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 teaching a personal finance course at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, I really try to stress the importance of planning for emergencies. I discovered that a good way to drive home the importance of personal finance content to students is through a project-based learning approach. Edutopia defines project-based learning as "a dynamic approach to teaching in which students explore real-world problems and challenges. With this type of active and engaged learning, students are inspired to obtain a deeper knowledge of the subjects they are studying."

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 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. 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
Through teaching this material, I have come to realize that there is a reason why so many people struggle with personal finance: because it is personal. For this reason, I try to take anything sensitive out of the project. I tell the students that if they are uncomfortable with me reviewing any personal items, they can copy the document and put it in the binder. Leave the originals at home and in a safe place. Use a marker to black out any information on the copy that may be sensitive, including, for example, social security numbers, income, debt, or credit score. As the teacher, I do not need to know the details. The purpose of this project is to make sure that the students can identify the documents and they understand why they are important.

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.

  • Describe whether or not you were successful in gathering all of the documents listed.
  • If you were not successful, what did you have difficulty locating?
  • How long did it take you to locate the information?
  • Did you put anything in your binder that wasn't on the list?
  • Was there anything that surprised you during this process?

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
This project on assembling financial documents is one of ten projects the students complete during the semester. They are also required to track expenses, create a budget, create an investment account and buy stocks, set financial goals, create a cash flow and balance sheet statements, pull their credit report and review it for accuracy, complete a 1040 EZ tax form, understand the process of buying a car, and determine how much they will need for retirement and how to achieve their goal. All the projects in the semester have essential questions students must answer. They put the end product of their projects in the binders and at the end of the semester they have a strategy in place to be financially successful.

A paper-free emergency plan?
I have the occasional student who feels that all the information I ask them to pull together for their emergency binder can be easily retrieved using the Internet. I agree—to a point. With cloud storage and other online tools available, this is certainly a viable option, but only as long as the electricity is working or the phone battery is charged. Incidentally, the National Association of Insurance Commissioners has created an application for smartphones called This tool allows students and others to create a home inventory and download this information into a spreadsheet—which I ask students to print and store in their binders.

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