showcased how tomorrow’s leaders are learning how to use these technologies in new and promising ways for the greater global good.”

For more information about the event or to find out what you can do to help the victims of the Japanese earthquake please visit the International Student Summit webpage at:

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