Teaching about floods to Grade 5 students

In February 2015, I was invited to give a talk to the 5th Grade students of the International School of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The grade was hosting a series of talks by figures of social change who are making a positive change to society. Speakers included lawyers, volunteer teachers for refugees, flood victim relief workers, and diplomats. I was asked to talk about what a flood researcher does. This opportunity to explain research in a relatively niche field in an accessible and interesting way to 10 year old children was an exciting challenge.

However, all of my research-related presentations thus far have been conducted in university settings. While I enjoy giving presentations (as it is good practice of condensing my work into a logical, coherent and interesting format), extra thought was clearly required to cater to the elementary school students. My presentation slides are available below. Although I was actually unable to use my slides due to technical difficulties, my talk still followed the same structure (ISKL Presentation pdf). In general, my presentation strategy remained the same:

  1. Capture their attention quickly – I did this by showing a few clips on how destructive a flood can be (video link).
  2. Maintain attention – I tried to keep my presentation stimulating with bright colours and images (see slides below).
  3. Have a few key messages – summarised in the second last slide (yellow background).
  4. Eliminate all jargon.

Click slides to enlarge and to read slide descriptions.


The positive response was a pleasant surprise. Any previous doubt that my presentation would not be interesting was quickly diminished, as students were very engaged. There were many thoughtful questions such as “why doesn’t it flood where I am from?” and “why would people not want to move away from an area that would get flooded?”. Students also asked to clarify certain points I was making as I was speaking. Most interesting was that the children pulled a lot from their personal experience (e.g. “why doesn’t it flood where I am from?”). There was also a quick establishment of familiarity. As students were leaving, one student shared a personal story of how members of her family were flood victims, another was really excited to learn that I had been to Vietnam (as he was part Vietnamese), and another asked me to autograph their notes. Clearly, the “cold” professionalism of academia doesn’t apply here.


I think the level of information I shared was suitable for the students. Judging from their questions, the students had absorbed the information rather well. It was also evident that students liked approachability. Perhaps, in the future, encouraging students to share personal experiences may help engage them further. Speaking animatedly also went a long way in maintaining attention.

The Disaster Management Cycle

I had initially planned to introduce and explain the disaster management cycle, but decided against it due to time constraints and complexity. However, I did somewhat hint at it when I was describing the types of occupations involved with flood management. Below is my conversion of the disaster management cycle for the students (renamed as “Stages of Help”), although it was not included in my presentation.

The “classic” depiction of the disaster/emergency management cycle.
Stages of help.001
My reinterpretation of the disaster management cycle for the students.