The before and after photos of the islands of Tonga elicited gasps and exclamations from the fourth-graders in Shannon Stulb’s class at Colonial Elementary School on a recent Tuesday, as students were surprised to see how much volcanic ash covered the island homes following the Jan. 15th eruption of an underwater volcano in the Pacific Ocean.

It’s not often that an event on the other side of the world ties in so neatly with the elementary curriculum, and Ms. Stulb was quick to capitalize on the opportunity since her students have been learning about the birth of rocks as part of an earth science unit. 

Recently, the fourth-graders studied the types of ash and lava that come from cone and shield volcanoes. They used what they learned to determine that fossils found in Nebraska were animals killed by a volcanic eruption 11 million years ago that had been trapped in a thick layer of ash.

The lesson was reinforced by what they saw when looking at before and after satellite pictures of one of Tonga’s main port facilities and residential neighborhoods. Students noted the dramatic differences in the "after" photos, where many of the buildings appeared to be covered in ash. 

“It was pretty cool for them to see a real-time example of the effects of volcanic eruption and how the ash really does thickly coat much of its surroundings,” said Ms. Stulb.

Students also watched an interview from an Australian ABC news program featuring Professor Richard Arculus of the Australian National University, who discussed the volcanic eruption’s effects on the environment. Along with the ash spewed by the volcano, the eruption led to tsunami waves that affected not just the island nation of Tonga but locations as far away as California. 

Ms. Stulb said she was not surprised by how her students reacted when seeing the images and listening to the interview. 

“They’ve been very curious and engaged during this science unit. Kids have even voluntarily brought in volcanic sand and rocks from their homes (that they had gotten on vacations) to share with the class,” she said. “So I knew they’d be excited to learn about the Tonga eruption.”