Earthquakes can be an incredibly powerful and destructive force of nature. Throughout human history, populations in areas of high seismic hazard have experienced tremendous damages to infrastructure as well as loss of life. Recent examples include the 2010 Haiti earthquake, which resulted in 230,000 deaths and the 2011 Tohoku, Japan earthquake and tsunami, which caused 20,000 deaths. Earthquake hazards can be drastically reduced by identifying earthquake-prone regions, enforcing strict building codes in those regions, and educating the public about earthquake preparedness. This is especially relevant to people who live in California, since they live close to a major tectonic plate boundary and seismically active fault zone, the San Andreas Fault zone. This is all very real evidence that our planet Earth is a dynamic, evolving place. In this two-week, six lesson unit, we will learn about how earthquakes work, and focus on earthquakes in Southern California. The lessons start on the global scale, with plate tectonics as a driving force behind earthquakes. Then, through hands-on classroom activities (sometimes involving food), students learn about where earthquakes are likely to happen, as well as the mechanics of how they work. In the final lesson, students compete in groups to design and build the tallest earthquake-resistant structure to survive the classroom shake table.

  • Students learn about the different kinds of evidence that Wegener used to support his theory of Continental Drift in 1912.
  • Students learn that other scientists rejected Continental Drift until new technology in the 1950s revealed seafloor spreading, long after Wegener’s tragic death. This was the proof scientists needed to accept Continental Drift and to explain it with the theory of Plate Tectonics.
  • Students learn that different kinds of relative motion at the boundaries between tectonic plates produces different kinds of geological features.
  • Students learn that scientists measure the motion of tectonic plates using GPS technology. They will calculate how far San Diego has moved in their lifetime.
  • Students learn that earthquakes happen most often along the boundaries of tectonic plates.
  • Students learn the names and locations of the faults in Southern California: Rose Canyon Fault, Elsinore Fault, San Jacinto Fault, and Southern San Andreas Fault.
  • Students learn about the important components of the seismic cycle: slow tectonic loading, friction, and elasticity of the rocks.
  • Students learn that engineers build large models of buildings, and test the stability and safety of those buildings on shake tables.
  • Large earthquakes can happen anywhere.
  • Tectonic plates only move when an earthquake happens.
  • The Earth’s surface has always looked the same as it looks today.
  • This unit is made up of six lessons. Some lessons can be completed in one period (50 minutes), while others will take at least two periods. Each lesson comes with a PowerPoint slideshow that includes some slides designed specifically for the instructor, and others to be shown to the class. Some slides include links to short videos on the Internet. Each lesson has a 5E lesson plan, which describes the student’s role and teacher’s role in introducing and exploring the material. For the hands-on activities, the activity setup and procedures are included in the worksheet. By reading students worksheet answers, the instructor can evaluate how well students grasped the material.
  • Exploring Wegener’s evidence for Continental Drift and evaluating how convincing the evidence is.
  • Recreating three types of relative tectonic plate motion using candy bars, and observing what kind of features result from each type of motion.
  • Learning how GPS technology is used to measure the speed of tectonic plates, and calculating how far San Diego has moved in your lifetime.
  • Exploring a current global earthquake map on the USGS website and discovering faults in Southern California.
  • Conducting stick-slip experiments in the classroom to explain earthquake mechanics and the seismic cycle.
  • Designing and building structures that will withstand shaking from a classroom shake-table.
  • This unit was designed for a 9th grade Earth Science class at University City High School in San Diego, California. No prior knowledge of Earth science is necessary, since the lessons start from the basics and build upon each other. Some very basic arithmetic is used in Lesson 3 to determine the distance that tectonic plates have moved. The lesson on earthquake mechanics (Lesson 5) takes a descriptive and qualitative, rather than rigorous and mathematical, approach. In the final lesson (Lesson 6), students should be encouraged to be creative and think “outside the box” with their structure designs.
  • Each PowerPoint slideshow starts with a “Question of the day”, which is designed to engage students, get them to draw on their previous knowledge, and assess how much they know about the material beforehand. Each lesson (besides lesson 6) also includes a worksheet with questions designed to help students dig deeper into the material. By the end of the activity, each student should be able to answer the “Question of the day”.
  • HS-ESS1.C The History of Planet Earth: Continental rocks are generally much older than rocks on the ocean floor.
  • HS-ESS2.A Earth Materials and Systems: Earth’s systems, being dynamic and interacting, cause feedback effects that can increase or decrease the original changes.
  • HS-ESS2.B Plate Tectonics and Large-Scale System Interactions: Plate tectonics is the unifying theory that explains the past and current movements of the rocks at the Earth’s surface and provides a framework for understanding its geologic history.
  • HS-ESS2-1 Develop a model to illustrate how Earth’s internal and surface processes operate at different scales to form continental and ocean-floor features.
  • HS-ESS3.B Natural Hazards: Natural hazards and other geologic events have shaped the course of human history.
  • HS-ETS1-3 Evaluate a solution to a complex real-world problem based on a prioritized criteria and trade-offs that account for a range of constraints, including cost, safety, reliability, and aesthetics as well as possible social, cultural and environmental impacts.

"Earthquake" Resistant Structure for the Classroom Shake Table

Measuring the Height of an "Earthquake" Resistant Structure

"Stick-Slip" Friction Experiment using Sandpaper, a Wooden Block, and a Force Scale

Direct Shear Rock Friction Apparatus
Lesson Specifics
  • Grade Level: 9th grade Earth Science class
  • Time Frame: This unit is made up of six lessons. Some lessons can be completed in one period (50 minutes), while others will take at least two periods.

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