Emergency Shelter Project: Empathy Unit

By James Iliff, February 14, 2009

Grade Level

  • High School


  • Architecture

Subject Area

  • Social Studies
  • Technology

Lesson Time

13 classes: up to 780 minutes for classroom activities


This project will focus on the conditions surrounding global disaster and the shelter needs that follow. Specifically, this unit emphasizes the development of empathy in students for the conditions of life post-disaster. Students will do some brainstorming and some research which they will present. Students will then use materials to design and build an example shelter.

National Standards

Common Core English Language Arts Strand Reading College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards RL/RI.1. Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text. RL/RI.2. Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas. RL/RI.7. Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words. Strand Writing College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards W.2. Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content. W.4. Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience. W.6. Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate with others. W.7. Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation. W.8. Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, assess the credibility and accuracy of each source, and integrate the information while avoiding plagiarism. Strand Speaking and Listening College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards SL.1. Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively. SL.4. Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience. SL.5. Make strategic use of digital media and visual displays of data to express information and enhance understanding of presentations. Common Core Mathematics Cluster Apply geometric concepts in modeling situations Grade 9-12 G.MG.3. Apply geometric methods to solve design problems (e.g., designing an object or structure to satisfy physical constraints or minimize cost; working with typographic grid systems based on ratios). Geography Standard 15. Understands how physical systems affect human systems Level IV (Grade 9-12) 1. Knows changes in the physical environment that have reduced the capacity of the environment to support human activity (e.g., the drought-plagued Sahel, the depleted rain forests of central Africa, the Great Plains Dust Bowl, the impact of the economic exploitation of Siberia's resources on a fragile sub-Arctic environment) 4. Understands how people who live in naturally hazardous regions adapt to their environments (e.g., the use of sea walls to protect coastal areas subject to severe storms, the use of earthquake-resistant construction techniques in different regions within the Ring of Fire) 5. Knows factors that affect people's attitudes, perceptions, and responses toward natural hazards (e.g., religious beliefs, socioeconomic status, previous experiences) Standard 18. Understands global development and environmental issues Level IV (Grade 9-12) 2. Understands why policies should be designed to guide the use and management of Earth's resources and to reflect multiple points of view (e.g., the inequities of access to resources, political and economic power in developing countries, the impact of a natural disaster on a developed country vs. a developing country) 3. Understands contemporary issues in terms of Earth's physical and human systems (e.g., the processes of land degradation and desertification, the consequences of population growth or decline in a developed economy, the consequences of a world temperature increase) Technology Standard 4. Understands the nature of technological design Level IV (Grade 9-12) 1. Knows that an optimal solution to a design problem is more likely to be found when the process followed is systematic and repetitive 2. Proposes designs and uses models, simulations, and other tests to choose an optimal solution 3. Implements a proposed solution (e.g., constructs artifacts for intended users or beneficiaries) 4. Evaluates a designed solution and its consequences based on the needs or criteria the solution was designed to meet 6. Knows that a design involves different design factors (e.g., ergonomics, maintenance and repair, environmental concerns) and design principles (e.g., flexibility, proportion, function)  

Common Core Standards

Anchors for Reading:

Key Ideas and Details:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.1 Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.2 Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.3 Analyze how and why individuals, events, or ideas develop and interact over the course of a text.

Craft and Structure:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.4 Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.6 Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.7 Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.


Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.

Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.10 Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.

Anchor standards for Speaking and Listening:

Comprehension and Collaboration:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.1 Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.2 Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.3 Evaluate a speaker's point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric.

Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.4 Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.5 Make strategic use of digital media and visual displays of data to express information and enhance understanding of presentations.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.6 Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and communicative tasks, demonstrating command of formal English when indicated or appropriate.

Anchor standards for Language:

Conventions of Standard English:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.L.1 Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking.

Knowledge of Language:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.L.3 Apply knowledge of language to understand how language functions in different contexts, to make effective choices for meaning or style, and to comprehend more fully when reading or listening.

Vocabulary Acquisition and Use:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.L.4 Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases by using context clues, analyzing meaningful word parts, and consulting general and specialized reference materials, as appropriate.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.L.5 Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.L.6 Acquire and use accurately a range of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases sufficient for reading, writing, speaking, and listening at the college and career readiness level; demonstrate independence in gathering vocabulary knowledge when encountering an unknown term important to comprehension or expression.


Students will be able to:
  • understand the challenges created by disasters
  • brainstorm ideas with groups
  • evaluate information for application
  • think creatively with materials


Article: https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/12/1227_041226_tsunami.html Movie: "Tsunami: the Aftermath" (rent from Blockbuster or netflix)  


  • poster board
  • markers
  • paper
  • pencils
  • plastic cups
  • paper plates
  • scissors
  • glue
  • tape
  • Computers with PowerPoint


  • empathy: a sense of shared experience, including emotional and physical feelings, with someone or something other than oneself
  • disaster: catastrophe; a state of extreme ruin and misfortune
  • emergency: a sudden unforeseen crisis that requires immediate action
  • shelter: a structure that provides privacy and protection from danger
  • sanitation: the hygienic means of preventing human contact from the hazards of wastes to promote health; hazards can be either physical, microbiological, biological, or chemical agents of disease
  • security: the degree of protection against danger, loss, and criminals


Class 1 - Introduce the reality of living through a disaster 1. Think-Pair-Share (5-7 minutes): Ask students to reflect back on where they were when the Tsunami struck East Asia. Students will then turn to their neighbor and share their stories. Students will then return as a class and share their stories with the class. 2. Class Discussion (10 minutes): Say, "The media really followed the tragedy of the Tsunami when it happened and for about a week afterwards. The media stopped covering the story after that.  What do you think life was like for the survivors of the Tsunami a month after the Tsunami hit?"  Have the students discuss. 3. Read Article (15 minutes): Pass out article, "The Deadliest Tsunami in History."  Have students read the article underlining all of the parts that give details about life conditions after the Tsunami hit. 4. Share (15 minutes): Once students are finished reading and underlining article, have students return to class group. Going from student to student, have them share one thing they underlined. Classes 2 thru 4 - Creating emergency shelter for disaster areas 1. Introduction (10 minutes): Explain to the students that their design challenge for this project will be to design collapsible shelters for area that have been affected by disasters like the Tsunami. Explain that, to begin, the class is going to do research on some of the unique and powerful conditions that arise after a disaster happens. 2. Tsunami Movie (2 class periods): Introduce the movie by saying, "This movie shows the devastation of the Tsunami. As you watch, write down ten challenges that surprised you about living conditions after the Tsunami hit. 3. Rank Challenges (10 minutes): Once movie has finished have student pair up and arrange their ten observations and rank them from most challenging or threatening to least. 4. Share (10 minutes): Have student groups come to the board and list the top five challenges they observed from the movie. Class 5 - Introduce Disaster Research Project 1. Introduction (10 minutes): Explain that to design real solutions to problems, designers must know as much as possible about the realities of the situations they are designing for. Designers must have a sense of empathy for the problem. This research project will help build that awareness so that student designs will be as realistic and useful as possible. 2. Assemble class into groups of five. Explain that each group will be picking a disaster that has affected the world. Students will research the disaster and make presentations about what they have learned. 3. Pass out research criteria worksheet and explain that this worksheet will be used to guide their research and to grade their presentation. 4. Brainstorm Historical Disasters (10 minutes): Brainstorm with the class a list of historical disasters that they could choose to focus on. As students are talking, write ideas on a large sheet of paper to be posted on a wall. 5. Groups pick disaster event to research. 6. Assign Roles in Groups (5 minutes): Following the research criteria worksheet, have students read the worksheet together and then have each student pick one of the five topics: Shelter; Security; Medical Care; Sanitation; Food.  This will be their focus for research in the group. Classes 6 and 7 - Class Begins Research 1. Students check in with their groups before beginning their research to refresh themselves on the disaster topic they chose as a group and the specific research focus each chose. 2. Students use internet or book resources to research their focus. Instruct them to take notes and document sources as they research. 3. Students return to group during the last five minutes of class to reflect on what they have learned and how much more time they will need to research. 4. Repeat process following class. Classes 8 and 9 - Groups Prepare Presentations 1. Assemble the class as a whole. Tell the class that their groups will have two days to prepare a presentation around the findings of their research. They will either be able to create their presentation using PowerPoint or two poster boards. Their presentations will be judged on how well they convey the answers to the questions on the research criteria worksheet. 2. Brainstorm with Class What Makes a Good Presentation (10 minutes): Ask the students to list the qualities of a good presentation.  Write these qualities on a large sheet of paper and post in on the wall for guidance. (i.e., examples, large fonts, topic headings, etc.) 3. Group Discussions and Decisions (10 minutes): Return students to their groups. Have them decide whether they would like to create their presentation using PowerPoint or poster boards. Once a decision has been made pass out poster board and other materials to groups that need them or have students log into computers to begin work with PowerPoint. 4. The students should work for the rest of the hour. 5. The students should continue working the next class. Classes 10 and 11 - Presentations 1. Explain the format of the presentations to the class. Students who are presenting will have one minute to set up their presentation. They will turn in the disaster research criteria worksheet to the teacher with the name of the disaster they researched at the top of the page and the names of the students who research particular themes next to the themes. Student groups will have a maximum of ten minutes to present their findings to the class. As they are presenting the rest of the class is to be forming questions around the presentation. Once the presentation is over each student will ask a question of the group. 2. Student groups begin presentations. As groups are presenting, teacher uses the disaster research criteria worksheet to grade the students' research. Teacher will put a check next to each question covered in the presentation (see worksheet). Classes 12 and 13 - Emergency Shelter Quick Build: 1. Set out materials (either in groups or in one pile) 2. Have students reflect on the research they presented. Ask students to picture themselves in the aftermath of a disaster. What kind of shelter would they need to survive?  For a day, for a week, for a year? 3. Have students divide a piece of paper into three lengthwise. At the top, have the students write Problems, Needs, Solutions from left to right.  Ask the students to start in the Problems section and quickly brainstorm all of the problems they would encounter.  Have them write in the Needs section all of the needs they would have and in the Solutions section, all of the ideas they can think of to solve their problems and needs around shelter. 4. Put students into groups (the numbers can vary).  Have students share their Problems/Needs/Solutions sheet with each other. 5. Instruct students that they will be creating a shelter that will take into account the problems that might arise in the aftermath of a disaster and that will provide for their needs. 6. Students will then have the rest of the hour to brainstorm, acquire materials, and build their designs. 7. Clean up at the end of the hour. 8. During the next class, inform the students that they will be continuing their work today up until the last twenty minutes of class.  At that point they will be presenting their shelters to the class as small groups. 9. Students work. 10. Call an end to the building and begin presentations. Go from one group to another and have the students in the group read the most important aspects of their Problems/Needs/Solutions list. Then have them explain how their shelters meet their needs. 11. Class clean up.


Students will be evaluated on the quality of their research based on the disaster research criteria worksheet that they followed in conducting their research. The teacher will use this worksheet as a check-off sheet to indicate which topics were covered and which were missed.    
  1. A possible way to enhance the empathy component of the lesson is to have the groups create a character of someone that was affected by the disaster based off of their research. The character they create can vary by gender, occupation, geographic region, etc. When presenting, the groups can state the bio of their character and link it to their research. Using actual pictures from disasters or other media can also help the group get the class to know their character.

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